By Susan Lowman-Thomas
Full-time Instructor in English, American Public University
Writing an essay as part of the process for applying for a scholarship can be daunting. It may be even more intimidating than writing an essay for a grade. The stakes may be quite high. It is, therefore, essential that such an essay is written with great care, attention to detail, passion, and confidence.
Something that can help you write such an essay is a tool that establishes rhetorical stance, the position or posture taken to ensure the writing is effective and appropriate. The elements of rhetorical stance are simple:
- Who am I as a writer?
- Who is my audience?
- What is my topic?
- What is my purpose?
The first element (Who am I as a writer?) involves taking the time to clarify the kind of persona, the identity you select for this essay. Maybe you don’t think you put on different masks when you write, but you actually do. Think about the difference between the persona you express in a Facebook posting from that you express in a cover letter going with your resume in application for a job. The Facebook persona may be fun-loving, opinionated, and passionate. The cover letter person, on the other hand, may be professional, genuine, and serious.
When you are writing an essay for a scholarship application, you want to select a persona that is consistent with the values of the entity granting the scholarship. Traits of professionalism, dedication, perseverance, and integrity may be valued by that entity. In some instances, very specific traits might be ranked high. For example, if the scholarship grantor is one related to military service, the values might include commitment to service and honor.
You should take the time to think about and maybe even write down the traits you want readers to see when they read your essay. When you write your essay, try to demonstrate those traits in either the content or the presentation of your thoughts. Have someone else read your essay and answer the question “What do you think the writer of this essay is like?”
The second element (Who is my audience?) is very closely related to the first one. In order to construct an appropriate persona for writing the essay, you need to know who you are writing for. You need to know what the scholarship grantor is like. What are its values? What is its mission? What kind of people are staff members? Are they military? Are they academic? Are they professionals in a specific field? What do they know about your topic? What are their probably attitudes toward your topic?
Taking the time to review a scholarship grantor’s website, publications, media releases, board members and personnel, and, of course, scholarship application will pay off. The more you know about the grantor (your audience), the greater your chance of writing an effective essay.
The third element (What is my topic?) involves looking at your topic through the eyes of your audience. Having studied the scholarship grantor, you should have a solid idea of the expectations of your audience. Now apply those expectations to your topic. To begin with, make sure that your topic is in line with any topic guidance offered by the grantor. Look specifically for topics that the grantor does not want to see. Next think about the level of understanding that your audience might have for the topic. How much explanation will you need to provide? Will you need to define terms? Be sure that you don’t alienate your audience by using jargon and acronyms (abbreviations) that they may not be familiar with. A good way to check this element is to have someone who does not know a lot about your topic read your essay. Ask that reader to tell you if there were spots that were confusing.
Next think about the attitudes your audience might have toward the topic. Maybe you want to write about an issue that is very important to you, but you realize that it is a contentious one, one that people typically take sides on. Reconsider that topic choice OR present the topic in a way that tries to reconcile opposing views. For example, if you are convinced that climate change deniers are misinformed and even dangerous folks, you may not want to share that in your essay. If you are writing about the topic of climate change, you may want to take a position that focuses on collaboration and shared goals, rather than one that is divisive and focuses on the errors of one side’s way of thinking.
The last element (What is my purpose?) provides a way for you to connect the first three. After reviewing again the instructions for the scholarship essay, think about what you are being asked to do in the essay. Is your primary purpose to inform, to provide new information about a topic? Or are you being asked to persuade the audience? Is your purpose a combination of the two? Make sure that your essay follows the guidelines for a good expository or argument essay.
Ultimately, the purpose of the scholarship essay is to provide evidence that convinces the grantor that you are a superior candidate for the scholarship. Keeping this purpose in mind, you will want to make sure that your essay is presented in such a way that it does not mar the image of you as the ideal scholarship candidate.
That means that your essay needs to have a clear, specific, and focused thesis statement. The thesis should be a single, complete sentence (not a question, but rather the answer to a question). The thesis statement should be supported by solid, plentiful, and appropriate evidence in the body paragraphs. The evidence should not include logical fallacies like oversimplification and sweeping generalizations. If the evidence comes from the writings of others, it needs to be cited. The citation needs to be appropriate for the topic; the APUS Library has a great resource showing citation styles for the university’s programs. Movement from one body paragraph to another should be smooth. The introduction to the essay should be engaging and should contain the thesis statement. The conclusion should be definitive, providing satisfying closure to your piece.
Your essay may be finely crafted, imaginative, and appropriate. But, if it has errors in it, all your good work may be for naught. Proofread over and over. Do not rely on automatic spell checking systems. Take steps to make sure that this essay is a flawless representation of your fine thoughts.
Following the steps in the rhetorical stance tool will increase your chances of submitting an effective and successful scholarship essay.
About the Author
Susan Lowman-Thomas is a full-time university instructor, having taught writing, literature and research at APUS since 2010 and at a state university since graduate school. She has served as a human resource director for a small business and a state agency serving veterans. A ravenous reader, Susan is committed to lifelong learning.â€‹