How To Outline Your Scholarship App Essay

Like planning a trip, an outline can help you map out your essay before you start.

Flickr user Marco Verch

Once you’ve found a scholarship you’d like to apply to, it’s time to sit down and crank out your college application essay. But where do you start? How do you start? It’s simple: Outline your scholarship application essay.

An Important First Step

Assuming you’ve selected your essay topic, outlining should be the very first thing you do in regards to writing your essay. An outline is a road map to keep your writing on topic and pointed in the right direction. It should highlight which topics you really want to impress upon, and which anecdote(s) you’ll cover.

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How to Outline Your Scholarship Essay

When writing essays for school, you’ve probably written outlines before. The most basic structure is: intro, body, conclusion. The same applies to a personal scholarship essay.

  • Intro / Hook: Addressing (but not repeating) the essay prompt, explains what you’ll be talking about. Grab the reader’s attention.
  • Body: Tells your story, supports positive traits (leadership, teamwork, passion)
  • Conclusion: What you’ve learned or why it’s applicable to the college

An outline can be bare-bones, or it can be detailed. For example, a student-athlete writing about an ankle injury that impacted their performance might make the following outlines:

Simple Outline:

Intro / Hook:

  • Training for state competition when I broke my ankle


  • Goals: Place at state competition in hurdles
  • Setback: Ankle broke during practice
  • Challenge: Disappointment, redefining new goals


  • Lessons learned: Determination and flexibility, “rolling with the punches”

Detailed Outline:

Intro / Hook:

  • Thesis: Training for state was tough, breaking my ankle and missing out was tougher


  • Training regimen for state: schedule, practice layout, regional competition
  • Broken ankle: how I got it, the diagnosis, what it will take to recover
  • Challenges: Disappointment, felt like everything was for nothing, goal unattainable
  • Reaction: Setting new recovery goals, join summer track league, plan on running track in college


  • Unforeseen challenges can interrupt your plans, but I learned how to adjust and jump over those metaphorical hurdles.

Word Count

Not all scholarship essays will allow for lengthiness. In fact, some scholarship essays have essay word counts of 500 or even 250 words! How do you fit everything you need to say into 250 words?

You outline.

Even at 500 words, you still have that basic structure of intro, body, conclusion, just on a smaller scale. So jot down your outline and let it guide you to the important “nuggets” you want to share with the scholarship committee.

Intro: I trained hard for state, and then my ankle broke.

Body: This was my goal, this is how I worked towards it, broke my ankle, created new goals.

Conclusion: Learn to overcome life’s hurdles.

Even a small outline like this can give you a jumping off point. Think about it: it’s much easier to drive to a destination when you have a map, right? Even a general sense of things is better than going in blind.

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