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By Amy Weinstein
June 18, 2014

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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Advertiser Disclosure

The purpose of this disclosure is to explain how we make money without charging you for our content.

Our mission is to help people at any stage of life make smart financial decisions through research, reporting, reviews, recommendations, and tools.

Earning your trust is essential to our success, and we believe transparency is critical to creating that trust. To that end, you should know that many or all of the companies featured here are partners who advertise with us.

Our content is free because our partners pay us a referral fee if you click on links or call any of the phone numbers on our site. If you choose to interact with the content on our site, we will likely receive compensation. If you don't, we will not be compensated. Ultimately the choice is yours.

Opinions are our own and our editors and staff writers are instructed to maintain editorial integrity, but compensation along with in-depth research will determine where, how, and in what order they appear on the page.

To find out more about our editorial process and how we make money, click here.

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