Style Tips for Scholarship Essays

This page offers some basic ideas regarding how to polish your personal essay. Top swimmers and runners often win by a narrow margin; perhaps one tenth of one second. Execution of detail can also make or break your personal statement when the field is very competitive.


The goal of formatting is to make the format disappear.

  • Follow the instructions. Format as directed.
  • No instructions provided? Then ease of reading should instruct your choices.
  • No larger than 12 point type if no parameters are given. No smaller than 10 point type.
  • One inch margins or slightly less if necessary.
  • Paginate. And get your name on every page.
  • Do not justify your text. Align Left is the right setting.
  • Your font should have serifs. Times New Roman is a safe choice. No funky fonts.
  • Always type it (or word process it) even if they say Type or Print Neatly.
  • Just use ordinary white paper. Seriously.

Punctuation and Grammar

Good punctuation tells the reader how words and phrases relate to each other. Good grammar tells the reader that you are careful and precise when you communicate.

  • Two spaces at the end of a sentence. One space after a comma, colon or semicolon.
  • Use complete sentences. Even though there are several fragments on this page.
  • Learn how to use commas, semicolons and colons effectively and correctly.
  • Exclamation marks are usually not very effective. "They really only work in dialogue!" he shouted.
  • It is the passive voice that should be revised. Revise the passive voice.
  • Subject-verb disagreement ruin ruins a sentence.
  • Use contractions with care. They can "sound" too informal in some passages.
  • To/too/two. Led/lead. Their/they're/there. Its It’s like confusing O2 and O3 in the lab.
  • Rewrite the sentence (or split it) if the grammar looks/sounds wrong but the remedy eludes you.
  • And stay away from starting sentences with conjunctions.


Even after you learn the grip and the stance, you can still work on your swing.

  • Say things only once. Avoid writing one idea five different ways. Don't repeat yourself. Et cetera.
  • Seek to eliminate, so to speak, empty and meaningless phrases.
  • On the other hand, transitional words and phrases are priceless. They show the reader how sentences and paragraphs relate to one another. They hold the outline together.
  • Use the first personal singular. That teacher who told you never to use “I” was overstating the case.
  • Variety is good though. Try using your experiences or your actions as the subject when you feel that you have used “I” once too often.
  • Elaborate similes -- I am like a submarine sandwich with many layers -- and other forms of narrative artifice generally fail. Just tell your story.
  • Including quotes from others is typically cliché.
  • Avoid repetitive sentence structure and vary your sentence length. It makes the prose sing.
  • Use the right/customary preposition. We say “cause of death” not “cause for death.” We just do.
  • Read your essay aloud to catch clunky phrases or odd preposition use.