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The Unrealized Power of the Student Essay

If you’ve ever evaluated student scholarship essays, you know there’s no telling what a student will submit. Will the information be useful or new? Will the essay help you get to know that student as a person? Essays, sometimes referred to as Personal Statements, can be a source of frustration for evaluators if done poorly or an example of storytelling at it’s finest if done well. In this article we are going to talk a bit about why students struggle with the essay, how we can use instructions to elicit more thoughtful responses, and how the stories told in student essays can be used to communicate a community foundation’s good work to the public and to donors.Students on Campus

Why Students Struggle with the Essay
Each year, evaluators across the country will ask themselves how a 4.0 student can submit an essay that says so little. Are they not taking their application seriously? Are they writing their essay at the last minute? Do students just not know how to write anymore? The biggest reason students struggle, I believe, is that we are asking them to perform a foreign task.

Most writing assignments for high school students are in the form of reports. There is source material (novels, essays, movies, textbooks, articles, etc.) that they draw from, analyze, and comment on. In the case of scholarships, students use the application itself as the source material for their essay:

“My name is Mary Sunshine. I am a senior at Springville High School and I have a 3.89 GPA. After graduation, I plan to attend Stanford University and study English. My goal for the future is to graduate from college and make my parents proud. Unfortunately, I come from a low-income family and cannot afford to attend university without financial assistance.” 

We can imagine this statement goes on to elaborate each of the points made with a bit more detail to form a standard five-paragraph essay. Mary is writing a report using the application as her source material. She states the facts of the material and offers analysis and, potentially, elaboration.
What students don’t realize is, scholarship providers are not asking for a report. The student essay should more closely resemble non-fiction, creative writing. To put it in a context more familiar to them, it is writing a report where the source material is a specific story from their own life. 

Elicit Thoughtful Responses
Expressing candor, emotion, and thoughtfulness in writing would be difficult for just about anyone. Providing thoughtful instructions can help you elicit thoughtful responses from your young writers. The instruction, “Tell us about someone who has impacted your life,” may elicit a more sterile response than, “Tell us a story about how someone has impacted your life." Likewise, “Tell us about your goals for the future,” could lead a student to discuss high school graduation and attending college while, “Tell us where you see yourself in 10 years,” is more complex and requires a more thoughtful answer.  

If you have a close relationship with the high schools in your area, consider sharing your essay prompt early and suggesting English teachers make the essay a class assignment. Many teachers are looking for opportunities to incorporate different writing experiences into their curriculum and it may cut down on the number of individual proofreading requests they get from students. 

Utilize Essays for Visibility
Before getting into the uses of essay responses, it’s important to note that consent for public use of application materials should be requested at the time of application. Sample language is easy to find and should include photos, written material, name, and school (as applicable). 

When essays become an exercise in storytelling our “scholarship applicants” become young men and women reaching for a dream, striving for excellence, and hoping for a bright future. That person is someone who communities, donors, and foundation staff can identify with and rally behind. Student stories can be excellent human-interest stories for local media coverage, social media (particularly in tandem with Giving Days), and scholarship fundraising campaigns. 

Facts about our students build knowledge, but stories build relationships and relationships spur action. 

Use your application to help teach students to tell their stories and use their stories to touch the heart of your community. 

As you enter another year of scholarship administration, know that your work is making a difference in the lives of students, their families, and your community. 

About the Author

Born and raised in Bakersfield, California, Alyse has deep roots and strong connections to the nonprofit sector. Having worked in the field of college access and scholarships for over 10 years, with a focus on students residing in California’s Central Valley, she believes in the power of scholarships to uplift students, families, and communities. Before joining Foundant, Alyse spent three years with the Kern Community Foundation managing their grant and scholarship giving, as well as nonprofit relationships. Alyse joined the Foundant team in 2017 as a Client Success Manager (trainer, consultant, and emergency support provider) for Grants and Scholarships. After training and advising hundreds of clients, she led the Community Foundation Grant/Scholarship Client Services Team. Her passion for community building, professional development, and real-world impact has helped form the service philosophy for Foundant’s Client Success team. Areas of expertise: scholarship and grant process best practices, team building, remote work, and demystifying complex systems to foster accessibility.

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