We want to see you succeed.
We’ve received and reviewed nearly 2,000 applications for the Ashley Soulé Conroy Study Abroad Scholarship and the most important part of the application package, the part we really hone in on, is the essay. Because essays have the ability to show us more about the person than any resume, FAFSA, or transcript ever could. It’s in those 500-800 words that we get to really know our applicants.
That said, over the years, we’ve at times found ourselves banging our heads against the table when we find an applicant who has a really fantastic essay idea but just doesn’t quite get there with the actual writing of it. In those moments, we’ve wished we could communicate directly to our applicants what we would love to see more of in their essay writing and, likewise, what we’d like to see just a little bit less of.
Enter, this blog post.
Think of these as insider tips for the savvy applicant who’s taken the time to click on this post and read it to the end. It’s our hope that taking these points to heart will not only help you be more successful in applying for this particular scholarship, but that they’ll help you succeed in other kinds of personal essay writing assignments throughout your academic and professional careers.
Because more than anything we want to see you succeed.
1. You be you.
Sometimes it seems like applicants tell us what they think we want to hear. But the truth is, we’re not looking for any one thing in particular. We don’t care if you’ve never been on an airplane or if you’ve been to every country in the world already. We don’t just look for people who scored off the charts on their SATs or those who have that perfect 4.0 GPA. We don’t want someone who is just like us or just like Ashley or just like any applicant we’ve had in the past. We choose applicants who inspire us and that looks different each and every term. Scholarship winners to date are hugely varied and have been aspiring bakers and international business people; they’ve been animal rights lovers and special needs teachers; they’ve been writers and painters and dog trainers; some have experienced intense loss and tragedy and some have had none at all; some have explored widely and some have never left their home state. But above all, they’ve been themselves, whoever that is, and that’s the best possible thing for us to see in your application package.
2. Start early and revise revise revise.
It’s never wise to write an essay (or a term paper!) and then turn around and submit it right away. Sit on it for a few nights, maybe even a few weeks. Re-read the essay prompt and then re-read what you wrote in your first stab at it. Do they align with one another? Do you feel like you’re being totally true to yourself in your essay? Are you sharing enough of yourself with the readers (in this case, the scholarship selection committee?) The revision process can help all kinds of writers produce pieces that inspire their readers and that’s something we look for in our applicants, too.
Tip: Before you hit the submit button, seek out feedback from someone who knows you well. See what they think about your essay and ask them to help you improve it. Sometimes, especially when an essay is based on a personal experience that’s close to our hearts, it can be difficult to share it with the people closest to us. But remember, they’re there to support you (and they want you to win lots of scholarship awards, too!)
3. Pick a theme and stick with it.
One fatal flaw for an essay writer is to forget the story they’re trying to tell about themselves. We’ve found that often students will start out wanting to share one piece of their lives in the essay, telling us about how some experience shaped some part of them, but then they’ll get wrapped up in feeling like that alone is not enough. These writers are easily identifiable because their essays often read as disjointed, pulling in too many different elements of their life and getting a little lost in the process. For instance, don’t write about how that one class you took as a freshman shaped your career aspirations for 50% of the essay and then spend the other 50% of the essay writing about how it also shaped your friendships and your family relationships and, oh yeah, it also played into what name you gave your first hamster and then there was this other class in the same department that also shaped your relationship with that one boyfriend you had one semester. Instead, stick with the first theme of how that class shaped your career aspirations. Dig deeper into that theme for us. Explore more of that topic than you’d previously given thought to. Challenge yourself here.
4. It’s all about balance.
One thing that tends to happen in some writers is they can get caught up in bringing just one emotion to their essay. This is especially true for those who write about heavy or difficult topics like sickness, tragedy, or loss. We appreciate the vulnerability that comes with writing about such topics and applaud those of you who take that on in your essay for us. But we also want to remind our applicants that essay writing is all about balance. So if you’re choosing to write about a topic that’s on the heavier side of the emotion spectrum, try to insert a point or two of levity, humor, or some other kind of lightheartedness in the essay, too.
Tip: For inspiration of what great humor can look like in creative writing, check out the online literature magazine McSweeney’s.
5. Avoid generic terms.
Avoid using generic or overused words like “passion” and “inspiration” and “I realized that…” We know, it sounds harsh, but the truth is that we read hundreds of applications each application cycle and these words pop up again and again and again. And quite frankly, we’re bored with them! The feeling of passion or the feeling of being inspired in and of themselves are fantastic things! But find a different way to show us your passion instead of simply stating that you have it. Tell us more about what it felt like to feel that passion, what it looks like on the ground in your every day life. Maybe even try to write about it without ever using the word “passion” at all.
6. Don’t just TELL us, SHOW us.
That brings us to our next point, a point that’s true for all writing, not just essay writing. One of the best things you can do to shore up personal essays is avoid telling us with words and instead choose to show us. So, what does that actually mean?
Well, let’s say, for example, that you wanted to write about how the experience of training your first puppy taught you to be a more committed person. You could, of course, just tell us something generic, like, “Training my childhood puppy was one of the most challenging experiences of my life but it taught me to be committed to whatever task I took on.” Or you could try showing. For instance, you could write more about what the days looked like when you were training your puppy. Write about what the fatigue of waking up every morning to work with the puppy felt like in your body. Write some dialogue, showing us more about what it sounded like to live in your house with a puppy in training and a frustrated kid who was working with their first dog. Share an anecdote about how after weeks and weeks of training, you eventually gave up, your body slumped against the hard brick side of your house, the grass prickling the skin of your legs and your voice too tired to try, try again with your sweet puppy. But you saw something (describe that something!) in the puppy and you just knew you had to keep going. You couldn’t leave her alone, you had a future to share together. Then bring it all back around with another example in your current life, when you’ve had that feeling again and maybe show how much you’ve changed since the initial puppy experience. Or maybe how you still struggle with being committed and haven’t really changed at all other than realizing that you’re aware of that struggle with commitment within yourself now. Whatever story is really true for you. The point is, we want you to show us with descriptive words and sentences and paragraphs, not just tell us.
Tip: Think of your five senses as you write and re-write your essay. Sight, sound, touch, taste, smell are all a part of your life story. Are you using at least a few of these elements at different points of the essay to show not tell?
7. Create a narrative and let it flow.
This is true for both your essays and your application as a whole. Think of your application as a full package with your essay(s) being the centerpiece. Does your essay tell the story of who you are? Does it have a clearly defined beginning, middle, and end? Is the central message of your essay decipherable for the reader?
8. Have fun with it!
We are not your average scholarship foundation. Though we are a group of professionals, we didn’t start this foundation to be rigid. We started it to honor the memory and the playful spirit of Ashley Soulé Conroy and to, in her name, help students like you reach their dreams and travel the world. So have fun while you write this! Let your creative writing style and your manner of speaking and expressing yourself shine through in your essay. It’s the best possible way we can get to know who you are and that’s first and foremost what we want to see in any application.
BONUS. Don’t Choose a Travel Experience as Your Big Essay Topic
Well, that’s probably too strong. If you absolutely have a stand-out travel moment that you MUST write about, then do it! But be warned that your essay will be held to a more competitive standard. We don’t say this because travel essays never win, they certainly do though perhaps less frequently. Rather, we say this because roughly 20-30% of applicants each semester choose a past travel experience to write about for their big essay topic, telling us all about how much they love travel and how excited they are to immerse themselves in another culture during their semester abroad. It’s not that we don’t love hearing how much you love travel — of course we do, we love it too! It’s just that the topic of a travel experience as being transformative is written about so frequently in these essays that it means yours has to come from an incredibly unique angle and/or have a particularly remarkable way of being told in order to stand out among the crowd. With that said, if you want to choose a travel experience as your essay topic, if you’re just itching to write about this one very profound moment that changed your life while traveling and you can’t stand the thought of writing about anything else, trust that instinct and don’t let us stop you!