Creative Scholarship Essay Ideas

Hayley Capp, winner of the 2013 QS Leadership Scholarship, shares her top tips on how to write a winning scholarship application essay.

There is no one way to write a winning scholarship application. If you gathered together all the scholarship entries that have ever won a prize, you would find it difficult to identify what made them the same. Each would offer a distinctive style employed by the author; a unique insight into his or her past, present and future aspirations.

This uniqueness is the key, and the first point to remember when you pick up your pen to write. Make your scholarship application essay exclusive to you, personalize it, delve deep into your passion and drive to study your subject, and create a response that could only ever relate to you. It is this individuality that stands out, and that’s exactly what catches a judge’s eye and defines a winner.

I won the 2013 QS Leadership Scholarship, so will base my guidance on my own thought process when shaping my application essay. However, the basic principles that I highlight with this example can be extracted and applied to other scholarship essay writing processes.

1. Read and re-read the essay statement you are being asked to respond to, and identify the key themes.

From my own example, the essay statement was: ‘Where I have demonstrated responsible leadership, or innovation, and how it made a difference either in my community or in my work’. I identified the key themes as ‘leadership’ and ‘community impact’.

2. Understand the meaning of the key themes.

After identifying the key themes, it is important to understand what each of these ideas really means, beyond the initial level. For instance, I acknowledged that the meaning of ‘leadership’ involved identifying the effects my leadership had – the actions taken and results achieved under my leadership – and not simply describing the position I held and my responsibilities. The more depth you bring to your understanding of the meaning of each theme, the more examples you will be able to identify to demonstrate your abilities.

3. Fill your scholarship essay with keywords/synonyms of keywords used in the scholarship statement.

Using the keywords from the scholarship statement throughout your essay will demonstrate your commitment to addressing the question being asked. For instance, I made a special effort to ensure references to ‘leadership’; ‘innovation’ and ‘impacting communities’ ran throughout my essay.

4. Make an engaging start to your essay.

If you are struggling to start your scholarship application essay, why not include a quote or statement that relates to your intended course, and which you can later link to the main body of your text. Showing wider knowledge and aptitude for your subject will help convince the judges that it is a worthwhile investment to support you in your chosen course.

5. Understand the criteria used by the scholarship committee to evaluate application essays.

Based on my own experience, I have outlined what I believe to be the key criteria used by scholarship committee judges for evaluating scholarship application essays on the themes of leadership and community impact. My advice would be to address all of these areas in your essay, whether the question explicitly asks for it or not.

What to include in scholarship essays about leadership:

  • The extent of the leadership experience and degree of accomplishment. What were the results? Did you manage to grow a society from 10 to 100 members through your tenure?
  • Why you got involved in the leadership experience. What was your initial inspiration and how did the experience make you feel? This is a very important aspect as it allows you to show your sincerity and demonstrates your passion.
  • What obstacles did you face and how did you overcome them? Inspirational stories of perseverance despite adversity make readers (especially judges) want to help you succeed. It also shows that you have great leadership qualities: the ability to adapt to new situations and the determination to not give up.
  • What did you learn?How did these lessons shape you as a leader? Every experience brings new lessons and personal growth opportunities and the best leaders are humble and realize this. Speaking about these lessons indicates that you have truly reflected on your experiences and that you understand what leadership is. (In other words, you know that leadership isn’t just about getting a title like “President” or “Executive Director”.)
  • What does this mean for the future? A scholarship isn’t just an award; it’s an investment in your future. So if you plan to continue being involved in your particular leadership activity in the future, tell the judges.

What to include in scholarship essays about community impact:

  • How much time did you dedicate to the activity? The scholarship committee is likely to be looking for applicants who made a fairly long commitment to a community activity.
  • Why was it important to you? Joy from helping others? Excitement of trying something new? Opportunity to form relationships with others? Having a genuine reason helps build a convincing essay.
  • Why was it important to the community? Ask the question: What would be different for your community if you didn’t do what you do? It is most important to show that you recognize the real needs in your communities, and act to address these.
  • What did you gain yourself through giving to the community? It is important to show that you understand how through giving, you end up receiving more in the end. Sharing what community service has taught you and how it helped you develop demonstrates that you have truly gained from your participation and suggests you will continue doing so in the future.

My final point of advice when writing your scholarship application essay or cover letter is to really show that you know who you are. What are the relevant past and present experiences that demonstrate your abilities and where are you headed? Use carefully selected language to emphasize your passion, ambition and enthusiasm and remember to adopt a positive mindset, in which you believe in all the great things you have done and plan to continue achieving in the future. If you don’t believe in yourself, why would the judges?

Good luck!

Hayley

You can browse our various scholarship listings here, and QS also offers its own scholarships. Also, you can download our free guide for more advice on how to find scholarships to study abroad. 

Hayley Capp is the winner of the 2013 QS Leadership Scholarship. Covering up to US$10,000 of course fees for a graduate program, the scholarship is awarded to the applicant best able to demonstrate his/her ability to use entrepreneurial and leadership skills to make a positive impact on a community.

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College application essays don’t have to be a drag – and these schools prove it. They’ve created some of the most outlandish, thought-provoking and original essay questions out there.

Here are the 15 schools that think outside the box, when it comes to admissions essay, with some examples of our favorite questions they’re asking on The Common Application this year.

Now, it’s up to you to impress admissions officers with a response that measures up.

Amongst the schools with the most create assortments were Lehigh University, Tufts University and Wake Forest, though we’ve decided to remain (sort of) impartial and list the schools with the most creatively candid questions in alphabetical order.

The following 15 schools had some of our favorite imaginative college admissions essay questions begging the question: how would you answer?

1. Brandeis University

“You are required to spend the next year of your life in either the past or the future. What year would you travel to and why?”

Leave it to the liberal arts colleges to come up with something thought-provoking. This private research university, located in Waltham, MA, is sure to get your creative juices flowing!

Learn more about Brandeis University.

2. Bucknell University

“Pick a movie or novel where the protagonist makes a difficult choice. Do you agree or disagree with the decision he or she made?”

Another private liberal arts university, Bucknell is located in the central part of Pennsylvania in the town of Lewisburg. If you’re looking to bring unique perspectives to a university, this may be the one for you.

Learn more about Bucknell University.

3. Hampshire College

“Create two questions that drive you.”

This private liberal arts school, located in Amherst, MA, is so outside of the box, they got rid of the box (i.e. questions) all together. If you’re up for the creative challenge, seize it!

Learn more about Hampshire College.

4. Kalamazoo College

“Let’s go back to a time when learning was pure joy. Please tell us your favorite childhood book and why.”

Also dubbed “K College” or “K,” this Kalamazoo, Michigan school produces more Peace Corp volunteers than any other U.S. academic institution!

Learn more about Kalamazoo College.

5. Lehigh University

“What is your favorite riddle and why?”
“Describe your favorite \”Bazinga\” moment.”
“You’ve just reached your one millionth hit on your YouTube video. What is the video about?”
“If your name were an acronym, what would it stand for and how would it reflect your strengths and pesonality?”

When it comes to originality, Lehigh definitely took the cake. Believe it or not, we had to narrow our choices down to the above questions! But this Bethlehem, PA, university is also known for academics and landed on the Top Party Schools list. Talk about well rounded!

Learn more about Lehigh University.

6. Stanford University

“What matters to you, and why?”

Stanford left the essay open to interpretation for the scholars applying to the university, which is considered to be one of the most prestigious in the United States and the world.

Learn more about Stanford University.

7. Texas Christian University

“Take a blank sheet of paper. Do with this page what you wish. Your only limitations are the boundaries of this page. You don’t have to submit anything, but we hope you will use your imagination.”

This optional “assignment” from the university, located in Forth Worth, TX, must leave a blank stare on students faces all the time. Who else wonders what types of submissions (and how many paper airplanes) they get?

Learn more about Texas Christian University.

8. Tufts University

“Celebrate your nerdy side.”
“What makes you happy?”
“What does #YOLO mean to you?”

Competing with Lehigh, Tufts University had quite the array of unique questions, so we had to pick favorites. Tufts is known as a Little Ivy and a “New Ivy,” so we imagine that those applying to this school, which ranks amongst the top in the nation, appreciate the chance to speak their minds via the college application essay. Learn more about Tufts University.

9. University of Chicago

“Winston Churchill believed ‘a joke is a very serious thing.’ Tell us your favorite joke and try to explain the joke without ruining it.”
“How are apples and oranges supposed to be compared?”

The University of Chicago cleverly takes essay questions suggested by students. So if you find the questions a little too peculiar, blame your peers. If you can take on the essays, you can join the nearly 15,00 students that attend the school – which is another ranked as one of the most prestigious, both nationally and worldwide.

Learn more about University of Chicago.

10. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

“What do you hope to find over the rainbow?”

This public research university is consistently ranked among the highest in the United States and is one of eight original Public Ivy schools. Perhaps the answer to the essay question should be: an Ivy League education with public university tuition prices?

Learn more about University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

11. University of Notre Dame

“By the end of the college application process, you will have probably written dozens of essays and responded to a multitude of questions. Use this opportunity to try something new.”

If you want to become one of the 8,000 undergraduates who identify as the Fighting Irish, you’ll need to plan and strategize to impress admissions officials at this private Catholic research university.

Learn more about University of Notre Dame.

12. University of Virginia

“To tweet or not to tweet?”
“What’s your favorite word and why?”
“Describe one of your quirks and why it is part of who you are.”

Located in Charlottesville, VA, this public university was conceived and designed by U.S. President Thomas Jefferson. We cannot help but wonder, which side of the “tweet” or “not to tweet” spectrum do you think he’d land?

Learn more about University of Virginia.

13. Villanova University

“What sets your heart on fire?”

Founded in 1842, this private university is the oldest Catholic university in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania. It was named for Saint Thomas of Villanova, but we’d advise against answering in any way that may suggest he sets your heart ablaze. That’s just …awkward.

Learn more about Villanova University.

14. Wake Forest University

“Some say social media is superficial, with no room for expressing deep or complex ideas. We challenge you to defy these skeptics by describing yourself as fully and accurately as possible in the 140-character limit of a tweet.”
“Give us your top ten list.”

Wake Forest is a private university with its main campus located in Winston Salem, NC. The original location was in Wake Forest, hence the name. What would be on our top ten list? How about these school facts? The school has 93 percent retention rate and an 85 percent four-year graduation rate – not bad!

Learn more about Wake Forest University.

15. Yale University

“You have been granted a free weekend next month. How will you spend it?”
“What is something about which you have changed your mind in the last three years?”

You may have heard of Yale University – it’s a private Ivy League research university in Connecticut? It’s also the alma mater of five U.S. presidents, among countless other scholars. With a retention rate of 99 percent, we’re guessing most students don’t answer, “Going to Yale,” as what they’ve changed their minds about.

Perhaps which side of a legal issue you fall on would be a safer answer, especially since Yale Law School is the most selective within the United States.

Learn more about Yale University.

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