What was the Virginia of your childhood like?
Tom Wolfe: I’ll tell you how calm it was in the 1930s, when I was growing up. There was a state fair that was just about three-quarters of a mile from where I lived, in an area of Richmond, Virginia, called Sherwood Park. And it was the biggest gathering of human beings annually in the state of Virginia, the state fair. At six in the morning, my mother would give me 12 nickels, and I and one of my elementary school classmates — I guess we were eight, nine, ten years old — would walk through the woods to the state fair. And we’d arrive at 6:30, even before the rides were really getting going, and stay there all day. The 12 nickels would get us through the day. And never was there a thought of this being dangerous. Now, in Richmond, Virginia, today I’m sure, not even in Richmond is that true. Nobody lets children go anywhere unattended. I can remember riding a bicycle way into the night with my friends. I say “way into the night” — 9:00 or 10:00 p.m. We’d be let out of the house in the morning, and the only instruction was to be back for lunch.
And I was not conscious of the Depression, which was hitting Virginia and the whole country very hard. Except occasionally a tramp — that’s a word you never hear anymore — would come to the kitchen door and my mother would give him a sandwich. I don’t remember her ever turning anyone away. And somehow tramps knew. I don’t know how they marked it, but they apparently would mark which houses would give you food. And we were only about three-quarters of a mile from the big north-south railroad tracks. So I’m telling you, this was a completely different era.
What did your parents do?
Tom Wolfe: My father was a scientist — an agricultural scientist, an agronomist, technically. And at the time I was first aware of what he did, he was editing a farm magazine called The Southern Planter. He didn’t think of himself as a writer, he was a scientist and he took over this publication, but he gave advice to farmers. But in my mind, he was a writer, because I’d see him at home, sitting at his desk, with his yellow legal pads writing these articles. And then two weeks later — I think the thing came out every two weeks — there they would all be in this pristine, beautiful type.
It’s funny that I can so well remember how things looked. At that age, everything was new. Comic strips were just wonders. They were so different from looking at one when you get older. Anyway, my mother mostly took care of me and my sister, although she had been married — I think it was seven years — and she hadn’t had children, she went to medical school at the University of Richmond. And as soon as she went to medical school and had been there one semester, she started having children. I don’t what the medicine, biology, or anything else had to do with it.
But my father, I can remember the day he made the decision. He went with a classmate of his — they had gone to Virginia Tech — to start a farmers cooperative, which is a set-up in which farms buy things at wholesale price, and any profits are redistributed — literally, in the form of checks — to everyone who bought anything, according to how much they bought. They were a godsend in the ’30s! The first year, I think the gross revenue of that company was about $800,000. And by and by it was a Fortune 500 company, and still getting tax exemptions for being a co-op. My father said — actually said in writing — that they shouldn’t be getting it. That’s what he did.
Were you an avid reader at a young age?
Tom Wolfe: I read all the time. You have to remember, the only alternate entertainment in those days was radio. And people would sit around the radio, I can remember it, just the way they sit around the television set today. There was Jack Benny. Bob Hope had a program. There were the same soap operas in the morning, except we couldn’t see the people. And late in the afternoon, cowboy shows like Tom Mix, and the Green Hornet. It was just like television, but it just happened to be radio.
Did you imagine your own pictures?
Tom Wolfe: Yes. There was one great show called I Love a Mystery. The action always started at night. You could hear the chimes ring, and you knew it was night, and then all sorts of scary things would take place. But reading was the sort of thing you did in idle hours if you didn’t want to go out and play. I just read constantly. I’m sure if I was that age today, I would be watching as much television as anybody else, but it’s a huge advantage if you ever start writing.
I began to notice, when I was working on magazines years later, I kept looking over my shoulder for the new talent that would be coming along which would be competition for those of us who had reached the ripe age of 37 or 38, and it wasn’t there. It just never got there. And part of it is that today, I think, so many talented writers want to go into television, or they want to go into movie writing. Those are the hot industries. But without that reading, I don’t think anybody’s ever going to turn out to be much of a writer.
Now my daughter Alexandra, who’s 24 now, she went to a very tough all-girls school here in New York. And that school is so hard, she watched exactly one hour of television a week. Not because my wife and I said, “You can’t go near that set.” We never said that. She would watch Beverly Hills 90210. That was the only thing she ever watched on television. She read and read. And now— you don’t mind a father bragging a little, do you? So today she’s 24 and she’s got a book contract. She’s worked on two newspapers. She worked on the New York Observer, a weekly here in New York, and she was a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, and a publishing house approached her and gave her this book contract. And I think it’s partly because she read, she read, she read, she read, she read. It got to the point where she didn’t care about television, didn’t want to get news on the Internet, which is the main way news is distributed these days. Network television’s on the way out. I just read this today. There’s more advertising today on Google and one other search engine than there is on all of network television.
What books did you enjoy reading when you were young?
Tom Wolfe: I loved the Wizard of Oz books. There was a whole series of Oz books. But before that, I remember reading tales of King Arthur. I have no idea who wrote that. But it seemed to me it was awfully good. I used to also like to read non-fiction. I can remember reading Count Von Luckner, the Sea Wolf, he was a German submarine commander in the First World War who was apparently a dashing and courageous figure. And the first time I started reading things like novels, I was probably 14 or 15. And my first great discovery, in my mind, was James T. Farrell, who had written the Studs Lonigan books. You don’t hear anything about them much anymore, but the first volume of the three Studs Lonigan books — it’s a trilogy — and the first one, which is called Young Lonigan, is so beautifully lyrical. And Farrell is thought of as a kind of plodding naturalist today, if he’s thought of at all. But that was an extraordinary book. And it was about a boy about my age. And it just opened up all sorts of possibilities to me.
At that time, as a teenager, had you already thought of becoming a writer yourself?
Tom Wolfe: Yes I had, from a very early age. I don’t know, six or seven years old. Because of my father. I thought of him as a writer, he thought of himself as a scientist. Interestingly enough, he has more entries in the New York Public Library than I do, because he wrote so many monographs in the field of agronomy. I daresay he did more good for humanity. He did things like discover how you could quadruple, or increase tenfold, the yield of corn. That was one of his specialties. This was back at a time when that was an exciting industry. This country was discovering ways to make American bountiful, in terms of crops. Wheat, corn, all those sort of things.
When word got out that you were interesting in writing, were your parents encouraging?
Tom Wolfe: Yes, they were. You don’t realize how interesting your family is until you get much older and you look back. I remember Thomas Wolfe, my namesake — we’re from the same mountain range and everything, but we’re no kin. But he once said that he grew up thinking he was in the most banal, boring, grind-along family that had ever existed. And he said, “I was 23 or 24 when I first realized I was living with a group of raging lunatics.” You can see this in Look Homeward, Angel. This is a family in turmoil, largely because of the excessive drinking of the father, and the fact that his mother’s turned the house into a boarding house, and there’s a constant flow of boarders who’d come to western North Carolina for the nice air and the cool air in the summertime. My family was anything but raging lunatics, but when I look back at how hard it all was in the middle of the Depression, it was just a horrible time. Particularly when I look back at the emphasis that was completely on education.
My father’s family apparently came to the Shenandoah Valley from somewhere north of there in the early 1700s. And nobody ever made any money that would catch your attention. But for six generations back, there were graduate degrees. My full name is Thomas Kennerly Wolfe. And the first person in the Wolfe family named Thomas Kennerly Wolfe went to the University of Edinburgh to study. Where the money came from, I don’t know. My father’s father was a country doctor who died when my father, I think, was 12. So his mother had five children — three boys, two girls — out of the 10 who had been born. Infant mortality was terrible. And all three of the boys went to graduate school, had higher degrees. One was a lawyer, one was a medical doctor, and my father had a Ph.D. in agronomy. Where that money came from, I don’t know. But I just love the fact that they didn’t care about the money. The thing was, you know, get an education.
Were there teachers that were very important to you?
Tom Wolfe: Yes, there were. In kindergarten, there was a teacher named Miss Shackleford, as I always called her. I honestly cannot remember her first name, although I saw her years later. She took a special interest in me very early, which made me feel very special. Maybe I can really do things with these words, and so on, and ended up combining my kindergarten and first grade into one year. Which I don’t really advocate, because you end up being smaller, a year younger than the people you’re competing with. But anyway, she got me off to a good start.
In high school, there was a course in the sophomore year of high school in rhetoric. And I’m talking about rigorous rhetoric: the use of figures of speech, figura sententiae, and tropes, and all these technical names, and training in the three or four ways that you can arrange a paragraph. I don’t think any of this happens any longer. Parsing sentences, which is a fading art. These diagrams of sentences, so you find out how all the different parts fit together. This was amazingly good training. And then in college, I went to Washington and Lee in Virginia, there was a young professor — it never dawned on me ’til later that he was probably only four or five years older than me — who had come to Washington and Lee from the American Studies program at Yale. That’s where he had gotten his doctorate. And this course was so exciting that I was determined to do what he had done, which was to go to Yale in American Studies, which I did.
What was the name of the course that he taught?
Tom Wolfe: I think that particular course, was called “American Intellectual History.” We went through every branch that might fall under that heading you can think of. Everything from philosophy to architecture to psychology. William James and figures like that. It was tremendously exciting.
So I managed to get into that program at Yale, which turned out to be a terrific choice for somebody who wants to write. A bad choice if you want to — as I was going to do — be a teacher, because there are not that many American Studies departments. And a lot of the people who graduate from that program would end up at the bottom of the heap in somebody’s history department or English department. But it’s absolutely great for writers. I discovered sociology there, which was like a light bulb going on over my head. Like most liberal arts students, I’d always looked down my nose at sociology as this kind of bogus science. When I finally had to deal with it in graduate school, I quickly came to the conclusion, which I maintain to this day, that it is, in fact, the queen of the sciences. I won’t get into this, but biology, in my mind, is a subset of sociology, not the other way around.
Sociology’s sort of the big picture?
Tom Wolfe: Yes. Sociology is the big picture. As I say, I have a long involved theory, but I’ll only inflict that if you really want to know. My first great real flash was reading the work of Max Weber, who wrote The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. He wrote Class, Caste and Status, and many others, mostly essays. But he’s the one who originated the concept of status as a motivating force in life. It was one of those things that’s under everybody’s nose, but he gave it a name. The reason I call it “stay-tus” instead of “stat-us,” is that at the Yale graduate school, status had more “stay-tus” if you call it “stay-tus.” And I can’t get that out of my mind now. I still call it “stay-tus.” Maybe somebody from Yale’s listening.
My belief is that everyone, me included — I hate theories that don’t apply to the person who thought up the theory — All people live by what I call “the fiction absolute,” which is a set of values which, if absolute — in other words, God said, “Hey, here are the values,” and you heard the voice clearly — would make not you, yourself, but your group — your status group, whatever that may be comprised of — the best there is. For example, a group of good ol’ boys sitting around a general store in the South, and I’ve been around that a lot, they usually — things can get confused in this era — but they usually are very content to be good ol’ boys. And they’re not only content, but they value that life very, very highly. People who are obviously their superiors — or, in my case, my superiors — military people, politicians, President of the United States, movie stars, whatever — they become types who are really outside of your life. And whatever they’re doing doesn’t matter. Unless they move in the neighborhood, then it creates real problems. It really does. And so that just about everything we do is controlled by that constant need to feel that our status is being kept at a certain level. It doesn’t mean necessarily status climbing. It usually doesn’t mean that. More often it means believing that what you’re doing now, the people you’re with now, the values you have, are the most important.
But you call it a fiction.
Tom Wolfe: Oh, because it is a fiction! How can you really think that? But I do the same thing. Everybody does it. But if you’re really thinking clearly, you can’t really, honestly.
The “fiction absolute,” as you call it, is that a sort of mythology of contemporary life?
Tom Wolfe: No, I think it’s probably been here forever. I’ve swallowed it all very easily: “Well, writing is really important!” But you can get split by a career. On the one hand, I’m thinking that, “Jeez, there’s probably not much else in the world that you can do that’s more important than writing.” At the same time, I am protective of my Southern upbringing. And this leads to something I call “championism,” which is a kind of irrational attachment to certain figures, or certain cultural directions, because somehow that group, that person, in your mind is a champion of what you believe in to maintain your fiction absolute.
So many people’s votes are irrationally determined by championism. I remember, a Samuel Lubbell wrote a book called The Future of American Politics. He was a sociologist. He was trying to figure out why Truman had upset Dewey in 1948 — a huge upset. So he went around the country and did a sort of sociological survey. And he entered a town, I think it was in Wisconsin. It was a German town. It had been founded by German Catholics, and it still maintained its German majority. And they, in that election, were voting Republican by an enormous margin. It turned out the reason was Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, had declared war on Germany in 1917, which in turn brought a lot of opprobrium on Germans who were in the United States. And they had never forgotten that that’s what the Democrats had done. It really had nothing to do with the 1948 election. It had to do with something that had happened in 1917. And I think everybody does that. I’ll give you an example in my own case.
Right after 9/11, both Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, independently — I don’t think they got together — and came out almost the day after it and said the depravity and sinfulness of the American people, and their lack of contact with God, is what brought this on, that’s why it happened. And of course, it was around the bend. But this tirade of disparagement was directed against these two men: Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. And I found myself saying, “Hey, wait a minute! I know those people!” Pat Robertson, incidentally, went to Washington and Lee, the same place I went. His father had been a U.S. Senator. And, you know, he’s far from being stupid. I couldn’t agree for a second with what he was saying, but I found myself defending him. Jerry Falwell was just maybe 75 miles down the road from Washington and Lee, in Lynchburg, Virginia. And he was one of my people. “You don’t go around saying that these people are idiots, or morons!” It was totally irrational. I couldn’t agree with a thing they said, but it’s championism. And it’s all part of the fiction absolute that I’m talking about. And I can sit here and call it a fiction absolute, and yet my life operates by it. I think everybody’s does. That’s what has gotten me interested in neuroscience.
Another example, when I was working at the Springfield Union, in Massachusetts, I came across the names of Italian American women, all from the Third Ward in Springfield, who were getting naturalized at age 61, 62, maybe 63. I couldn’t understand this. And so I went to the Third Ward, and it turned out that part of the Third Ward was like a preserved, authentic Italian village. And the people in that small part of the ward didn’t want to change a thing. I mean, they were quite happy to live in the old ways, and were not at all corrupted by the world around them. They didn’t want to be American citizens, or it wasn’t important to them, unless you wanted Social Security. At that point, you get naturalized. But I thought it was such a good example of status, in the sense of wanting to maintain exactly what you’ve got.
I should throw this in, another great example of championism. There’s a documentary movie you may have seen, called When We Were Kings. It’s deservedly become very popular, as documentaries go. It concerned the fight that Muhammad Ali had against George Foreman in Zaire, the so-called “Rumble in the Jungle.” Nobody in print picked up the fact that to Africans — at least certainly in Zaire — Ali was their champion. Not just a boxing champion, he was their champion. And they presumed that his fight against George Foreman was Armageddon. It was black against white. And when Foreman stepped off the plane and he was black, they couldn’t believe it. That all comes out in the movie. It’s just a marvelous touch. Ali goes touring around Zaire, and they’ll go, “Ali Boom-ba-bay!” Apparently this meant, “Long live Ali!” He loved all that. And they wanted to love him.
How did this lead you to neuroscience?
Tom Wolfe: When I hit upon the whole concept of status and status absolute and all that, I was convinced that there is a part of the brain that controls this. For example, you can tell when you’re humiliated before you could put it into words. Something goes off. And you haven’t reasoned it all out. It’s just happened. And this has to be neurological in some way. Well, I must confess, I’ve never found this area, although I’m an avid neuroscience buff now. I subscribe to two newsletters, they give you week-by-week developments in neuroscience in language that I can understand. I go to neuroscience conferences. And the field has just become enormous. The annual meetings of the American Society for Neuroscience are among the biggest in the country now.
In your most recent novel there’s a description of a science experiment. At first it seems like nonfiction. It takes the reader awhile to realize it’s fictional.
Tom Wolfe: That’s right, and it’s one that I think metaphorically is quite accurate. Only I gave my man the Nobel Prize for it. I don’t expect to get that one. I made it an integral part of that novel. I’ll give you very quickly the premise of neuroscience. There are two quick examples. Edward O. Wilson is probably the dominant theorist in neuroscience today. He once said in an interview — he probably would never write this as clearly — he said every human brain is born, not as a blank slate waiting to be filled in by experience, but as a negative — as in the film, negative in a camera — that is waiting to be dipped into developer fluid. And the idea is, it can be developed well, it can be developed badly, according to the environment. But no matter how it’s developed, you’re not going to get any more than is on that negative at birth. Which, of course, gets into the whole theory of genetics and things like hard-wiring of the brain and so on.
Is Wilson active today?
Tom Wolfe: Yes, he’s at Harvard. His field is actually zoology. He’s the great expert on ants. He invented the term “sociobiology,” which is a combination of the social factors, whether it’s among ants, or macaque monkeys. As we know, there’s lots pecking order among animals, the pecking order among chickens. There is this interaction of status and genetics.
Before it hops out of my mind again, I’ll give you the other example from neuroscience. I do not know who first said this, but one of the principles of neuroscience is that if you took a rock and you threw it, and in mid-flight of that rock you gave it consciousness and the power to reason, that rock would give you, until the day it hit the earth, the most cogent and absolutely ironclad logic as to why he’s going in this direction, and why he hasn’t chosen another direction, and why he’s happy with his choice. Young neuroscientists in particular believe we’re machines, and according to which other machines we run into, we act in a predictable way. And they feel if they had enough computer power — so-called “parallel computers” — that they could predict what you’re going to do five seconds from now. They could predict that you’re going to suddenly hit your forehead with the tips of your fingers five seconds from now. That’s how sure they are about this kind of determination that goes on.
That’s a little bleak, isn’t it?
Tom Wolfe: It is. It actually is bleak. I already see people believing in what I call “the lurking force.” The whole 20th century has trained us to think that things happen because of “the lurking force.” For example, Marxism, which had a huge influence on the 20th century. The theory says that the class you’re born into is your destiny. In other words, you were born into this certain class, and the forces that come from that have shaped your life. You don’t have any choice. Freudianism, which was so powerful as a way of thinking about human behavior in the 20th century, holds that your destiny is an Oedipal battle that took place in your family when you were between the ages of three and six and were totally unaware of anything that was going on in any large sense. So these are both external theories.
Then there are many other theories, that were never quite individually as powerful, that say society shapes you in a certain way. Theodore Dalrymple, the prison psychiatrist, tells of how he was questioning a prisoner for psychiatric treatment, and asked him — he was in for 18 years for aggravated manslaughter — “How did this come about that you killed this man?” And the prisoner says, “Well, we were at this table. We were having a few drinks. We got into an argument. And the next thing I know, he’s standing up and he’s got his fists clenched, and I think he’s gonna hit me. So I stood up and I pulled out my knife. And then we yelled at each other some more, and things got worse. And I don’t know, and then the knife went in.” Believing, of course he’d read it, that if you had a chaotic childhood, and you were in the wrong end of society, these forces impel you to stick knives in people’s midsections. This is part of it.
And now neuroscience has made the threat seem even worse. If your genetic makeup at birth is determining so many things, I think it causes people to kind of give up on their children. “He wasn’t born a student. Why knock my brains out trying to make him into something he isn’t?” When most people just need a counselor who’ll kick him in the slats every now and then when the motivation drops. But I think it’s enervating to be constantly told that there’s a lurking force that is determining your life.
I’m so sorry that we have to stop. It’s been a pleasure talking with you.
For the A Better American Scholarship program, we’ve read hundreds of scholarship essays and have learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t. Therefore, we decided to write this guide to help students win any scholarship award.
The tips and tricks we offer here are framed in terms of academic scholarships for students, but they’re applicable to any piece of writing asking someone for something, including funding proposals in the civil sector, to writing cover letters for jobs, even to grants for writers
Here’s your 7 step guide to writing the best essay you can.
The crucial first step: identifying your audience
As with any written undertaking, one of the first things you need to think about in writing a scholarship essay is who you’re writing for. Don’t be fooled here: your professors are not your audience.
Instead, the eyes reached by your scholarship essay will usually belong either to a panel of experts in a particular field or subject or a group of generally educated, non-specialist members of the organization offering the scholarship.
Understanding your audience is fundamental to writing a successful scholarship essay. Ask yourself questions like these:
(a) Who is on the committee, and what is their background?
Are they educated non-specialists, or are they all PhD’s in your specific academic subfield? Do they represent universities, industry, private philanthropists, or other organizations? Are they native English speakers, and if so from what country?
(b) What are their goals?
A scholarship committee from Amnesty International will have a different agenda than one overseen by the US State Department. Is the scholarship offered by an organization committed to fighting climate change, or promoting traditional values among today’s youth, or simply promoting awesomeness.
Written communication doesn’t take place in a vacuum; you’re writing for someone to read it.
You don’t talk to your mom about your Biology class the same way you would discuss it with a fellow Bio major, and the way you discuss it with scholarship essay reviewers should also be tailored to them and what they’re searching for.
The hardest part: answering the question
It seems like the most basic component of an essay, but somehow it inevitably turns out to be the most difficult for many of us.
Take this sample college admission essay topic from The Common Application:
“Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?”
If this question sets your head buzzing with thoughts of how you always wanted to go to medical school just like Dad until you discovered your passion for social work, hold on.
The story of how you blossomed personally from Daddy’s protégé to social problem-solver is undoubtedly a great one, but it’s not what’s being asked for here. There are two simple questions posed: what made you challenge a belief or idea, and would you do it again?
If you have trouble sifting the main question out of its supporting context, try some of these approaches to getting a strong grasp on your essay question:
Locate the question marks
In the example above, the declarative statement that comes first is asking you to think about something and frame your argument within it, but it’s not the question. Keep in mind, not every “question” will take the form of a question – sometimes it’ll be prompted by declarative phrases like “discuss” or “compare and contrast”.
Rephrase the question(s) in your own simple terms. The second sentence of this example question has five words, and you can simplify it down to just one: “why”. The second sentence can also be boiled down to: “would you do it again?”
Mark it up
Highlight, underline, strike through. Do what you need to keep your eyes on the scholarship prize. In this example, you might strike a light line through the entire first sentence, highlight the second two, and underline the phrases “what prompted you” and “same decision again”.
Your most powerful weapon: the introduction
Once you understand your audience and have identified the guiding light of your question, it’s time to start crafting your essay. Your introduction looks like your biggest hurdle, but it’s actually a powerful weapon.
Even your first line could set you apart from the crowd of cookie cutter applications. It’s the most effective way to signal to your essay reader right away that you’ve come to rescue them from the monotony of reading dozens of indistinguishable essays, that you’ve got a fresh take on the topic that they might even enjoy reading.
Here are some concrete components of your secret weapon:
Don’t state the obvious
“I’m writing to express my interest in and qualifications for the University College Excellence Scholarship” is an awesome way to squash your chances of winning that scholarship. The reader already knows why you’ve written the essay, and while one sentence doesn’t seem like too much to waste on redundant detail, that’s the twentieth time they’ve read that exact sentence today.
Just as bad is the classic “I will first discuss my motivations, then my qualifications, and finally what this scholarship would mean to me personally and professionally.” You just used 21 words and all you’ve said is “duh”.
Answer the question
In the last step you “answered” the question for yourself, but now you’re answering it for the reader. You should be able to answer the main question in one strong, general declarative statement here.
For example, if the question is “what kind of research would you do with this grant,” your introductory paragraph should include a sentence that sounds something like, “With the University Summer Research Grant, I will spend three months in Washington, D. C. conducting archival research on the role of four prominent national newspapers during McCarthyism and the Red Scare.”
Tell, don’t show
The introduction should comprise a few concise sentences that establish and frame an argument that you will support with the rest of your essay.
This is not the place for details about how spending your weekends teaching reading skills to underserved inner-city kids and volunteering at the local adult education center has shown you that many people in our society lack opportunities to succeed. What it should tell is that your extensive background in volunteering with the economically disadvantaged has given you the appropriate mindset to tackle a social problem that the grant will fund.
Remember, you’ll do the “showing” in the body of the essay.
While you probably won’t win a scholarship on the merits of your introduction alone, you can easily lose it here. Focus on pragmatically telling the reader what they need to know about the impending essay and finding the right level of detail for a succinct introduction of your ideas or arguments.
Delivering your message: the writing process
A good understanding of your audience and a strong introduction are only prerequisites to a good scholarship essay, but they’re not enough to win you the money. It’s ultimately the content of your essay, what you say, and how you say it that will determine your success.
The body of your essay is not the place to narrate your CV or show off how broad your vocabulary is. It’s where you answer the question being asked in a detailed, argumentative way.
For some essays, that question will be a broad one: what are your goals? How will this scholarship affect your professional career? If given this opportunity, how will you change the world?
Others will be tailored very specifically to a goal: if applying for a scholarship or grant to carry out research, you’ll be asked to describe your project plan in detail; if applying for an international exchange, you may need to painstakingly detail how your being selected would serve the organization’s goals of increased intercultural communication.
This is the most divergent area of the scholarship essay writing process, because every funding opportunity will look different and ask different things.
Still, here are some universal tips to go by:
Show, don’t tell
Ah, yes, that one sounds more familiar. Never in a scholarship essay (or really any other kind of essay) should you make claims like “I am an excellent time manager and am highly qualified to work with diverse groups of people.” Anyone can say that.
Instead, try something like “During my sophomore year of college I spent each weekend organizing the multicultural movie night at the student union center. This forced me to adhere to a strict schedule while working with a team of students from all departments, years, and cultural backgrounds across the university.”
Listen to George Orwell
While he may have been a bit too absolute in laying down the laws of good writing, George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” might be the closest thing we have to a cure-all for bad writing in the modern day.
Orwell’s focus is on getting rid of bloated language with lots of big words and replacing it with pragmatic language comprising accessible, concrete words. Your essay readers would rather read that you are “media savvy and sensitive to PR trends” than that you are “exceedingly competent and knowledgeable on the subject of public relations”.
Be clear and concise
A centerpiece of your writing strategy should be finding the shortest, most direct and logical route to conveying your ideas. Get to the point.
Write assertively and in the active voice
Don’t “be motivated by” something; instead tell the readers that you find your inspiration in it, that you commit yourself to it. Using the active voice puts you and your actions at the center of an essay, making you an active agent rather than a passive recipient of your fate.
State your accomplishments tactfully
Don’t just restate information from your résumé, but instead say why your accomplishments matter. Your academic achievement is useless unless you can convince your essay readers that it has given you transferable skills relevant to the task at hand.
Don’t translate the line on your resume that says “Student Body President, Fall 2013 – Spring 2015” to “I was Student Body President for five semesters.” Instead, tell your readers why that matters: “During my tenure as Student Body President at State University, I learned how to bring multiple stakeholders together around a table and facilitate a compromise.”
The job’s not over: revising and editing
For most of us this is the phase that tests our discipline. After hours, days, weeks, or even months of pouring all you’ve got into a scholarship application, it’s time to tear up your essay. Remember, editing your own work is hard, but entirely possible if you know what to do. It’s the testing ground where many writers fall victim to despair and give up.
Here are some tips on how to get through the editing process with your mind and essay in tact:
Reread your essay prompt and essay together
Think of them as a Q&A session. Does your essay address and answer every part of the question, or does it sound more like a politician standing behind a podium? If your essay talks around rather than about your question, then it needs rewriting.
Reread each individual sentence
Ask yourself some questions about every statement you’ve made. Does this make sense? Does it logically follow the sentence that comes before it and logically precede the sentence that comes after it? Does it relate to the topic of the paragraph and the overall argument of the paper?
Read it out loud
Your final product should read like it was written by a knowledgeable and educated person, not a robot. Reading aloud can help you identify awkward sentence structures and unnatural phrasings that should be edited or removed.
The final touches: proofreading
Did you think proofreading was covered by editing and revision? Proofreading is a different step entirely, and not one you should gloss over as you near the finish line.
Most scholarships receive a lot of very well qualified applicants. This means that the final decision between two 4.0 GPAs and beautifully crafted essays might be made based on a few typos. Take some steps to avoid letting careless mistakes steal your excellent essay’s spotlight:
Trick your brain
Your literate brain is efficient and hates wasting time, so it does a lot of autocorrecting for you. Even if thre are mssing or incorect lettrs in a sentence, your eyes and brain don’t want to waste time nitpicking, because they still understand.
To counter this, try reading it over it at a different location (like a coffee shop), which allows the brain to think it’s reading something new. Or print it out in a different font – a smart trick that will help you see your work with fresh eyes.
Get a second set of eyes
After three proofreads you may feel like your essay is good to go, but by now your eyes have gotten numb to the words and letters on the page and can no longer be trusted.
When it comes to catching grammar mistakes and typos, an editor can make the world of difference. It doesn’t have to be a dissertation editing service, or cost money either. Get a trusted friend or family member to read over and edit it.
They might find a “form” accidentally transposed into a “from” where you missed it, or perhaps a common your/you’re or there/their/they’re mistake. Writing is an art, but when it comes to correct grammar it’s a technical skill too.
Know your on- and off-campus resources
If you’re on the hunt for scholarships to start college, your high school guidance counselors are your best resources, and Language Arts or English teachers make for great essay readers. Also check sites like Fastweb to search scholarships and get advice on applying for them.
If you’re already in university, then there’s very likely a broad support structure in place that you might not even be aware of.
Here are the two key ones that most North American universities offer, as well as an online resource available and applicable to all:
Offices of National Scholarships/Fellowships
Most four-year institutions have an office somewhere on campus that’s there to support you at least in applying for the well-known scholarships (like Rhodes, Truman, Fulbright, and Boren).
Some will support you in everything from applying to small academic research grants from your department to writing admissions essays for graduate school. The best universities will have a whole office staffed to coach you through the entire process, from identifying opportunities to how to claim the scholarship funds on your taxes.
University Writing Center
This will usually be located in an English or Rhetoric department. Your university writing center is most likely staffed by graduate students specializing in writing and other communications disciplines.
They’re not there to proofread or check how you formatted your citations, but they are there to help you write with better, more concise and efficient language that best showcases your accomplishments and qualifications.
Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL)
The OWL is the be-all-end-all of online academic writing resources. For everything from formatting citations to how to construct logical arguments, make this your go-to guide.
Bonus: Become a better writer through the process
When we see an opportunity to win a thousand bucks for our studies, most of us don’t think of it as a writing exercise, but that may actually be the greatest value in the whole process. While the statistical odds of winning the award are stacked against you in most cases, you’ll almost certainly end up a better writer than when you started.
Remember, the skills you’re learning in applying for competitive scholarships – persuasive writing, succinct expression of ideas, rhetorical appeals, logical argumentation – are applicable far and wide.
Professional grant writers are an obvious example, but good scholarship essay writers also go on to become successful online marketers, journalists, and bloggers, as well as just about any other profession that requires efficient, goal-oriented communication.