Along with the majority of college applications, a lot of scholarship applications now require you to write an autobiographical essay, which conveys something about who you are or how you think. While this can seem like an inconvenience, or yet another time-waster, it can actually be a great way to give the judges an idea of your character, personality and background- details they wouldn’t know otherwise (that is, without an interview).

Typically, one of these prompts would look something like this: “Tell us a story from your life, describing an experience that either demonstrates your character or helped to shape it.” Believe it or not, there is a way to write a compelling autobiographical essay with such a generic and vague prompt.

Pick a Theme and Stick to It

When picking an experience or a story to write about, choose something that makes you different from everyone else. Don’t write about winning the school elections or about how you went with your church group to South America. The other applicants will be entering really unique and different entries. Really consider your experiences to find an alternative to writing about topics that are cliché or canned —what events throughout your life have molded your personality?

The question you have to ask yourself is “If I had to pick one experience that defines me as a person, outside of my academics, what would it be?” Try and picture sitting down with a scholarship judge or admissions official who asks, “What is the one thing I should know about you?” The two objectives of an essay are to compel the audience to read on, and to make sense. Once you’ve chosen an aspect of your life to focus on, frame the piece around it. If, for example, you want to write an essay talking about how some trial or adversity has changed you, then focus the paper on how your character has been strengthened by it. Then, tie your theme to a broader message or lesson on life to tie the whole thing together.

Compelling the Reader’s Attention

The first step of any essay, and often the hardest, is devising a creative way to grab the reader’s attention from the first sentence, and retaining it for the remainder of the essay. Write in a voice that you are most comfortable with and that doesn’t deviate too much from your own- it sounds forced and awkward. A couple different ways of writing your intro are by a first person narrative of a specific event that reflects the theme of your essay or by a third-person description of the event. Whichever approach you choose, remember to end your introduction with a sentence that packs a punch

Reinforcing Your Message

You need a strong introduction to grab the reader’s interest, but it’s the body of the essay that tells the real story. The introduction is simply a setting of the scene, so to speak, but the body is needed to present the supporting details. This doesn’t mean that it needs to be a full-length novel. Don’t make it wordy or overwrite; keep it simple. Always remember to show, not tell- you don’t need to browbeat the judges with how mature you are as a result of your experiences- use relevant examples to show them. As you write, think about how you felt and try and convey that in a way the reader can relate to, because emotions do matter. Keep organization and logical sequencing of events in mind as well. Judges pay attention to how an essay is laid out. As you start to wrap up your essay, the tone of your writing should become more positive and bright, because that’s the tone you want for a successful conclusion.

The Conclusion: Back to the Beginning

In every well-written essay, the conclusion doesn’t just sum up the paper, but underscores the points you were making at the beginning. The conclusion should express optimism, by stating an affirmative message that (hopefully) you carry with you into today. Beyond that, the conclusion is the one place where you may want to be as explicit as possible; you could say “It was through (this event/occasion) that I became who I am today.” Whichever way you choose, be certain to tie the little details back into the big picture. Other helpful ideas include quotes that speak to you, or historical anecdotes that parallel your own.

Your last sentence should be as compelling as your first, but summarize how this event or experience has changed you profoundly for the better. It should leave the reader feeling positive and empowered too; even better, it should provoke them to consider about their own lives, trials, and tribulations; but, instill them with hope and optimism. A scholarship is an organization’s financial investment in you, so your essay should convince them that they should invest their money wisely by awarding you the scholarship.

Just a Few More Tips

Every student is prone to throwing as many large vocabulary words into an essay as possible; it makes us feel as though we’ll be taken more seriously. The truth of the matter is that a personal statement about your life isn’t really the arena for flexing your intellectual muscles. Stay simple and straightforward, and the judges will respect you more for it. Don’t use five words where three will do. If you have to use a thesaurus, chances are the reader will too, and frankly, they don’t have time for that. Just be yourself, not who you think will look better on paper. Your personal statement is exactly that: personal. Talk about your life, your experiences, and your reflections, and tell the truth. Any story can be gripping if told the right way. Remember, the essay is just a marketing piece; and the product you’re selling is yourself.

Having said that, be sophisticated enough in your writing so that the judges recognize your skills. Don’t be flippant, or be too casual, but keep in mind that your writing should reflect your voice; give the judges some insight into your personality. After you’ve written a first draft of your personal essay, edit and revise your essay several times. Ask your teachers, peers, and family to read over it and give you some pointers and feedback for improvement.