Tips on writing award-winning scholarship essays

This post has been updated from my previous blog, which now has a new home on Medium.

A good education can be expensive. As a result, a number of students apply for full or partial scholarships to pursue their studies at reputable institutions of their choice. Examples of scholarship opportunities include the Women Techmakers Scholars Programme, formerly Google Anita Borg, and ACM-W that supports undergraduate and graduate women in Computer Science and Kenya Education Network travel grant that supports Kenyan faculty and students to attend conferences. In addition to awards that aim to support one’s studies and travel, there are several opportunities that provide networking, exposure, and a once-in-a-lifetime experience. For example, the prestigious Heidelberg Laureate Forum that is open to 200 male and female Mathematics and Computer Science young researchers worldwide, and Queen’s Young Leaders award that recognizes exceptional young people from all backgrounds who are making an impact in their communities. What is common to many, if not all, of the award and scholarship applications, is that they require at least one thorough and well-written essay. In this post, I share some tips that could act as pointers to writing good award/scholarship essays and applications. These tips have been drawn from my own experiences as a recipient of awards/scholarships such as Google Anita Borg (EMEA) (2014), Schlumberger’s Faculty for the Future (2015), Heidelberg Laureate Forum Young Researcher(2015), Techwomen (2017), among others.

  1. A good scholarship/award application starts long before one starts writing the application. It goes without saying that it would be impossible (and dishonest) to write about what you are not. Given that most scholarship and award applications require a real example from one’s experiences on leadership, community involvement, and overall track record, one then has to have the said track record. Granted, one should not get involved in initiatives or accept leadership positions with the aim of applying for grants or scholarships, but these experiences go a long way in setting you apart. Therefore, in addition to the advantage of growing as an all-rounded individual, I encourage aspiring applicants to go beyond the classroom/workplace and get involved in useful initiatives and leadership positions that are within their skills.
  2. What else do you have to offer? While it is brilliant to have a G.P.A of 4.0 or to rake in A’s and B+’s, it might not be enough. More and more, scholarship bodies prefer applicants who are more than just good students. I read somewhere that interviewers and application reviewers would like an applicant with whom they could be friends or cordial colleagues outside the selection process. Hence, having a life outside the classroom that one is actively contributing to, is the extra ‘x factor’ that reviewers are looking for. It is even more rewarding if that contribution is about other people in the form of mentorship, innovation towards a good cause or development, and community service. This shows that you are not just about yourself.
  3. Lying is not the quality of a winner. Unfortunately, it is true that some people claim to have qualifications and experiences that they have never received. I believe that a scholarship panel worth its salt would be able to pick out an untrue claim. This goes for both academic and social entries on one’s CV or application. For instance, I was asked to recite a poem during one scholarship interview. It turns out that I had written that I love to read and write poems. Fortunately, this was a true claim and I knew one of my poems off-head. While this might be a trivial example, it goes to show that lying on scholarship applications is a risky undertaking. I will not belabor the unethical, even illegal, consequences of doing this.
  4. Do your homework. Now that you have established that you fulfil point 1 to 3 and have started writing the application, how much do you know about the award/scholarship that you are applying to? Why do they offer this scholarship? Which personalities are associated with the award? What kind of work are they involved in or were they involved in? Who are the past winners of this award/scholarship? Apart from having a general overview of the purpose of the scholarship/award, I suggest two exercises that applicants can undertake in order to demonstrate this:
  • How do you fit in the purpose of the scholarship? What part of your current or past work and experience demonstrates this?
  • Cite personalities or people associated with the award. Having done your homework on who else is associated with the award, do not be afraid to use these examples to show that you understand their principle. Further, it makes for an even better essay if you can juxtapose examples from a session or conference you have attended where you met or listened to the people who you mention. For example, the following are extracts that I used in one of my applications:
….In October 2014 I had the privilege of being one of the eight thousand women in computing who attended the Grace Hopper Convention, where Professor Shafi Goldwasser gave the keynote address. As one of the few women who have received the ACM Turing award, I was excited and keen to listen to her. She talked about the cryptographic lens through which theoretical computer science can be viewed. Further, she talked about how.
I knew of Ronald Rivest, Leonard Adleman, Adi Shamir in my RSA cryptography class at undergraduate computer science. I read about Leslie Lamport when I was learning how to use LaTex. I was lectured on Niklaus Wirth when I took my first introduction to computer systems class in first year. Therefore, I hope that I will be accorded the opportunity to meet these and other computer scientists who pioneered what I have learnt so far. I believe that I am at the right….

5. Do not be afraid to use good reviews or feedback on your work. While we have been conditioned not to talk about ourselves, modesty might be your undoing when it comes to awards/scholarship applications. Of course, I am not advocating for full blown self-trumpeting, but if a client, an examiner, or a supervisor has taken the trouble (and the pleasure) to write a good review you can surely use it. True, it takes an extra step to learn how to talk about one’s work while also maintaining due humility. However, the ability to show that you have done work that has fulfilled a purpose or satisfied a client (with evidence of this) is a great way to prove that you can be depended upon to keep delivering if granted the award/scholarship.

6. Use data and statistics from your own situation. While it might be alright to use data and statistics from the Internet and those based on others’ experiences, it is way better to use your own raw data. For example, it is easy to claim that only 30% of students in STEM at institutions of higher learning are girls because a certain site says so. However, what about doing your own count and giving statistics based on your own scenario? You might find that the situation is much worse at your own institution (in which case your motivation is stronger), or you might find that the situation is at ‘80% of students in STEM are girls’ at your institution (in which case you might need to cast your net wider for comparison’s sake).

7. Do not rely on ‘template’ referees. References can make or break your application. The key advice that I can give here is not to get your references from people who do not know you or your work. Or sadly, from lazy referees. The risk here is that such referees are likely to use a standard template to write your reference, where all the references that they write read ‘Miss X is a very intelligent individual who is exceptional at her work.’ Yet, if asked what Miss X’s work is they would not be able to describe it. Hence, it is crucial that one builds professional relationships with qualified individuals (such as supervisors, advisors, and mentors) well and long enough for them to write unique references that are a true reflection of one’s personality and work.

8. Have a plan to give back. I call this a golden rule. This is golden because it is very easy that after the jubilation of being selected and the euphoria of winning, we forget to give back to the foundation, society or company of whom we are benefactors. In some cases, like the Google Anita Borg Scholarship, there is often an internal plan on how one can give back in the form of involvement in outreach activities. In other cases, there is no elaborate plan but I strongly advise that one should have it nonetheless. Giving back does not necessarily involve monetary tokens. In fact, it rarely does unless if in future one is willing and able to contribute to a fund. Giving back can involve involvement in outreach activities that promote the fund, mentorship of potential applicants and future scholars of the fund, and participation in initiatives associated with the funding company. My motto for this is that ‘Once an X scholar/fellow, always an X scholar/fellow’, where X is whatever foundation or company that one is a beneficiary of. Lastly, if the space of the application allows, it does not hurt to indicate how you would wish to get involved beyond the award if selected.

9. Have your essays proof-read by someone else or an editor. It always helps to have a trusted second pair of eyes to read through your essays.

To tie it all together, like a good abstract, your essay should answer the ‘what?’, ‘why?’, ‘how?’, and ‘so what?’ questions.

Good luck in your application should you be considering submitting one!