Wednesday, 30 April 2014

How to Write an Award-Winning Essay

Writing an award winning essay is a science as much as it is an art. Sometimes what you want to say and what the judges want to hear can be two different things. Letting your personality shine through while at the same time ensuring you hit all the points the judges are looking for can be tricky, but if you find the right balance it can pay off…literally.

At Royal Roads University we run internal awards competitions four times a year. Competitions are adjudicated by a panel of six members of staff and faculty representing the cross section of learning areas. Judges sit on the panel for at least a year (and in many cases much longer), making them experts at spotting a winning essay. We recently asked some of our long-time judges for tips on how to write an award winning essay. Below are their top 5 tips.

UPDATE! A few words on formatting

A number of students have asked questions recently about how to format their essay. There are no specific formatting criteria (other than the one page limit!), but here are some general tips:
  • Keep your essay to one page! Extra pages are removed. Do not include a title page or references
  • Include your name at the top right corner of the page (helps staff when sorting essays)
  • Use a legible font, such as Times New Roman or Arial. Do not go below 12pt font size. (Some of the judges have poor eyesight after reading 100 essays!)
  • Single spacing is ok
  • Devote the full page to describing your eligibility. Cover letter-style formatting (i.e., address, signature block) is not necessary

Address the awards criteria

If you’re going to follow one piece of advice from this post, hands down this is the one. After every competition the judges always agree that the strongest candidates were the ones who addressed the eligibility criteria in their essays. Judges said:

“A strong application is one that talks to the criteria of the award and how that student meets those criteria. I know this can be difficult if you are applying for multiple awards, in the case of In-Course Awards, but do address the criteria.”

 "Be thoughtful about the awards you apply for and how you address the criteria in your essay. Take the quality over quantity approach by focusing your attention on two or three rather than the whole list."

Here’s an easy way to ensure your essay covers all of the awards criteria:
  1. Scan the list of in-course awards to determine what you’re eligible for. Eligibility criteria are listed as bullet points below each award description.
  2. Copy the criteria for all awards you want to apply for into a Word document, grouping criterion that are the same.
  3. Use this as a check list when you write your essay.
Demonstrate that you meet the criteria through detailed examples. If an award lists “community involvement” as a criterion, for example, write something like: “I strongly believe in community involvement.  Every year since 2008 I have organized a workplace campaign for the United Way, putting in 2 volunteer hours per week for 3 months each year.” The judges are looking for that level of detail in your essay.

TIP: Awards criteria are listed in order of importance.

Financial need is important but…

The judges know that financial need is one of the main reasons students apply for awards. However, an essay that focuses only on financial need will likely be unsuccessful. Here’s what the judges had to say:
“For many awards the financial piece is important but the student needs to look at what else the award is looking for and focus some of their writing on that as well.”
“I know financial need can be overwhelming for some, but they shouldn’t neglect the opportunity to highlight other aspects of the award (or the skills, abilities and future aspirations of the applicant).”
          "Describing financial need is important, but also describe what you're doing to mitigate need."

Make it easy

Get straight to the point.
“If the student makes it easy to find the criteria, this often ensures that they are put into pile #1”
The judges read upwards of 300 hundred essays per competition. Make it easy for them to identify you as the best candidate for the award (i.e., the student who best meets the eligibility criteria).

Using headings or creative formatting can help. Also, pull key words from the eligibility criteria and use them in your essay. Just make sure these key words are accompanied by strong examples.

Proof read! 

You know this one. Always have someone else proof read your work for clarity, spelling and grammar. Poorly constructed essays with multiple errors do not read well and as a result may be overlooked by the judges.

If possible, ask someone who’s been successful in our In-course or Entrance Awards competition to look over your essay. They know what the judges are looking for!

Personal Touch

Your award-winning essay doesn’t need to be some dry “academicy” piece of work. Remember those 300 hundred essays the judges have to read? You want yours to stand out, so throw your APA manual out the window and write with some personality!

In the judges own words…
“… then I re-read to look for an individual that stands out for me as particularly worthy (sometimes it might be an original way of writing, if nothing else stands out)”
“If the writer can let the committee know a bit about them, their dreams, why they chose the program they did and what they want to do with that learning, it is always helpful and often speaks to the criteria of the award.”
“…a sense of the student's passion or plight (as the case may be), and a sense that this person will make tremendous use of the education.”

“Be reflective of how you fit the spirit of the award and provide compelling evidence of why you're the ideal candidate for the award.”
There you have it, some valuable advice from the people who count when it comes to writing an award winning essay. Still have questions? Contact a Financial Aid & Awards team member.

And remember…when in doubt, stick to the eligibility criteria!

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