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Second Round Knockout: Survive Round Two of the Scholarship Game

You're confident in your application--but will it survive round two?

Stephen Borkowski

May 10, 2016

Second Round Knockout: Survive Round Two of the Scholarship Game

You feel confident about your scholarship essay. It's a neat, well-written piece. There's a great chance you'll pass the first round and be in contention for the award.

What about the second round? Now you're up against applicants who also submitted neat, well-written essays. Now the judges are pickier. These essay errors commonly knockout applicants in the second round:

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Vaguely Addressing the Topic

Applicants often go off topic trying to force a view, experience or story into their essay that doesn't match the theme. If you have to spend a lot of energy stretching your clever anecdote to fit, it's probably better to pursue a different angle.

Recycled material can also create meandering. It's apparent when an essay is being reused according to Susan Thurman, scholarship committee chair for the National Society of High School Scholars. "At the very end [the applicant] will try to tie it in but it's some set essay they've been using for college applications and doesn't really fit," she says.

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Using Clichéd Examples

If you're asked to select the subject you'll write about, the topic you select is important.

"If you're going to talk about Harry Potter, you better get pretty deep," says Patti Ross, vice president of the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation.

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Judges read hundreds of essays, so it's important to choose a memorable, unique topic. "If you want to use a quote or a story, make it something a little bit different, something not being used by a couple hundred other applicants," Thurman says.

If a topic is very personal, chances are it won't be perceived as clichéd. If the subject is something you're passionate about, that excitement should come through.

Lack of Voice

Judges want to learn about you, in your words. It's important that your personal voice comes through in your essay. If you pick words out of a thesaurus that you wouldn't use in conversation, it will show.

Two applicants might write about their experiences working at a fast food restaurant. An essay filled with personal reflections and vivid descriptions will stand out over an essay that recounts a routine of punching a clock and sweeping floors.

This doesn't mean judges are looking for flowery prose. One of the most memorable essays Thurman has read simply described the poverty the applicant witnessed near his home, close to the Mexican border. "It seemed real. It wasn't abstract," she says.

No Details

An essay that's too broad probably won't include much in the way of detail or emotion. This can leave judges wondering if the topic is something you truly care about or something you chose out of convenience.

Ross says if applicants write about changing the world they should "give examples of how they've made a difference."

An applicant who claims to be ambitious should "show that they've taken some kind of initiative, not just gone along with a club," Thurman says.

Forgetting the Basics

If your grammar and spelling are awful, you automatically reduce your chances of making round two. It's so important scholarship experts feel it can't be repeated enough: proofread, proofread, proofread.

"We're not necessarily looking for the best writer, but it's got to be competent," Thurman says.

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