By James Long Truong
This is part 1 of a 2-part series focusing on “How I Afforded It.” “Why I Studied Abroad” is part 2 of the series.
Summary: This article was written with the intention of breaking down the first barrier to scholarship writing, so that it becomes a little easier to express the power of your story and voice into writing.
Alongside the slew of graduation posts on social media around this time of year comes yet another prolific phenomenon: enthusiastic posts, pictures, and blogs about getting accepted to X university and living in Y city, where Z is happening; the exuberance from which follows the aforementioned illustrates an evident rise in popularity of studying abroad. Statistically, “over the past three decades, the number of international students has grown substantially, from 0.8 million worldwide in 1975 to almost 3.7 million in 2009, a more than four-fold increase.”
Source: Institute of International Education
Often perceived as a getaway from the rigorous trenches of one’s own academic endeavors, going on exchange is outstandingly beneficial in ways neither limited to the experiences nor the individual themselves. This statement speaks not only to the frequent traveler or city explorer, but includes even the modest study abroad student who seldom leaves the flat to wander and experience a taste of a new city, culture, and/or lifestyle.
- For the philosopher: one might contend one needs not experience to fully ‘know’ what, e.g., culture is like, although that is not the point here. One might counter and say that this type of ‘knowledge’ does not encompass the unique knowledge gained from experience. For a brief musing, see Mary’s Room Thought-Experiment.
As someone who underwent 3 exchanges (with a fourth looming in the end of August), I—too—have experienced these benefits (which I mention in part 2. The focus of part 1 is on scholarship writing). While each of my exchanges was distinctly positive, I briefly shed light on them in this piece. My reason for writing Part 1 to share with you how I was able to afford all of them.*
- *I hope my advice is helpful in its own right with respect to scholarship writing. To perhaps reassure you if otherwise, I have won over $35,000 out of 15+ scholarships. All of them involved essay(s).
One method of raising funds is simple and obvious, viz. scholarships, but I believe it is quite inconspicuous in an important respect, and that subtlety often serves as an underlying reason why one might not always succeed in this endeavor, including myself. I have failed many times, but I have understood it could be for several reasons I detail all below, but will mention one now: perhaps that particular scholarship might not have been the right fit for me! Other avenues, of course, exist and could be feasible to many, e.g. crowdfunding, support from close networks, grants, etc.
This article is targeted towards those who are simply eligible for any scholarship, but it is worthy to note most of my scholarships gave some preference to first-generation, low-income, ethnic minority, and/or high-achieving students. In saying this, I provide an outline that is broader (for inclusiveness purposes) and pertains to the mindset of writing a scholarship essay, a common writing structure, and some reasons why even the best personal statements might not succeed. While general in structure, this piece is naturally tailored to students who fall under said demographics (low-income, ethnic minority, first-generation college student) applying to need-based scholarships, but by no means is it limiting in content to other students.
Mindset of Writing a Scholarship Essay
First, we need to understand the following:
1) Why do scholarships exist?
a. Scholarships exist because donors want to invest in their beneficiaries, whether because they support their causes and/or simply believe in the beneficiaries themselves. Scholarships are ways of empowering one or the other or both.
2) What do scholarships do?
a. Scholarships provide (but are not limited to) financial support with the aim of easing the burdens one would otherwise endure with the absence of a scholarship. It lowers the opportunity cost of pursuing whatever the enterprise may be (e.g. studying abroad, attending university, pursuing a program, etc.).
b. In a way, scholarships provide the means to develop the human capital and social mobility of their beneficiaries by removing a (tremendous) barrier, be it affordability or sustenance. The accumulation of scholarships can noticeably impact a student’s sense of creative/ambitious feasibility by lengthening the boundaries formerly imposed by the lack of affordability.
3) How should scholarships be perceived?
a. I think of scholarships as investments in social businesses. Unlike a traditional business, which focuses on maximizing profits to maximize stockholder returns, a social business is a “cause-driven business,” i.e. seeking to maximize human welfare by addressing a cause they care about. To compare, one invests in a traditional business to maximize stockholder returns via juicy dividends, higher stock prices, etc. One invests in a social business to maximize human welfare via microcredit, encouraging local entrepreneurship, etc.
i. Although arguably similar, do not think of scholarships as charities. Neither is superior/inferior by any means. Scholarships are different than charities because it is competitive; not freely given; and evaluated by performance metrics. This is what makes scholarships typically difficult to obtain.
4) How should I, as a writer, perceive scholarships? [IF THIS MAKES SENSE, IT MAKES WRITING A SCHOLARSHIP ESSAY A LOT EASIER]
a. First, perceive scholarships from the point of view of the donor (see above).
b. Second, understand the intentions behind the scholarship (see above).
c. Third, ask yourself whether the scholarship’s intentions align with your goals.
d. Fourth, ask yourself whether receiving the scholarship furthers the donor’s goals of the scholarship through the advancement of your own goals.
e. Fifth, if yes, keep that connection in mind when writing your essay.
f. Note: While the language used refers to sole-benefactor scholarships, it is equally effective with group-benefactor scholarships.
Common Writing Structure
These are different approaches to writing scholarship essays. The following are actual essay prompts I have written about with different character constraints, so you will have to proportion your own content. These prompts should, nonetheless, give you a broad but comprehensive understanding of how to approach essays in general.
1) Provide information about your interest in your major.
a. A strong essay includes elements of a broader picture, applicability, and uniqueness. E.G.
i. Why philosophy? What makes philosophy unique as a major?
ii. How is philosophy applicable, relevant, and important to today’s world or my own or both?
iii. How does philosophy apply to me?
2) What does philanthropy mean to you?
a. A strong essay answers the question and every important subpart the question may entail. E.G.
i. What is my definition of philanthropy?
ii. How does philanthropy apply to me?
iii. How have I engaged or intend to engage in philanthropy?
3) Why have you chosen your country of study? What factors led you to select this country?
a. A strong essay demonstrates a robust consideration of the desired country of study via aspects unique to said country, relevance of said country, and importance of said country towards one’s future. E.G.
i. Why China? What makes China unique from other countries?
ii. What connections do I have with China? What sort of connections do I desire creating?
iii. How will living in China impact me, help me, and/or transform me? How will my study abroad in China advance my career?
4) Please describe any socio-economic, educational, familial, cultural, or physical hardships or challenges you have overcome.
a. A strong essay describes a genuine hardship faced and how resilience and other relevant attributes enabled one to overcome that hardship. E.G.
i. How did my hardship impact me? How has my hardship challenged me?
ii. How did I address that hardship?
iii. How did I overcome it?
iv. How have I grown as a result? What future impact can I make from overcoming this hardship?
5) Explain how your participation in XYZ will enable you to advocate more effectively for social justice.
a. A strong essay describes the process through which one becomes empowered to be a better advocate for social justice. E.G.
i. Why did I select this program? How is it beneficial to my cause?
ii. How can I use this program as a springboard to accomplish my goals?
iii. In what respects do I need it? Why is it the case?
In all—but not limited to—the above five prompts, some common themes arise: vision, connection, and action. For some prompts, it is about envisioning a better future. For others, it is arousing empathy to connect/relate the reader to the writer. And for others, it is about conviction. Remember, what also matters is understanding the purpose of the scholarship and figuring out whether you can connect to that purpose.
Scholarship reader(s) rely on essays as subjective measures of fit, depth, and consideration. They simply would not want to award a scholarship to someone who has not put much thought into their own projects, pursuits, futures, etc. The readers need to believe in that person qua person or that the person’s cause is worth investing in.
That said, there is no shortcut for teasing out the underlying motivation for whatever you are pursuing. What gets quicker, however, is the translation from thought to text by having formulated a mental outline of your essay structure as you are reflecting. This comes easier with practice. After understanding the mindset of scholarship writing and establishing a common writing structure, we will now transition into the final section of part 1 of this article:
Why You May Still Not Receive a Scholarship After Writing a Well-Written Essay
The usual suspects: poor writing, grammar, & structure; insufficient reflection; and perhaps not enough practice writing essays. If none apply to you, read on:
A thoughtful and well-written essay is great. You are perhaps farther now than where you might have been if you once fell victim to the aforementioned mistakes. Still, you did not manage to procure the scholarship. At this point, it might simply be due to the fact that you are not the right fit for their scholarship.
Think of it as a soft-rejection, and if you have encounter this type—which, after some practice, is a process of self-identification for the most part—be a little disappointed you did not get it, but also be reassured it was not because of your competence, effort, and ability.
I mention competence because it is crucial. At one point in college, I made the mistake of writing an essay but not directly answering the question. The effort and ability to write well was all there, but those were not helpful to my cause if I did not correctly address the prompt-at-hand. Upon receiving feedback, the professor was right in indicating while I understood the question in some parts, I lacked a full understanding of the question as a whole.
Think of that moment when you are explaining something to someone until you finally say, ‘Do you get the point?’ and your friend gets it half-right. Their understanding is half-there, but ultimately not, and that’s probably how my professor felt. Moral of the story? Try to fully understand the connection between the scholarship’s aim and your essay, as the former dictates the type of writing for the latter.
To end, everyone has a good story to tell, but the ability to navigate through the process of translating experiences into structured, refined writing can be daunting. I encounter these hurdles still, although not as much as when I first started. I received help, consistent feedback, and support from those who believed in me. 15+ drafts later, I had a personal statement ready to send to universities.
Your essay—while only constituting a portion of your application—reflects a refined version of your effort, ability, and thought process, which is very insightful for scholarship readers when they assess your application. That said, good luck.
The next piece of this 2-part series looks into “Why I Studied Abroad,” which will be available shortly.
 Human capital–the skills, knowledge, and experience possessed by an individual or population
 Social mobility—the movement of individuals, families, households, or other categories of people within or between social strata in a society. It is a change in social status relative to others’ social location within a given society.
 Term created by Muhammad Yunus.
 OECD (2011), “How many students study abroad?”, in Education at a Glance 2011: Highlights, OECD Publishing.
Photo by James Long Truong