Top 10 scholarship essay prompts and how to answer them (with infographic)
Checking each scholarship application’s questions and essays can be time-consuming. But what if you could find out what the most common essay topics were–and then reuse those same scholarship essays across multiple applications?
Well, Going Merry can help you do just that. We took a random sample of about 700 scholarship applications on our scholarship platform and categorized the prompts for any essays requiring 250 or more words. Finally, we ran the numbers to find out what the top 10 most common scholarship essay prompts are.
These 10 topics represented a whopping 90% of all scholarship essay prompts. So that means if you had these 10 essays ready to go, you could apply to the vast majority of scholarships with very little additional work, especially when you use Going Merry’s auto-filled application forms.
- Here’s our list of the Top 10 Most Common Scholarship Essay Prompts.
- 1. How will this scholarship help you?
- 2. How have you contributed to your community?
- 3. Tell us about yourself.
- 4. Tell us about a time you failed and what you learned from it.
- 5. What are your academic and/or career goals?
- 6. What impact has sports had on your life?
- 7. Why do you deserve this scholarship?
- 8. Tell us about a time when you had a belief or idea challenged.
- 9. How are you unique? (Discuss your background, identity, interest, or talent)
- 10. Why do you want to study/pursue [X]?
- Download the top 10 scholarship essay prompts
- More resources related to writing for college
- Ready to start writing some of these top scholarship essay prompts?
Here’s our list of the Top 10 Most Common Scholarship Essay Prompts.
1. How will this scholarship help you?
You should answer this scholarship essay prompt by explaining how the award money will help you in at least one of the following ways: financially, professionally, and/or academically.
Financially, you can share family hardships or goals on how you plan to use the money to help pay for portions of college – for textbooks, tuition, a laptop, or other school supplies.
Professionally, the scholarship might help you pursue a degree in a field you’re interested in. If you’re a first-generation student, you can highlight that this would help you pursue both academic and career dreams as the first in your family.
For example, John Flowers Jr., a Going Merry scholarship winner, described in his scholarship essay that the award would help him be able to pay for his books.
“Winning this scholarship will make a difference to me because it will allow me to cover college financial issues that may hold me back from reaching my career. Being less stressed about worrying about college fees will allow me to focus more of my attention in class to earn the credits, and not worry about how I’m going to pay for the class.”
Here’s an excerpt of the winning scholarship essay from John Flowers Jr.:
My parents were never given a shot at having an education beyond high school. They were never given a shot to show their full potential and make a difference in the world
[…] Being young and seeing my parents struggle is hard for me. It’s challenging seeing the people you love go through a hard time and you can’t do anything about it.
[…] But then I realized I can do something about it. I can get good grades in school. I can take college level courses throughout high school. I can attend a 4-year university and earn my bachelor’s degree in Business Entrepreneurship. That was my thought process as a Freshman.
Now being a Senior I turned those “I cans” into “I did.”
I DID get good grades all through school. I DID take college level courses. I will be walking straight out of high school with 17 college credit hours.
[…] I DID get into a 4-year university; and 4 years from now I want to be able to say I DID earn my bachelor’s degree in Business Entrepreneurship. Nothing would make me happier than to be able to take care of my parents the way they have been taking care of my all my life; and nothing would make me better as a person than to be able to say I did this.
[…] Winning this scholarship will make a difference to me because it will allow me to cover college financial issues that may hold me back from reaching my career. Being less stressed about worrying about college fees will allow me to focus more of my attention in class to earn the credits, and not worry about how I’m going to pay for the class.
Even book fees will add up over time due to how many different classes there are. Being able to use this scholarship to pay for books that are required for a certain class will be a big help, especially for a student who has lots of classes that have to be taken.
Want to see more winning scholarship essays like this one?
2. How have you contributed to your community?
This is a common essay prompt for community service scholarships. In this essay, describe your experience in community service, explain how you’ve given back, or share volunteer opportunities you’ve participated in. For example, if you’ve organized a community donation box and taken the donations to a nonprofit organization, share how you got involved in that and how it helped the community.
Two more things to mention–even when they’re not explicitly asked:
- How have you learned or grown due to your community service? Scholarship committees want to know how this work has contributed to your character.
- How do you plan to continue to support your community in the future? Bonus points if your college plans (which they’d be partially funding!) help you further contribute. Sometimes this is easy because your intended career path is service-oriented (for example, if you want to be a nurse, doctor, teacher, or social worker), but other times you may wish to give back on the side (for instance, by doing pro-bono work if you want to be a lawyer).
3. Tell us about yourself.
You have a lot of creative freedom with this scholarship prompt! But don’t get too crazy. Generally, this kind of “open-ended” prompt is a bit of a trick. In the end, the scholarship committee still wants to know:
- What motivates you to do (study or pursue a career in) what you plan to do? Remember, they’re funding your future, so they want to know about your plans and why you’re passionate about them.
- What kind of (good) characteristics do you have? They’re ultimately choosing people to invest in, so they want you to be a good person. Characteristics you might want to show are empathy, service, leadership, perseverance, or determination.
- What kind of successes have you had in the past? This is your chance to brag about what you’ve accomplished so far.
This essay topic is quite similar to writing a college personal statement, except that with this one, you want to more explicitly tie things back to your future plans.
4. Tell us about a time you failed and what you learned from it.
Scholarship providers understand that no student is perfect, and they want to know how you learned from a failure – this can be an academic, professional, or personal failure. Break down how you failed, why you failed, and how it made you better. You can also reveal something you learned from that failure, such as what you would do differently in the future, so you don’t run into that situation again, or how that moment changed your life and how you picked yourself up. This is a moment to show how you can learn and persevere.
5. What are your academic and/or career goals?
If the essay is very short (say, 100-300 words), be clear and concise. Explain what you want to study, and then what kind of career you want to lead afterwards. Be sure to save room for 1-2 sentences explaining why you’re motivated to pursue that path.
If you have a longer essay (for example, 500-1000 words), take the time to describe what inspired you to pursue certain academic and/or career goals. For example: One of your parents has always owned his or her own business and now you’re inspired to be an entrepreneur, to pursue a degree in business. Describe that moment of realization when you decided that would be your career goal. Maybe a conversation with that parent sparked inspiration to pursue that, or maybe it was simply watching them work as you grew up. Looking to the future, how do you plan to pursue that career goal? How will the scholarship award help you pursue it? Tell a story; paint a picture. Get creative with it!
6. What impact has sports had on your life?
This essay prompt is generally for scholarships supporting student-athletes.
So if you played sports throughout high school, share how it’s affected your life, You can reflect on experiences with teammates (if it’s a team sport), what you learned (or gained) from practices or meets/competitions, any injuries you had to overcome, how you balanced athletics and academics, how it affected your schedule (early-morning wake-ups, anyone?), and time with your coach(es) or sports mentors.
You’ll also want to look forwards and not just backwards. How will you take your sports experiences with you, into college and beyond? Maybe there’s a direct connection: being on a team inspired you to one day pursue a career in sports and eventually coach. Or the effects can be more indirect: You’ve learned time management skills that will help you in college, or you’ve learned teamwork skills that will help you when you begin working.
Want to apply for scholarships and put these essay tips to work?
7. Why do you deserve this scholarship?
Scholarship providers are basically asking, “Why should it be you?” with this scholarship essay prompt. Paint a picture of why you’re the most deserving student for this scholarship award.
You’ll want to establish at least these two things:
- You’ve proven yourself as high-achieving (in the past). Discuss accomplishments you’re proud of or any accolades (honors, awards, or simply verbal compliments) you’ve received.
- You’re driven to succeed (in the future). Show that you’ve got clear future plans and the gusto to make them happen.
In addition to that, a strong essay will show at least one of these additional traits:
- You’re passionate. If you’ve got a good story to explain your motivation for your studies or future career plans, now’s the time to tell that tale. Here’s the moment to wow the scholarship committee with why you care more than anyone else, and why.
- You’re unique. Scholarship committees love finding someone who’s just different and stands out from the rest. If you’ve had an unusual upbringing or an uncommon interest, lean into that. (For instance, scholarship winner Daniel Gill wrote about his passion for using puppetry to help autistic children — now that’s cool and unique!)
- You’ve got a particular financial need. For need-based scholarships, this essay question may in part be asking you why your financial need is greater than other applicants’.
Want more tips? We have a whole separate post dedicated to answering this scholarship essay prompt. And here’s a winning essay on this scholarship topic from Jesús Adrian Arroyo-Ramirez:
I always knew I was different than my friends in some way. Growing up, I struggled to speak English while everyone else had little to no problems. I needed extra help in school while my friends coasted by with ease. My friends would hop on planes and travel all around the world while I had to stay at home. At the age of 13 all of my friends started driving while I still couldn’t.
I built up the courage and asked my mother why I did not have access to the simple liberties everyone else did. My name Is Jesús Adrian Arroyo-Ramirez, and I was illegally brought to this country when I was just six years old. At the time I had no clue that I was breaking any laws, and I did not realize the fact that my life was going to change forever. Growing up with a different citizenship situation than my peers was and still is the biggest challenge I have to face in my life.
Looking back there is not a single thing that I would change. Knowing that I had to work harder than everyone else led me to be the person that I am today. I took that fire inside of me, pushed myself, graduated first in my class with a cumulative 4.0 GPA, became a Kansas Scholar, and graduated High School with a semester’s worth of college credit. In November of 2016, everything began to look up for me. I received a work permit and a social security card all thanks to the DACA program. I was finally able to get my license, get a job, and most importantly attend college.
I plan to continue my success in the classroom and do everything to the best of my ability as I know that under my current circumstances it can all be ripped away from me at any moment. Growing up with my situation has taught me to not take advantage of a single opportunity. There has been continued support around me past and current and I know there are people out there rooting for my success. I will strive to be the first generation in my family to graduate from an American University and I will set a stepping stone for my future family so they will not have to struggle as I did. My citizenship is not a setback, it is a mere obstacle that I will always learn to work around if it means giving my future children a better life, just like my mother did for me.
8. Tell us about a time when you had a belief or idea challenged.
Have you studied abroad? Visited a foreign country on a family trip? Had a thought-provoking discussion with a teacher, religious leader, or friend? Think about an experience or a moment that challenged – or even changed – one of your beliefs or ideas. Explain what your original understanding of the idea was, when that idea was challenged, and how you felt about it afterward. Scholarship providers are interested in seeing reflection and growth, so expanding on every detail, including where you were, who you were with, and what you were feeling, can help tell your story in your essay.
Here’s an example of a winning scholarship essay from Gabby DeMott in which a student developed a new understanding of herself and others.
There were only a few minutes to go and our eyes were glued to screen. On the edge of our seats, clutching whoever happened to be next to us, we watched as the referee blew his whistle and the German players took their free kick. The ball was hit with precision and skill; it flew up over the Swedish players, past their goalie, and was caught safely in the back of the opposing team’s net. We all jumped up and screamed, a mixture of German and English, of excitement and relief, of pride and anticipation.
We stood, enraptured, for the last several minutes of the game as Germany kept its 2-1 lead over Sweden. The horde of us, Germans and Americans alike, hugged and cheered and made our way out onto the balcony, where we chanted “Deutschland! Deutschland! Deutschland!” for the whole village, the whole country, the whole world to hear. Never have I felt so accepted while being an outsider, so proud of a country that isn’t even mine, so part of something I didn’t really belong to.
My German friends didn’t care that we were from different countries; they didn’t care that we would only be staying for three weeks. They accepted us into their homes and their daily lives, their traditions and their celebrations. In watching that World Cup game, it didn’t matter that we were from different places; we were all cheering for the same team. The acceptance I felt in Germany extended beyond that living room. I came to the country on a three week exchange with ten other students from my school.
We each stayed with host families and attended the Wildermuth Gymnasium, which was surprisingly accommodating to a gaggle of loud American teenagers. The teachers were friendly and welcoming, the students treated us like ordinary peers, and even the people I interacted with in public were understanding.
Before coming to Germany I feared judgment based on my level of the language (which is nowhere near as good as the German students’ English) and American politics. It was intimidating to be in a country with limited knowledge of the language and the customs, even though everyone was welcoming. People did ask myself and the other students about the US’s political climate, but no one blamed us for it. They recognized that we were outsiders, that the place we came from had flaws, and they accepted us anyway.
Since that trip, I’ve found myself trying to provide that acceptance to people in my own country. For example, I work at a canoe livery and we receive a lot of visitors with limited English. Some of my coworkers will avoid such customers because they don’t want to take the time to explain things, to exercise patience with someone who may not understand them. If people had done this to me in Germany, my time there would have been much less enjoyable; in fact, I would have been offended.
So now when someone walks up to me at the livery and asks a question in English that isn’t perfect, I smile and welcome them. I take my time to make sure they understand, that they can have a good time, and that they feel accepted. It’s a small action, but I know firsthand that it can make a big impact, at my place of work and in the world.
9. How are you unique? (Discuss your background, identity, interest, or talent)
Everyone has a trait, a quirk, an activity that makes them unique, whether it’s sports, their upbringing, their hobbies, or interests. Go into as much detail as you feel comfortable to answer this scholarship essay prompt.
Share a story about your family culture, how you were raised, moments that shaped you into being who you are today. If sports is your thing, for example, share how playing sports at a young age taught you about teamwork, working with a coach, discipline and structure. If you couldn’t play sports due to an injury or a disability, explain how you felt when you learned that you had to find other ways to thrive and how it affected your actions.
Sometimes we think that a topic has been written about so many times that it doesn’t matter, but what makes you unique – your story, your history – is your story to tell.
Here’s a winning Going Merry scholarship essay from Daniel Gill on what makes him unique (hint: he brings puppetry and education together with Expressive Arts):
As an Expressive Arts specialist, I use puppet play and the arts (with three to five-year-olds) to teach sharing, identifying and working with feelings, making friends, mindfulness, and asking for what you need in peaceful ways.
Additionally, I perform developmentally appropriate puppet shows in classrooms about fairness, valuing difference (including differences in gender expression and skin tone), and peaceful conflict resolution. By teaching diversity, equity, and inclusion through puppetry, I feel that I am making a difference. In this work, I have noticed an unexplained phenomenon.
Educational puppetry is particularly effective in helping children with ASD develop social and communication skills. One girl with ASD in my school refused to follow the daily routine until a parrot puppet helped guide her through the transitions. Through puppet play, a boy with impulse control challenges learned to manage his feelings and stop hitting other children. One boy with Autism showed remarkable progress with puppet play. Now in Kindergarten, his ability to communicate and make friends makes his academic success possible. Teachers value this work; it reinforces the social and emotional teaching they practice daily.
One teacher told me, “What you do with puppets and our kids is amazing. You need to share this work beyond our preschool.” Application Questions and Answers My goal is to support young children with Autism in public school settings develop the social-emotional skills they need for academic and personal success. I aim to accomplish this by creating and implementing evidence-based strategies that use puppets as intervention tools.
A Masters and Credential in ECSE, and the Autism Spectrum Graduate Certificate program I will complete, are essential to broadening my impact. The program will provide me with the theoretical foundation, the student teaching experiences, the credentials, and the academic community required to work with children and families in public school settings. For example, as part of the ECSE Program Masters and Credential Roadmap, I am taking the Seminar in Educational Research course. I am learning how to conduct scholarly research, a fundamental skill in creating innovative approaches that work. I am eager to apply the knowledge and skills I learn at SFSU toward helping more children open doors to connection.
Additionally, I am learning leadership skills by volunteering for SFSU’s Early Childhood Special Education Conference. Most conference attendees are undergraduate students, interested in working with young children at-risk and with disabilities.
As Co-Chair of the Presenter Committee, I am recruiting dynamic and engaging speakers who will lead workshops. I am eager to apply all of the knowledge and skills I learn at SFSU toward helping more children open doors to connection. I am at a critical juncture in my path.
Helping children who experience social disconnection integrate into their classrooms, is my passion. This scholarship will help me work toward a world where every child has access to education and all children know they belong.
10. Why do you want to study/pursue [X]?
Reflect on what inspires you to want to pursue a certain field of study. If you’re interested in studying psychology and pursuing a career as a psychologist, for example, explain how you enjoy understanding how and why people make certain decisions, how you became fascinated by the science behind it.
Another example: Let’s say you’re interested in pursuing a career in communications. This might seem like a broader category, but you can highlight your love for writing, your ability to pick up on details in and out of school, and presenting this in a way that makes sense to the people around you. Just be careful not to get stuck in broad generalities. For this essay prompt in particular, many applicants will often have the same basic answer as you. So you’ll want to use specific anecdotes to make your essay stand out.
Get started with answering these scholarship essay prompts
Download the top 10 scholarship essay prompts
More resources related to writing for college
Check out these blog posts to continue researching how to answer scholarship essay prompts:
- How to write an essay about yourself
- Writing about your career goals
- How to write the best personal statement
- Write a winning scholarship essay about your academic goals
- Scholarship essay format and structure
Ready to start writing some of these top scholarship essay prompts?
Now that you have a better understanding of how to answer these scholarship essay prompts, it’s time to put your knowledge in motion with your scholarship applications. Sign up for a free Going Merry profile where you can upload your scholarship essays. You’ll enter your information once – such as your expected graduation year, what you plan to study in college, and your location – and then we’ll match you with thousands of scholarships. You can even sort scholarships by competitiveness, location, amount, and deadline!
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