There are moments in our lives that we will never forget. What you may not know is that those defining moments often translate into successful college and scholarship essays.

Powerful essays are fueled by meaning, not lists of activities and endless accomplishments. Maya Angelou got it right. “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

It was late March when I sat down to review a folder filled with third and fourth drafts of my students’ scholarship essays. The writing piece in front of me was precisely the product of a meaningful life lesson, one that would leave an imprint on my life and impress those who read it. It began like this:   

In a split second there was chaos. I still don’t know if I was moving too slow, or the world was moving too fast. Junior fell two feet away from me—I will never forget his facial expressions; it was a look of calmness and sadness yet it was so powerful that it reverberated inside my heart and produced numbness throughout my body. I stood there frozen. The screams of his mother’s pain were unmistakable.

By the time I read the last sentence, my student had taken me on a journey of self-discovery that clearly showcased grit, discipline, resilience and a drive to improve his community. These are all qualities that I, as well as admission and scholarship selection committee members, would have struggled to uncover through letter grades, standardized test scores, or a resume.

While this essay recounts losing a childhood friend to a shooting, meaningful essays certainly don’t have to be as dramatic. They do, however, have to be authentic and unique to who you are. That’s the first item to consider.

  1. Uniqueness: Could someone else write this essay, this story? If yes, it’s time to rethink what you will share with the selection committee. Many of the essays I read don’t get beyond this point. The more time you spend writing a generic essay that sounds like the ten other essays I just finished reading, the less time you have to share about what makes you, well, YOU.

  2. Focus: Does your essay attempt to share your entire life story or, in best case scenario, your high school career? If yes, it’s time to revise and narrow the ground you will cover. If we compare life to the proportion of a cake, only give the reader a thin slice. Instead of talking about all the sports you participated in, write about when you were captain of the basketball team and had to convince the other players to extend practice by one hour. See the difference?

  3. Opening: Within the first couple of sentences, you either have the attention of your reader or you don’t. If you don’t, it will be heavy lifting to the end of the essay. So why not ensure that your essay begins with something interesting?

  4. Tone: Most college or scholarship essay prompts are crafted to allow the selection committee to learn more about you, so write in your voice – first person. Rarely will these essays demand that you use your extremely “academic” and “researcher” voice.

  5. Story: The popular vehicle through which we communicate meaning is through storytelling. Much of a scholarship or college essay is storytelling. But keep in mind that storytelling is less about telling and more about showing. So don’t say you are a leader. Show the reader what a leader looks like. Your focused story may take up to 40% of your essay content.

  6. Take-Away: The story by itself is not enough to produce a compelling essay; you need to pair it with the “aha” moment or what you learned from the situation you described. It explains the implications of your story. Complexity of thought is always appreciated here. This section may take up to 60% of your essay content, and is perhaps the most important part.

If you put your best effort in writing a meaningful essay I can assure you that not only will you improve your chances of getting into the college of your dreams or getting that competitive scholarship, but you are also likely to learn something new about yourself. And for most of us, we only write scholarship and college essays once in our lifetime, so why not make it unforgettable?

  • Anders Peterson

    Man, this is really great advice, Luis! I’ll be sharing this with students I work with to be sure!

  • Eric Drumheller

    Excellent advice! The other piece of advice I would add is to be sure that your essay answers the question asked. I have read beautifully written scholarship essays that are still in my mind today, but the essay did not answer the question that was asked. In this case, no matter how well written, it scored low.