Last time on RAFSA, I told you where to find financial aid opportunities to fund your study abroad adventures. Now it’s time to write the essays for all of those applications, but you don’t just want to write, you want to win! While I can’t guarantee you’ll win 100% of what you’ve applied for, I can tell you that a strong essay will personalize your applications and make you stand out to the judges. Here are 8 steps to making your writing rock.

1)     Read The Directions: Don’t miss out on this opportunity to find out what the committee is asking of you. If you don’t read them, you’re doomed from the start. To insure your understanding, summarize them in your own words. Stick this summary and the application deadline right on your master calendar for quick reference. Also, if there’s something you don’t understand about the prompt, don’t be afraid to call and ask the organization that is offering the award. If anything, this will give you a competitive edge on other writers.

2)     Consider Your Audience: Think about who will be reading your paper. What are the ideals and values of the company, association, or program? What do they stand for? Try to reflect these ideals in your writing. If you’re applying for a conservative scholarship, don’t focus your essay on your involvement in the Campus Democrats… Don’t lie or mislead the judges – just try to be tactful.

3)     Create an Outline: Taking word count and/or page length requirements into consideration, map out the skeleton of your essay by writing out main points you want to include. Be sure to include all the criteria from the directions. Your outline may look something like this:

Attention Grabbing Intro

  • Thesis (summarizing sentence. Point you’re trying to make.)

Body Paragraph

  • Opening sentence (smooth transition from par. 1)
  • Detail, point or criteria
  • Detail/point/criteria

Body Paragraph

  • Transition/Opening sentence
  • Detail/point/criteria
  • Detail/point/criteria


  • Reiteration of thesis
  • Thanks

From your outline, you can flesh out the remainder of the essay by elaborating on the points you have made.

4)     Highlight Your Accomplishments: Brainstorm a list of noteworthy things you have done or been involved in, including academic achievements, extra-curricular activities, memberships and volunteer experience. If the prompt leaves room, include one, or some, of these successes and how they make you an ideal candidate for the award. If the prompt is very specific, leave these out or risk sounding insecure or narcissistic.

To go a step further, collaborate your list into an academic resume, and include one with each of your applications. Contact your school’s Career Services department if you need extra help.

5)    Use a Thesaurus: Upgrading your vocabulary can make your paper sound more professional and sincere. Don’t overdo it, though. Keep it realistic and subtle, and let your personal voice shine through your work.

6)     Be Specific, Yet Concise: Adding descriptive details can breathe life into an otherwise bland paper. However, don’t be longwinded. The judges, who will likely have read many essays before yours, will be looking for quality over quantity. Don’t muck up your paper with frivolous or vague information. Include only what is necessary to get your point across in a colorful and convincing way.

7)     Be Honest: Draw from real-life experiences and concentrate on what differentiates you from other applicants. Don’t over embellish and avoid sob stories unless they stem from truth. Guilt-tripping your readers into awarding you a prize isn’t the way to go. When talking about academic achievements, memberships, and the like, keep in mind that the awarders will likely double-check your credentials before paying out.

8)     Edit, Edit, Edit: Don’t just proofread your own essay, as you will likely overlook simple mistakes. Go to a site like to get the lowdown on your spelling, grammar, and word choice, among other things. Once that’s done, e-mail it to a few qualified people such as:

  • A parent, family member or friend: to ensure your essay gives its readers a good idea of who you are as a person.
  • Your study abroad advisor: to make sure you are addressing the criteria in a satisfactory manner. Chances are she can help you, if it’s SA related, not to mention she has probably served on a scholarship committee.
  • A non-biased person, such as someone in your school’s Writing Center: to tell you if your points make sense without having any knowledge of your back-story, and to give an outsider’s opinion of your writing style.

Of course, whom you send it to is up to you, but be sure to have your work thoroughly proofread before sending it in. Typos are the nemeses of scholarships!

Minding these simple tips can help you conquer your required writings in a captivatingly effective way, to capture judges’ attention and bring you closer to big bucks. Once again, thank you for reading RAFSA. Stay tuned for more tips relating to your dreams of international education!

“Self-proclaimed “Francophile” Jessica Longshore is a sophomore French major at Western Illinois University. On Campus, her involvement includes being a member of NSCS, a Centennial Honors College member, and Vice President of Western’s Ambassadors for Study Abroad (WASA). During her free time, she likes to cook, do her nails, and write. She is also looking forward to studying abroad in Cannes, France this coming fall, and blogging about her travels.”