Common Scholarship Essay Topics

Scholarship essay requirements vary a great deal by scholarship type and they generally change from year to year. If you’re serious about applying for scholarships, it’s a great idea to start practicing writing scholarship essays in advance. However, there’s no way to adequately predict exactly what your scholarship essay topics will be. Thankfully, while these topics can vary, there are some very common writing prompts which can help you prepare yourself for any topic that comes your way.

  • Your personal traits and how they affect your ambitions.
  • One of the most common prompts, this topic essentially asks you to discuss your strengths and unique traits and then describe how they will help you in the future. Some prompts specify educational ambitions, while others focus on employment. Write about either or both for practice.

  • Discuss a historical figure that inspires you.
  • This prompt is designed so that you’ll express the values and traits you admire, in an interesting way. Choose some less common historical figures to write about for maximum impact.

  • How will this scholarship help you attain your goals?
  • Of course the obvious one is money—but what they’re really looking for is the fact that you have clear ambitions and plans (including the scholarship in question) to attain them, based upon your merits.

  • Describe a solution to a problem.
  • The prompt may specify a problem (one posed by a current event, a common interpersonal situation, etc.) or it may allow you to construct a problem and then solve it.

  • Describe your role when you are part of a team.
  • Are you a leader? Or do you focus on being a support member? There’s no right answer here; simply describe your skills when cooperating with others.

  • Discuss why education is important.
  • Keep in mind you can talk about this from several perspectives: why it’s important globally, within smaller communities, within families, why it’s important for your career, or for your personal growth as a human being.

  • Discuss an influential book or article which has changed your outlook.
  • This prompt is mostly about demonstrating that you’re capable of assessing new ideas and determining whether or not they’re right for you. After all, most of education is about encountering new ideas and fitting them into your world view.

  • Discuss something you’ve done that’s made a difference in your community.
  • This prompt helps the scholarship committee place you in context; there’s a lot they can learn about you as a person by what you consider making a difference, who you consider to be “your community,” and so on.

    Every year, companies, non-profits, charities, churches and clubs award about $6 billion in private scholarships to undergraduates.

    But many students fail to apply because they get stumped by the essay requirements, while those that do decide to submit often recycle a familiar theme—”here’s why I need the money.” But everybody who’s applying needs money.

    The more likely path to reward, judges say, is to demonstrate why you’ll be a good investment of their scholarship dollars. Three topics that can give you that edge:

    1. What you love and why. Do you love your dog? Your church? Basketball? Your shoes? Great! There’s your topic! But scholarship providers want to know why you love something, not just that you do. An ability to analyze the whys and wherefores of your own likes and dislikes is an indication that you’ll do well in life. There’s nothing too mundane, as long as you’re passionate about it. Says Amy Murphy, who oversees 35 different scholarship programs worth more than $1.3 million through the Greater St. Louis Community Foundation: “One of the best essays that crossed my desk was about a student’s shoes—where they had been, what messes they had gotten into and out of, how they supported the student as troubles were averted and successes achieved.”

    2. How you recovered from a mistake, challenge or disappointment. “We’re looking for qualities like persistence, determination, optimism and a maturity of decision making,” explains Oscar Sweeten-Lopez who runs the Dell Scholars Program, which awards 300 scholarships of up to $20,000 each year. “Since college life brings new challenges and adversities, students need to demonstrate self-determination to succeed.” So tell them about a time when you faced a challenge and carried on. Did you make a mistake? Write about what you did, how you took responsibility for your actions, and what you learned. Did you fail at something? What happened, and how did you recover from that? Were problems at home hurting your ability to succeed in school? What were they, and how did you handle them?

    3. Your family history. “Many students limit their scholarship essays to what they want to study, their income level or their ethnicity, completely missing out on other opportunities,” says Kim Stezala, a scholarship coach. Instead, she suggests students ask relatives about military service, clubs they belong to, or causes they have been active in. What you learn can serve as a winning essay topic. Students who can show that they can think broadly, and see themselves as a part of a bigger history, are demonstrating critical thinking skills needed to succeed.

    Amy Weinstein is an expert on private scholarships and directs the National Scholarship Providers Association (NSPA).

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