Doesn’t it always seem that when people tell stories about how they became successful they are very linear and well organized? They always start at a time when they weren’t successful and then talk about how they decided to take the path that lead them to their success. The tellers then recount one or two obstacles they encountered and then finally you hear about their first break and the moment that everything came together for them and they became ‘successful.’ I used to hear those stories and wonder how every else’s story seemed to progress like that when mine was often convoluted, filled with divergent interests, and meandered here, there and back again.
What I finally realized when I began applying for scholarships is that a story is a coherent narrative that you create out of things that actually happen but it doesn’t represent everything that happened. It gives the reader or the listener only a snapshot. But it’s the snapshot that most people want to hear. Think about it, if someone sat you down and told you their entire life story including all the wrong twists and turns it would most likely be boring and it would definitely take a long time. They would include all sorts of details that aren’t necessarily important.
We tell stories to communicate things that are important. Scholarships committees are asking you to tell them the story or your life and your involvements. Don’t be tempted to tell them every little bit and piece of it! No one has the time to read the autobiographies of everyone they meet. Scholarship committees don’t either. They have to read a lot of applications. That’s why they limit the number of words you have to communicate your story. Think about your scholarship essay like the equivalent of a newspaper article compared to the full autobiography that is your life. If you were to read an autobiography of a famous figure and then a newspaper article about the life of a famous figure there would be a big difference between the two. But, if the article writer was talented, the article would tell the most important parts of the story. With a scholarship essay, you are writing the newspaper article and not the autobiography.
Sometimes telling the shorter version of something can be more difficult. Mark Twain once wrote about a five page letter sent to a friend that he didn’t have time to make the letter shorter than five pages. We might think that sounds funny since it seems to takes more time to write five pages, but it actually takes a lot of thought and time to be succinct.
I’m going to help you find out what your story or personal brand is and then I’ll help you write it and then adapt it for different scholarship applications.
What’s Your Story?
Scholarship committees want to know who you are but they don’t need to know all of who you are. They want to know, for instance, why you have volunteered for Greenpeace but perhaps not why you obsessively watch reruns of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (thought the answer to the latter seems obvious – because the show is awesome). So, while I’ve said that I’m going to help you tell your story and create your personal brand, what I’m really talking about is helping you create a personal brand and tell a story with a specific audience in mind. You might look at the story you create in the end and think, well that’s not the full picture of who I am. That’s fine. We’re trying to tell a story that is true, not the whole story of who you are. Just one part of it.
What you need to do is take out the resume that you created earlier and take a look at it. Check to see if there are any common threads. For some people, their story is very obvious, very coherent, and jumps off the page. Say, for example, you’ve only ever done things connected to the environment. You have your common threads right there. Or let’s say you’ve only ever done things supporting cancer patients and cancer research. Once again, there is your common thread. If cancer was important to you because you had cancer or someone you loved had cancer then you would also have the next important part of a story which is a motivating incident to explain why you were spurred to action.
For others, like myself, it’s a little more difficult. When I was applying for scholarships I felt like my story was all over the place. My mom had survived cancer and I was heavily involved in an organization that supported breast cancer patients but I also did a lot of other things. I organized blood drives, I wrote for local weekly papers, I organized a community service council at my school, I visited nursing homes, I visited hospital wards, I was involved in can drives, I won prizes for my poetry, I was involved with Habitat for Humanity. When I looked at all of these involvements, I didn’t really see any common threads. There was one story about how my mom had breast cancer, another story about how I wanted to be a writer and a number of other stories about why certain causes mattered to me. Where was the one coherent story hiding amidst all these different involvements?
So, I thought about it a lot and finally I found my story! It went something like this:
Growing up, my mother had always been involved in the community volunteering on boards of directors of local charities, and for local non-profits. She fought and survived breast cancer when I was 12 and her involvement only increased after that. Because I wanted to help other women like my mom fight cancer I helped her with a number of small fundraisers by doing things like selling water, or temporary tattoos at dragon boat festivals for breast cancer survivors. That was my first involvement with a cause and I loved helping others and making a difference in my community. Because of that, I joined a number of other organizations working to address problems in the community that I felt passionately about. I became involved, not only in helping raise money for a new digital mammography machine on a fundraising committee alongside my mother, but organizing can drives, and blood drives, visiting nursing homes and hospital wards, and helping Habitat for Humanity. When I saw the need for other young volunteers like myself at the organizations that I volunteered for, I then got the idea to create a community service council at my school, organize a volunteer week and write a newsletter with volunteer opportunities for fellow students. I also used my interest in writing to publish stories in local newspapers encouraging young people to volunteer.
That narrative somehow managed to bring it all together and give the reader a good idea of who I was at the time. It provided some background on what drove me, provided a role model that I followed, and told sequentially the story about how I became more involved. It even managed to bring in my love of writing. Now, if I was concerned with telling the full story and not a true story, I would say that I was actually influenced by more than just my mother or her cancer and that there were a number of things that lead me to feel passionately about different causes. I would look at this and take issue with how I had simplified some very complex things. But if I had told about how five different things influenced me to get involved, I might have gone over my word count and the influence of my mother’s cancer on my involvement would not have the same compelling effect. You need to make your story as simple as possible, but don’t forget about those other things that influenced you! I’ll show you later how to use them to tweak your story to fit better with what different scholarships are looking for.
Before you do that, however, you need to write down an initial version of your story. Find a way to bring the common or disparate threads of your story together into one narrative. Don’t worry about the details that you leave out. One way to help figure this out is to ask yourself what you want to get across to your readers? Who will the audience be for the majority of your scholarship applications? Will it be people looking for leaders? Or entrepreneurs? Or good sportsmanship among athletes? Be sure to tailor this first version of your story to whatever kinds of scholarships you’ve got the best shot to win. You can then tweak your story to fit other scholarships.
Remember to keep it short. It should be one paragraph, even if it is one long paragraph. It doesn’t have to provide details; it should just gloss over what you’ve done and link it all together in a coherent way. The details will be added later when you write your personal essay.
This is an abridged version of a section from the e-book The Complete Guide to a Debt-Free Education . If you liked this post, consider buying The Complete Guide to a Debt-Free Education for the low price of $14.99!