The Problem with Scholarship Essays: Everyone Loves an Underdog

By Malaena Caldwell

Recount a time in your life where you overcame adversity. Or, Describe a time in your life that has shaped who you are as a person. 

These are questions taken directly from multiple departmental-merit scholarships I’ve applied for during my time as an undergraduate student, and as I prepare my applications for graduate school, I am sure it won’t be the last. I understand essays are needed to be a buffer between students and scholarships to weed out anyone undeserving who doesn’t meet the requirements, but why does it feel like I have to divulge my personal tragedies to gain the empathy of the committee, and to prove I am most deserving? If you choose something too ordinary, too quintessential, it won’t be enough to win the committee over, but how are you supposed to change your life experience?

Some scholarships are bolder than these popular prompts. Some scholarships are dedicated specifically to those whose family situation does not align with the traditional notion of what it means to be a family. In theory, this is good, but in practice the prompts accompanied often make this pain and trauma a competition between applicants. One scholarship I applied for was specifically for students who have lost a parent, and I had to write an essay about how my father’s death impacted me and my academic success. The issue is that here, I can never admit to the committee that it is something I still struggle with, because it openly admits that I still have the potential to fail. Committees won’t risk the university reputation if there is a possibility for my grief to overtake my academic success. Instead, they love to hear about how the darkest and most traumatizing things can happen to a me and I will still come to class prepared, ready to engage. This is behavior universities can promote when imposing their idea of a successful student. When other students can’t replicate the same impossible standard in the face of tragedy, they are shunned and criticized for their incapability. Look how much she’s been through, and she never let her GPA waiver once. That should be you.

When I didn’t win this memorial scholarship, it was hard not to see it as a direct reflection of my pain. Had I not been through enough? Was what I had gone through not as painful as I originally thought? Still to this day, I wonder who was chosen as the recipient over me, not out of jealousy or spite, but out of plain curiosity about who won. 

A lot of people know about athletic and academic scholarships, but most are unfamiliar with these departmental scholarships or endowments where questions like this are asked. The biggest difference is merit-based scholarships do take more work than athletic and academic ones. They are not automatically given out based on performance; you have to find them in the nooks and crannies of the respective departmental pages on your university’s website, or from word of mouth. Furthermore, some scholarships are so specific, rarely anyone qualifies, and there’s often no budget for promotion. What makes merit-based scholarships unique is that you are chosen by a committee specific to that scholarship to be the recipient that academic year. Instead of being judged on your batting average or test scores, your application is looked at holistically. This is another reason why departmental scholarships and endowments are more demanding and more difficult to complete: you often must fill out an application for each individual one. That means one essay, two letters of recommendation, a resume, transcripts, and whatever else is required, for every scholarship you apply for. As a result, most students don’t apply. The application process for scholarships preaches about accessibility, yet the current system discourages people to apply instead of inviting them. Students don’t want to put the work in for something they think they don’t have a shot at winning in the first place. 

This is where many students are wrong. Many of these scholarships go several years without choosing a recipient because of how small the application pools are, and because that money is designated specifically for that scholarship, it often just sits somewhere, ready to be used by whomever comes along and finally qualifies to receive it. In theory, this should encourage students to apply more to scholarships. The problem, my problem, is this barrier from these essay prompts. 

Life isn’t a competition, and neither is pain. I am not suggesting that granting institutions should stop requiring essays for scholarships, but I am asking them to consider how they formulate their questions. Instead of asking me about my trauma, ask me about my joy. Instead of asking me about how my father’s death impacted me, ask me about a time I remember him, and if someone was too little to remember, write about a time you know you made your loved one proud. If it’s a scholarship dedicated to memorializing the dead, let’s memorialize them properly, and with love, because how committees and institutions approach scholarships now invalidates applicants’ individual life experiences by pitting them against each other for financial gain. Not every student will be perfect, and until academia abolishes this expectation, that money will continue to sit.

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