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.
  • Minimum margins of one inch.
  • Paginate. And get your name on every page.
  • Do not justify your text. Align Left is the right setting.
  • Times New Roman is typical. Your font should have serifs. 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 & 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 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.
  • Many points of grammar are not mentioned here due to space. They still matter.
  • Rewrite the sentence (or split it) if the grammar looks/sounds wrong but the remedy eludes you.
  • Artfully break the rules no more than once or twice per essay.

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

  • Cut words that do not detract from the sentence if eliminated. Do the same for sentences within paragraphs.
  • 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 incorrect.
  • 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 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 the length of your sentences to make the prose sing.
  • Use the right 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.