How I got $9,000 in scholarships 

Scholarship essay tips from a student who received three scholarship awards 

By Ricardo Estrada Davila ’23, USAC Chiang Mai, Thailand

I have three pieces of advice for students writing scholarship essays. I learned these tips after I received three scholarships: the Gilman Scholarship for $5,000, the Fresno State Shields Family Grant for full tuition costs, and the USAC First-Generation Student Scholarship for $2,500. In total, I received $9,000 in scholarship funds and I was able to use it to cover travel costs to and from my program and for the cost of the program itself.  

All in all, I encourage all students to apply for every scholarship that fits their program and demographic. We live in an era where studying abroad is the most affordable it’s ever been. Your home university has scholarships and grants, USAC has scholarships, and there are even national scholarships and grants. I am very, very grateful to the Shields family for their grant and was honored to have the opportunity to meet them via Zoom to thank them; I am also thankful for USAC for its first-generation scholarship I was rewarded and to the Gilman Foundation. I had a lot of people choose to take a chance on me, and I would like to believe I am still paying them back by sharing my experiences with others. 
1. Get someone else to read through your essay. This can be someone at the writing center, your study abroad advisor, or even just a friend. That second perspective can make such a difference and really strengthen your paper. They might want some parts of your essay expanded because they like what you’re sharing, or because some parts might be confusing to them. Their feedback will help you know to revisit that part and make it more compelling to the people who are choosing who receives the scholarship. Our brains know what we want to say and understand what we’re writing, but no one shares the same brain. It’s our job as the author to make sure our ideas translate well to others. The writing centers are paid to help you with this, so don’t feel bad about getting some help from them! I asked my study abroad advisor at Fresno State to proofread the first draft of my scholarship paper, and I also referenced the scholarship website for the Gilman Scholarship.  

2. Plan ahead and give yourself time to get feedback well before scholarship deadlines. That way you get a thorough review and apply it to your paper. My advisor was able to read through my essay and gave some feedback, but it was crunch time and she couldn’t give a thorough review. I wish I had been able to get her feedback sooner — that part was on me though. I waited until close to the deadlines to schedule an appointment. Planning ahead and blocking out time in advance will also allow you time to look into the organization or sponsor and get a feel for what they value in essay submissions. On the Gilman website essay section, they provide a good list of questions to ask your self and tell you what they want to see in your essay. If you answer them well, you will have a rough first draft with all the key pieces.

3. Share your own struggles. Something I did in my essay was write about challenges that I have overcome in my life. It made the judges feel connected to me and feel like they know I am. I chose to weave a narrative of growth and adaptability by describing my struggles and showing how I had grown because of them. For example, as a first-generation college student, I had to learn the entire college system on my own. You can write about that, too. Explain that it was those difficult times that made you an independent and critical thinker, which are two things that you believe will help you thrive in a new environment abroad. Connect the story of your past experiences to your current skills, and then explain how those skills will enable you to be successful studying abroad. It’s kind of like writing an argument: you’re explaining why you are a good candidate for study abroad. Sharing your personal story is a great way to show you’re relatable to the people reading your essay, while simultaneously backing up your argument that you will be successful abroad.  

Remember, the scholarships exist for a reason and someone is going to receive that funding. Why can’t that person be you? 

Learn more on the USAC Money Matters section about scholarships.