Scholarship Essay Guide & Resources

Quick tips: click the drop-downs for help!

Explain how your unique study abroad program and destination will help you reach your goals
  • In the Office of Education Abroad, we firmly believe that all students can benefit from a study abroad experience. However, how will you stand out in the eyes of the scholarship committees?
  • For study abroad scholarships, you want to be clear about the ways studying abroad will help you reach your personal, professional, and academic goals. It’s also helpful to cite information that shows you have conducted research into the unique cultural landscape of your study abroad destination. Which of the below examples sounds better?
    • “I want to go to medical school once I graduate with a B.S. in Biology from UNC Charlotte, so studying abroad in France would be a great way for me to learn how to work with patients from all backgrounds. Speaking French more fluently will also help me communicate better with patients from all backgrounds.”
      • This is okay, but it lacks specifics – this student could be studying abroad anywhere and receive the same benefits, based on what they’ve shared here. We also don’t know anything about their particular program, and they should share details about their classes and location with the scholarship panelists. Don’t assume the panelists know anything about your host culture!
    • “I want to go to medical school once I graduate with a B.S. in Biology from UNC Charlotte, so pursuing the French Language for Health Professionals program in Paris this summer will be a wonderful way for me to learn how to work with patients from all backgrounds. The two courses I will be taking – “French Vocabulary for Healthcare” and “Modern Issues in Healthcare” – will both be taught entirely in French, so I’ll be able to improve my French fluency skills further. As a French minor, this ties very closely with my current academic goals, and I hope to use my language skills to make patients from a wider variety of backgrounds feel comfortable. From my research, I have learned that France is experiencing a healthcare staffing and burnout crisis, not unlike the United States. I hope my experience abroad will make me a more well-rounded doctor as I’m able to compare the healthcare situation in our two countries.
      • Don’t we know so much more about the student and their program with this answer?
Get specific!
  • As you can probably imagine, most students writing scholarship essays will say that they’re hardworking, creative, smart, etc. It’s very easy to say these things in an essay, but how will you demonstrate to the scholarship panelists that you’re exceptional? By showing, and not telling. Which of the below examples sounds more convincing?
    • “I am friendly and outgoing, so I know I’ll make lots of friends with local students while living abroad in South Korea.”
    • “In my free time, I enjoy playing club volleyball here at UNC Charlotte, and I’m lucky to be a small part of an incredible team that includes players from all over the world. To be honest, I was at first a bit intimidated by my teammates, who all seemed to speak multiple languages and who had more volleyball experience than I did. However, I didn’t want to let my fears hold me back, so I baked cupcakes for everyone to celebrate the day of our first game. It was a great way to break the ice, and we decided to start a tradition where each player would bring in a unique treat before each game. I hope to approach local students in South Korea with the same level of empathy and friendliness as I seek to build connections across cultures.”
Tell a story
  • For any scholarships that ask for a “personal statement” essay, you’ll want to decide on a narrative arc or storyline that best conveys your skills, personality, and academic/personal/professional goals.
    • Okay… what does that mean?
      • While also ensuring that you’re addressing any particular prompts or questions, you’ll want to “paint a picture” of your life. Scholarship essays don’t have to be boring – you can include dialogue, quotes that inspire you, and personal anecdotes to illustrate what motivates you.
  • You’ve probably gathered by now that we like to provide examples! The below bullets demonstrate how a pretty boilerplate introduction can be transformed into a more colorful one:
    • “I really want to study graphic design because I’ve always found it so fascinating, which is why I decided to be an artist.”
    • “Pablo Picasso once said that ‘Painting is just another way of keeping a diary.’ My grandmother must have certainly agreed with this, since she placed a paintbrush in my hand before I even learned to walk. Every time I felt an emotion that was powerful – whether it was anger, joy, or grief – she encouraged me to turn my feelings into art. This lifelong passion for creating art is what has inspired me to pursue a Graphic Design major here at UNC Charlotte, and it’s what is motivating me to visit Peru and learn from their indigenous communities’ unique wood carvings and sculptures.”
  • If the essay prompt asks you to answer a series of specific questions, don’t address them individually; your answers should be integrated into the broader narrative.
Avoid clichés

Below are some common clichés or narrative traps we suggest avoiding in your study abroad scholarship essays:

  • “…broaden my horizons…”
    • Be more specific about how studying abroad will change your life!
  • “…make me a better person.”
    • Studying abroad can’t do that alone – YOU have to take the action to be a better person! Give yourself the proper credit, and describe exactly what about studying abroad will help you.
  • “Winning this scholarship would be life-changing.” / “It would mean so much to me to win this money.” / any variation of this
    • Most students who are applying for scholarships are unfortunately in the same situation of having a high financial need. Making such statements probably won’t help you stand out, so it can be better to focus on what you would accomplish if you received the funds.
    • We never want you to feel like you have to write a “trauma essay,” but if you’ve overcome hardship and feel comfortable writing about it, this can absolutely be a part of the story that you tell. However, it should be part of a bigger picture, and it shouldn’t comprise the majority of your essay, if you can avoid it.
Leverage your resources and don’t wait ’til the last minute

You can click the buttons at the top of this page to view the Writing Resource Center’s “tips and tricks,” or to make a FREE appointment with a member of their team. They can help you brainstorm, restructure a draft, or even proofread and assist with grammar/syntax.

You can also schedule an in-person, virtual, or asynchronous advising appointment with Education Abroad to discuss your scholarship essays. Please email if you’re interested, but be advised that EA can’t help with proofreading.

For scholarships that may require a resumé or interview component, the University Career Center offers free resumé assistance and mock interviews. Regardless of any scholarships, you should definitely take advantage of these services before you graduate!

Don’t wait until the last minute to seek a recommendation! Your professors are busy, and you want to give them enough time to write a thorough, glowing letter. You should ideally ask for the letter at least four weeks before the scholarship application is due. Also, you should send your professor an email (or speak to them in person) before sending any automated recommendation requests through a given portal; this is a common courtesy, and it lets them know what to expect.

Photo by Soen McCormick
(Prague, 2023)

Gilman Scholarship Resources

If you’re not already familiar with the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship, you should be! Informally known as the “Gilman,” it’s a scholarship offered by the U.S. State Department for undergraduate students who are also Pell Grant recipients. Winning students can receive between $3,000 – $5,000 toward almost any study abroad program, with additional awards offered for STEM research or the study of certain languages while abroad.

One cool thing about the Gilman is that it requires no letter of recommendation, and there’s no GPA minimum. However, the application does require three essays. This tends to scare students, but we want to emphasize that these essays are SHORT – the longest is only 7,000 CHARACTERS, not words. As a result, essay submissions for the Gilman need to be top-notch.

We strongly suggest clicking here to view the Gilman’s own suggestions for your essays, and we’ve also provided a sample outline for the Gilman essays below.