As a kid, “The Sound of Music” was one of those movies I watched over and over again. There was something about the melodies of Rodgers and Hammerstein that fascinated me, and while my days of watching Julie Andrews as Maria are over, some of those lessons are still relevant today.
At the beginning of the movie, Maria—a nun—gets kicked out of the convent for being too extravagant, and as she is leaving, the head nun reassures her by saying, “When God closes a door, He opens a window.”
I think that regardless of what you believe in terms of God or religion, this is probably one of the most important ideas any high school senior can understand and believe in. Just because one door has been closed doesn’t mean there are no more doors left.
In fact, sometimes a closed door can be the thing that leads you in a better direction. For example, a friend of a friend got rejected from all the top-tier schools he applied to a few years ago (Stanford, Berkeley, etc.), so he ended up going to UC San Diego for his undergraduate degree. He graduated as valedictorian of his class, and that enabled him to get into Boalt School of Law at Berkeley. Now a successful lawyer in Los Angeles, he is able to look back and see that, had he gotten in to one of those top schools he applied to, he probably wouldn’t have had the advantage over other grad school applicants of being a college valedictorian.
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“Sometimes a closed door can be the thing that leads you in a better direction.”
A few days ago, a classmate who had her heart set on going to San Diego State received notice that her offer of admission had been revoked because she’d failed to submit a transcript by the appropriate deadline. She’s crushed now, and all she can think about is how she can’t do what she was dreaming of doing, but the rest of us can see the benefits. She will end up going to a community college for two years, but this will save her a large sum of money in tuition and fees. After those two years of completing lower-level coursework, she will be able to apply to any four-year college and have an excellent chance of getting into a school that’s actually better than San Diego State.
It’s these kinds of stories that have the power to inspire and instill the belief in the idea that when a door closes, a window opens. My closed door being a rejection letter from UCLA, I take comfort in knowing that there is a window open somewhere. It’s just up to me to find it, and in many ways that must be a more rewarding experience.
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By Gen and Kelly Tanabe
Imagine you are a scholarship judge. You have an enormous pile of applications to review. From these forms, you can get basic information about each applicant. But without being able to meet each candidate, how do you get a sense of who they are and if they are the most deserving of your money? One of the best (and often only) ways to get to know the applicants beyond their cut-and-dried statistics is through their essays.
For many scholarship competitions, the essay is the most important part of the application and where you should spend the most time. Scholarship judges view the essay as their window into who you are, your passions, and your potential. Regardless of your accomplishments and academic achievements, you need to write a powerful essay if you want to win a scholarship. Here’s how to do it
1. Be Original
For your essay to be a winner, it needs to be original. Remember that your essay will be among hundreds of other essays that are being judged. If your essay does not stand out, it will be forgotten, along with your chances of winning. There are two ways to be original. The first is to find a unique topic. Think about what makes you…well,you. What point of view or life experience can you share that is unique? One judge we know uses the “thumb test.” Place your thumb over your name at the top of the essay, and ask yourself if any of your classmates could have written this essay. If the answer is “yes,” then it fails the thumb test and is probably not original enough.
Unfortunately, finding a unique topic is very difficult, and that leads us to the second way that you can be original: Take an ordinary topic and approach it in an original way. For example, if you were writing about your career goal to become a doctor, it would be tempting to talk about how you want to help people or how your interest in science led you to medicine. This will be the same approach for many applicants. If your essay is going to have any chance of winning, it needs to be different from those written by other competitors. So spend some time thinking. What is it specifically that makes you want to become a doctor? Can you cite a concrete example? Maybe when you were young, you broke your arm and had a front row seat to how doctors and nurses helped transform your damaged limb back to a regular and healthy arm. Focusing on this event and examining and analyzing it may yield a very powerful and certainly original essay. The truth is that we all have experiences that make us unique. The key is to zero in on these and use them in your scholarship essays.
2. Answer the Hidden Question
Have you ever been asked one question but felt like there was an underlying question that was really being asked? Maybe a parent has asked you something like, “Tell me about your new friend Katelyn.” But what your parent is really asking is, “Tell me about your new friend Katelyn. Are her 16 earrings and tattoo-laden arms a sign that you shouldn’t be spending so much time with her?” In most cases the essay question is just a springboard for you to answer the real question the scholarship judges want addressed. An organization giving an award for students who plan to study business might ask, “Why do you want to study business?” But the underlying question they are asking is, “Why do you want to study business, and why are you the best future business person we should gift with our hard-earned money?”
For every scholarship, you will be competing with students who share similar backgrounds and goals. If you are applying to an award that supports students who want to become doctors, you can bet that 99% of the students applying also want to become doctors. Therefore, the goal of every scholarship judge is to determine the best applicant out of a pool of applicants who at first glance look very similar.
So let’s distill the underlying question that the scholarship judges really want answered, that is: Why do you deserve to win? (Your answer should not be, “Because I need the money!”)
3. Serve a Slice of Life
As you are explaining why you deserve to win, it is important that you also reveal something about yourself. Obviously, in the short space of 500 to 1,000 words, you can’t cover everything about you. This is why one of the most effective techniques is to share just a “slice of your life.” In other words, don’t try to explain everything. Just focus on one aspect of your life.
If you are writing about your involvement in an activity, it may be tempting to summarize your involvement over the years and list numerous accomplishments. However, this would sound more like a resume and it would not tell the judges something that they could not learn by reading your resume. However, if you focus on just one aspect or one day of an experience, you could spend some time below the surface and share something about who you are. In other words, you would be sharing a slice of your life.
4. Get Beyond the Superficial
If you are writing about involvement in a sport, don’t use common topics like how sports taught you the value of teamwork or how you scored the winning touchdown, goal, or point. These are repetitive topics. Using them risks having your essay lost among the hundreds of others that sound similar to yours. It’s perfectly fine to write about common topics like sports, but think of a different angle. Maybe you had a unique experience or can focus on an aspect of athletics that is often overlooked.
One way to do this is to make sure you include specifics. A common mistake in essay writing is to use general statements instead of specific ones. Don’t write, “Education is the key to success.” Instead, give the judges a slice of your life. Show them how education has impacted your life in a single experience or realization. If you are writing about your desire to become an astronaut, you might explain how this began when your father bought you a model rocket for Christmas. Focusing on a specific example of your life will help readers relate to your experiences and ensure that your essay is memorable and (as a bonus) original.
5. Share Something Personal
While some questions ask about a national or international problem or event, the scholarship committee still would like to know something about you. After all, they are considering giving their money to you—the person.
Some of the better essays written about serious issues like drug abuse or nuclear proliferation have also found ways to incorporate information about the author. One student who wrote about the U.S. arms policy spoke about his personal involvement in a club at school that hosts an annual peace conference. He was able to tie in the large international policy issues with the more personal aspect of what he was doing on an individual level. It was a great policy essay, which also revealed something about the writer
6. Expand on Your Accomplishments
Winning a scholarship is about impressing the judges and showing them why you are the best candidate for a monetary award. Your accomplishments, activities, and talents all help to prove that you are the best fit. Since you will probably list your activities on the application form, use the essay to expand on one or two of the most important ones.
However, don’t just parrot back what is on your application. Use the opportunity to focus on a specific accomplishment, putting it into the proper context. Share details. Listing on the application that you were a stage manager for a play does not explain that you also had to design and build all of the sets in a week. The essay allows you to expand on an achievement to demonstrate its significance.
7. Avoid the Sob Story
Tear-jerking stories may be popular subjects for television specials and song lyrics, but they rarely, if ever, win scholarships. A common theme students write about is why they need the scholarship money to continue their education. While this is a perfectly legitimate topic, it is often answered with an essay filled with family tragedies and hardships—a sob story. Again, there is nothing wrong with writing about this topic, but don’t expect to win if the intent of your essay is to evoke pity.
If your main point is: “I deserve money because of the suffering I’ve been through,” you have a problem. Scholarship committees are not as interested in problems as they are in solutions. What have you accomplished despite these hardships? How have you succeeded despite the challenges you’ve faced? This is more significant and memorable than merely cataloging your misfortunes.
Plus, don’t forget that to win you have to be an original. The sob story is one of the more common types of essays, and it is hard to compete when you are telling the same story that literally hundreds of other students are also writing. Remember that every applicant has faced difficulties. What’s different and individual to you is how you’ve overcome those difficulties.
8. Have Someone Read Your Essay
There is an old writer’s saying: “Behind every good writer is an even better editor.” If you want to create a masterpiece, you need the help of others. You don’t need a professional editor or even someone who is good at writing. You just need people who can read your work and provide useful and constructive feedback.
Roommates, friends, family members, teachers, professors or advisors all make great editors. When others read your essay, they will find errors that you missed and help make the essay clearer to someone who is not familiar with the topic.
You will find that some editors catch grammar and spelling mistakes but will not comment on the overall quality of the essay. Others will miss the technical mistakes but give you great advice on making the substance of your essay better. It’s essential to find both types of editors.
9. Recycle and Reuse
Recycling in our context has no relation to aluminum cans or newspapers. What we mean is that you should reuse essays that you have written for college applications, classes, or even other scholarships. Writing a good essay takes a lot of time and effort. When you have a good essay, you’ll want to edit it and reuse it as much as possible. Sometimes, to recycle an essay, you must change the introduction. Try experimenting with this. You may find that while you might have to write a few new paragraphs, you can still use the majority of the original essay.
One word of caution: Don’t try to recycle an essay when it just doesn’t fit. The essay must answer the question given by the scholarship organization. It’s better to spend the extra time to write an appropriate essay than to submit one that doesn’t match the scholarship requirements.
Writing scholarship essays may not be the ideal way to spend a Friday night or Sunday afternoon. But remember that these essays can win you hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars for college. Try to keep this in mind when you feel burned out. If you really get down on writing, take a break. Go outside. Watch a meaningless show. Then when you are refreshed, get back to your essay.
Every successful scholarship winner that we’ve met—and we’ve literally met thousands—has gotten tired or set back and contemplated quitting. But each and every one of them persevered and didn’t give up. They pushed ahead and finished their essays. If they had given up, they would never have won the money that they did, and that all-important college diploma would have been a far more expensive (and for some impossible) accomplishment.
Gen and Kelly Tanabe are the award-winning authors ofHow to Write a Winning Scholarship EssayandThe Ultimate Scholarship Book.