Applying for a scholarship? Write a real essay
This is the second spring in which the McPoland scholarship will be awarded. I'm happy to be on the selection committee, which includes several Gazette staffers, along with members of the McPoland family.
I hope longtime Gazette readers remember John McPoland. He came to Janesville from Iowa as Sunday sports editor many years ago, back when I served as The Gazette's Sunday editor. He was full of life and never at a loss to share his sharp views on anything from sports to politics to popular culture.
When John died of cancer several years ago, it left a large void among his loved ones back home and his co-workers at The Gazette. That's why I joined many people in donating to a scholarship fund in his name.
In recent weeks, the committee has been poring over applications. Each of us has reviewed applicants separately. I was delighted to see nearly 20 students seeking the scholarship this year. Each is supposed to be either an athlete or someone wanting to study journalism.
This year's applicants are almost all high school athletes, but most seem to want to study in the medical field. That's appropriate, given health problems with which John and his family have struggled mightily. It's also great to see so many graduates of Janesville high schools smart enough and desiring to seek careers in medicine.
When I sat down to review applicants, the first one was so impressive I thought, well, this one's the winner. I was surprised that in the scoring system we use to critique applicants, that first person wound up seventh on my list. It shows how talented these young adults are. I found it hard, however, to distinguish between athletic talents, student activities and charitable causes. Most everyone had solid backgrounds in all these criteria.
So what set one applicant apart from another? The essays. Too many of these students used the essays to restate the litany of activities that filled their calendars in recent years. I already knew those things from reading the accompanying lists.
A few essays were quite good. One student wrote how she learned the value and importance of charity after helping an elderly gentleman take his cart from a food distribution out to his car. The man thanked her profusely for the extra help.
Another student wrote how he learned to love running despite a bad experience in a grade school event, and how his family came to Janesville from a foreign land. Still another wrote about persevering despite his mother's health struggles. One wrote about how a grandfather's cancer death inspired him to want to study oncology.
If you're applying for a scholarship and an essay is required, here's a hint, students: Check the dictionary and learn what an essay is and isn't.
“Webster's New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition,” suggests an essay is “a short literary composition of an analytical, interpretive or reflective kind—usually expressive of the author's outlook and personality.”
The essay doesn't have to be long to be good. I would think, however, that any judge of scholarship applicants would want to read an essay that tells much more about the student than simply all the activities he or she has been involved in. Who are you? What motivates you? What inspires you? What challenge might you have overcome? Tell me a story that says something about you. I like to think my late colleague John McPoland, a talented journalist, would appreciate my sentiments.
I don't know who's going to get the McPoland scholarship in June. The committee is just wrapping up individual work, and we've yet to put our picks together. I do know that any of a handful of students could win it, and I would be happy. That's how closely I scored some of them. In my mind, however, those who truly wrote essays—and submitted cleanly written pieces—set themselves apart from the crowd.
If you're a student who might apply for a scholarship in the future, that's something to keep in mind.