Paying for College
Last updated: August 31st, 2023

Admissions Essays and Financial Aid

Highlight why colleges should invest in you

Admissions essays are a key part of your college application. Essays can be challenging to write so here are some tips to help you. 

Generally, admissions essays will need to be 650 words or less, depending on the school requirement. Remember to include: why the particular college you’re applying to is a good fit for you, the value you bring to a school, and why this particular college should invest in your education. 

Admissions essays can go by different names. Here are some examples of other names: 

Colleges can require an admissions essay. These essays can also influence your financial aid package. Many colleges are generous with merit scholarships. A strong essay can boost your application so you secure a spot at a school and get financial aid.

In this guide, you will:

  1. Learn the types of financial aid that colleges offer
  2. Learn how the admissions  essay impacts merit scholarships
  3. Start writing your essay

Tip:  Your admissions essays do not impact your need-based financial aid. 

Types of financial aid

Before we discuss how admissions essays affect financial aid, let’s review the types of financial aid. Your financial aid package may include two award sources: need-based assistance and merit scholarships

  • Need-based assistance consists of government grants, institutional grants, work-study, and subsidized student loans.
    • You will complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to qualify for need-based aid. After your FAFSA form is processed, you will receive a Student Aid Report (SAR) that shows your Student Aid Index (SAI), formerly known as your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) number. Colleges use the SAI to determine the need-based aid that you qualify for.
    • Check out DecidED’s FAFSA prep guide for more information on how to apply.
  • Merit scholarship awards are institutional aid with academic or scholastic requirements.
    • Not all colleges award merit scholarships. If they do, they may consider your GPA and test scores (if required or reported) when awarding merit scholarships. Many colleges also award merit scholarships for criteria such as high school activities, volunteer service, and demonstrated leadership. Colleges look for you to describe these qualities in your admissions essay. 

Who decides financial aid? 

On a typical college campus:

  • The Office of Financial Aid awards need-based aid using FAFSA and the CSS/Profile, a form used by 400 private colleges.
  • Merit scholarship awards mostly come from the Admissions Office after admissions counselors read and debrief your application. Admissions counselors decide on your candidacy and offer any merit scholarships you qualify for based on available dollars and how you compare to other students for the pool of funds.

When you understand the financial aid process from this perspective, you can see why the admissions essay has a lot of impact. 

How to boost merit scholarships

A good college essay can also give you a boost if you apply to a college that is ACT/SAT test-optional. Many colleges rely on test scores. Without those scores, your essay is the factor colleges can use to bet on your promise to succeed.

What makes a good essay? 

Successful essays read like a memoir or autobiographical sketch. You have had many lived experiences that you can write about. Choose one experience that is relevant to you and go deep. Here are some great admissions essays you can refer to for inspiration and some other good tips and examples

Tip: The best essays are those that zoom into one, two, or a mosaic of snapshots in time. Find your unique snapshot and write about it.

Express your experiences. Other parts of your college application contain information about your grades, test scores, activities, and coursework.  Your essay is the place to write about something personal. As you write, keep digging so positive emotions, such as happiness and hope, are palpable in your essay. 

Tip:  Before you begin writing about a particular experience, ask yourself:  “Why is this important to share?” Each time you answer, you move the reader from a  surface-level understanding of your experience to a deeper one. This helps make your essay stand out during admission and merit scholarship decisions.

Tell a clear story. Strong essays have a strong narrative and voice. 

  • Story-like descriptions make your essay come alive. Show rather than tell directly. Consider yourself the main character in this story. Set up your essay with an attention grabbing beginning, middle, and end. 
  • Strong essays are entertaining, both for you to write and for your audience to read. Don’t be afraid to explain your emotions, discoveries, and curiosities to show your complex layers and readiness for college-level learning.

Tip: Write a compelling story admissions counselors will want to read from start to finish. A memorable essay can help you win merit scholarship awards.

Show colleges why you’re a great fit. Your essay answers two important questions about you: who you are and why you’re a great fit for a school. Be yourself and focus on telling your story so colleges understand why you’re an ideal candidate for their program.  Unlike a Hollywood film, your story doesn’t have an end. Your script is still evolving, and where you spend the next four years will shape your story even more.