The Scholarship System: 6 Steps on How to Win College Scholarships and Secure Financial Aid

Make Scholarship Essays Stand Out by Avoiding These 4 Clichés

By this time of year, most high schoolers already have college applications in process (or have even been accepted!). That means it’s prime time for hunting down scholarship opportunities. And, if you already have that underway, you’ve likely noticed how many require essays as part of their applications.

The purpose of scholarship essays is to separate applicants when their other qualifications are equitable. For example, multiple high school students applying may have the same GPA and similar volunteer experiences, but what they have to say about themselves or other preset topics will vary.

While writing these essays initially seems like an easy requirement, that isn’t always the case. And what is so hard about these essays? Setting yourself apart from the crowd.

I know, I know. I can hear you now:

Your child is unique. Their life experience is nothing like anyone else’s. They’ll have no trouble making an impression.

While that may be true in your hometown, it probably isn’t going to look that way to the panel reading these essays. Why? Because they are receiving applications from all over the state (or country, or the world), read hundreds or thousands of these essays a year, and most applicants choose topics that aren’t as original as they may seem. Additionally, they employ the same tricks to try and stand out.

So, what’s a scholarship applicant to do? Think outside the box and avoid these essay clichés.

1. The Standard Volunteer Experience

While volunteer work should be applauded, it won’t help a scholarship applicant’s essay stand out on its own. Many high schoolers participate in programs that let them help other people while giving them the chance “to learn so much.” And this applies whether you volunteered down the road at your local soup kitchen or halfway around the globe.

If your high schooler is going to write about a volunteer experience, they need to find an interesting idiosyncrasy or nuance within the experience that can provide a unique focus. Now we aren’t saying that volunteering in a local soup kitchen isn’t admirable. What we are saying is that high-level overviews of volunteer experiences often read the same, making one essay blend into the next. However, by pulling attention to something unexpected, something unique and personal, it can help the reader connect in a new way.

Before they begin their essay, have them consider whether most students could be writing the same words about their experience. Until they can answer that question with a resounding no, it is better to keep thinking.

We teach our students a special trick for brainstorming unique ideas for essays. You can learn about this handy trick as well as our entire 3-step Award-Winning Essay Method by grabbing this free resource guide:

2. The (Everyday) Obstacle

Another popular topic for scholarship essays covers how the author overcame a particular obstacle. Some students choose to talk about physical challenges, like an intimidating sport, or personal phobias. Others prefer to refer to their upbringing, such as being the child of an immigrant, raised by a single parent, or fighting with a learning difficulty. 

While all of the situations can be challenging, they aren’t going to help your student stand out all by themselves if they are simply mentioned. Also, you will want to be realistic about whether or not it was a true challenge. For example, talking about the time they got over their fear and went skydiving might be very meaningful to them, but won’t mean as much to a person reading the essay.

Why wouldn’t it make a great essay topic? Because it is something people face all across the country, every day. There are always people skydiving for the first time. And  it isn’t necessarily a genuine challenge.

Maybe now you are thinking “Great! What in the world do we talk about then?” but don’t worry!

This does not mean the topics are untouchable; it just means that, like volunteer work essays, your student needs to bring something unique to the table. Again, high-level examinations won’t do them any favors. Instead, truly unique topics, or even some of the topics we’ve mentioned, require a part of the situation be truly unique or, at least, presented in a completely new way.

3. Failures That Aren’t Failures

True failures have a certain level of gravity; a notable impact that affects your life in a meaningful and monumental way. And, in most cases, not passing a test or not making the team isn’t going to cut it for a scholarship application essay.

This is another area where using the everyday examples most people have at their disposal isn’t going to make your student stand out. In fact, it may even hurt their chances.

There is a big difference between taking a risk and it not panning out and full, unadulterated, failure. If the worst repercussion of the “failure” was life continuing the same way it had gone the day before your child tried, then it might not classify as a meaningful failure in the eyes of a person reading the essay.

Additionally, this is a topic that requires detail and openness, vulnerability which, while challenging, is very effective in all matters of life. If they aren’t comfortable sharing the intimate details of their failure with a potential stranger, and how they were affected by those events, then it is better to choose another topic.

4. Becoming an Adult

Transitioning into adulthood is another popular topic where your high schooler needs to avoid the standard. For example, discussing a bar/bat mitzvah, sweet 16, or similar coming of age party tradition isn’t going to catch the eyes of the scholarship committee. While cultural and religious events are meaningful, they don’t necessarily mark when your child realized they weren’t really a kid anymore.

If this is the chosen or mandated topic, then it is better to focus on parts of the transition that aren’t always obvious. For example, the day they realized that conversations with friends have changed from social gossip to debates on the costs of car insurance may be a signal of their entrance into adulthood.

Being an adult is about more than reaching a specific point on the calendar, it’s about a change in mindset or perspective. If they can approach that concept from a clever direction (with a reasonable sense of humor), they may hit scholarship essay gold.

The Common Thread

So, now that some of the major clichés have been covered, do you see the common thread? All of the examples above have one thing in common that separates a cliché from something more meaningful, and that difference is detail.

When it comes to scholarship essays, basic overviews of events aren’t going to cut it. Instead, the nuances, the minutia, the nitty-gritty of the moment needs to be explored. Because, by letting a person into that level, your child is truly putting themselves on a page. And, with scholarship essays, that is what it is really all about.


New to the scholarship process? Check out what you are getting yourself and your child into with this helpful list of 5 things you must know.