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How to Win College Scholarships (be the OBVIOUS choice with these essay hacks)

Writing essays for scholarships can be a pain, but if you do it this way, you'll exponentially increase your chances of winning. It's simpler than you think

Ramit Sethi

Do you know the number one reason students don’t win college scholarships? (Other than not applying. Ugh.)

Answer: They see the application process as a “numbers game.” They think if they apply to every scholarship, then they’ll have to win something…right?



If you don’t understand the psychology of college scholarships, each one you apply for is just another rejection waiting to happen.

I learned this the hard way. Coming from a middle-class family, my parents made it clear that if I wanted to go to college, I NEEDED to win scholarships.

In the beginning, I made every mistake (like not smiling in my interviews.) Then I built a system to win $100,000+ in scholarships and pay for 100% of my tuition at Stanford.

Today, I’m going to show you the proven two-step process you can use to write an amazing application.

I’ll also show you specific examples of the kinds of essay answers that win college scholarships.

Step 1: Figure out what MOST students will write about the topic

You’re sitting down at your laptop. You have the scholarship essay prompt in front of you. And you’re ready to dive in. Before you write anything…STOP!

Instead of thinking about yourself, take a second to think about the person reading these essays.

Fact: Most scholarship essays bore the judges. The same essays with the same answers, again and again. 99% of students never realize this, which is why it’s your biggest advantage in beating them out.

As I wrote in my post about the biggest scholarship I ever won:

I looked at the essay prompt. “If you could have dinner with anyone, living or dead, who would it be and why?”

Classic prompt. So I started thinking.

Nelson Mandela? Eh…it would be the “logical” choice, but honestly, dinner with Mandela wouldn’t be that exciting for a 17-year-old kid.

President Clinton? Would be cool to brag about…but what would we really talk about?

At this point, it’s about 3 minutes into my writing time. I knew I could write some BS about Mandela or the President, but I would sound like every other candidate. Plus, I really didn’t want to meet them.

It’s almost like students forget that it’s a competition. Would a coach say to his players, “Okay guys, we’re playing a really good team next week, so we’re just going to practice the same stuff?”

Of course not.

That’s why Step 1 is to actively think about what most students are writing about the scholarship topic — so you can NOT do that.

Step 2: Write something irresistibly unique instead

Once you figure out which cookie-cutter angles the other students are taking, ask yourself: “What can I write instead that would be impossible to stop reading?”

In my case, while other students wrote about historical figures, I chose Chris Rock, the famous comedian:

I wrote about how he is perceived as simply a comedian, but he is actually a highly astute social commentator. How his jokes reveal the things we want to say, but we can’t articulate — or we’re afraid to.

I described one of his jokes — a story about a black woman’s hands shaking as she buys groceries, hoping there’s enough money in the account — which sounds aggressive (and is) but is actually a deep, subtle commentary. In the essay, I deconstructed the joke.

What could be offensive was actually examining racial attitudes that our society holds. And since we can’t discuss these attitudes intellectually, his comedy distils, simplifies, and reflects our attitudes, allowing us to have a shared experience around the elephants in the room.

Notice how the approach is offbeat, but professional. You don’t have to be offensive, bizarre or inappropriate to stand out. “Different” can mean deeper, more personal, or even counterintuitive.

This isn’t just for students who go to Stanford. The lesson here applies to any application where you need to stand out from a large crowd.

3 essay questions and how to write standout answers

Now that you understand how to write unique scholarship essays, let me show you the process in action.

ramitcollegeMe in 2004: Scholarship Winner & Fashion Icon

Here are three typical essay questions, the typical boring responses most people will write and how you could take your answers in a different direction.

“Is it fair that professional athletes earn millions of dollars?”

Typical boring response: “No way! We should be paying that money to teachers and firefighters. Athletes are just playing a game.”

What’s wrong with it? You could find this opinion in the “Letters to the Editor” section of any local newspaper. True or false, it’s just not an arresting point of view.

Here’s a DEEPER response you could give: “Salaries aren’t decided by fairness. They are decided by supply and demand. LeBron James is a millionaire because millions of fans pay to see him perform. Besides, if the athletes weren’t getting the money, the owners would. Those are the only two options.”


“Which major world problem would you solve if you could only pick one?”

Typical boring response: “I would end world hunger. Every man, woman and child deserves this basic requirement of human life.”

What’s wrong with it? The reader makes no human connection to you. Literally anyone could write this. Who wants to read more?

Here’s a PERSONAL response you could give: “My life changed forever when I spoke at my best friend’s funeral. Standing there under the storm clouds, I felt a personal duty to make sure no one sees suicide as their only way out.”



“React to the statement: America’s middle class is in trouble.”

Typical boring response: “The middle class is America’s heartbeat. We need to put big corporations in their place to make room at the table for everyone.”

What’s wrong with it? You’re not “wrong” (these are all opinion-based questions) but it’s such a cliché answer that the interviewer mentally checks out.

Here’s a COUNTERINTUITIVE response you could give: “Classes aren’t fixed groups of people. Most of us move in and out of different classes throughout our lives. In fact, many people who were in the middle class twenty years ago are in the upper class today.”


Answers like these COMMAND attention. They stand out like a lighthouse in the ocean.

This is the difference between following the crowd and hoping for the best versus thinking strategically and winning the game.

Nervous about taking a different angle in your scholarship essays? Here’s how to overcome that.

It’s easy to scoff at other people for taking the “safe” route. It’s much tougher to build your own confidence and do things differently.

No one teaches us how to systematically increase our confidence! This is challenging, introspective work. It’s not about trying a new tactic, but adopting a totally new mental frame.

Sign up below and I’ll share with you a free video on how to build unshakable confidence in yourself. This video is from my premium course, Success Triggers, but today, it’s yours.

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