Expert shares how to increase the chances of earning a scholarship by writing a good essay

Eagle Scout Spencer Long speaks at a recent event. Photo courtesy of Mark Campbell Photography

When reviewing applications for the more than 60 college scholarships offered by the National Eagle Scout Association, a clear trend emerged: What consistently tripped up otherwise excellent applications more than anything else was the essay.

“There were grammatical errors and incomplete thoughts,” says Spencer Long, Eagle Scout and founder of the BSA Alumni Educators Affinity Group, “or the applicant just didn’t answer the essay prompt that was asked.”

Who knows how many thousands of dollars these otherwise qualified Eagle Scouts were missing out on because of a series of simple mistakes?

Well, not anymore, if Long has anything to do with it.

Starting with a class he taught at the recent 2022 National Order of the Arrow Conference called “Free Money,” Long is on a mission to educate Scouts and their families on what they can do to increase their chances of earning one of those precious few available scholarships, not just for those applying to NESA, but for those applying anywhere.

“We have Scouts with great things to share, but they don’t always know how to do it in a way that resonates with reviewers,” he says. “How can we help them make these essays better going forward? Not just for Scouting, but as a life skill.”

The application process

Long, the chief operating officer at Sigma Alpha Epsilon National Fraternity in Evanston, Illinois, encourages applicants to break the process down into four steps:

  1. Follow directions. “Read over the entire application,” he says. “Have a complete understanding of what all is required and what is to be submitted.” This might include submitting required supporting materials such as transcripts and letters of recommendation.
  2. Don’t procrastinate. “Give yourself plenty of time,” he says. Many applications will require the applicant to obtain items from third parties with a timeline that is outside of their control. “Get those items well in advance to meet the application deadline,” he says. “Essentially, Be Prepared.”
  3. Write a great essay and proofread it. (More on this below.) “This is your time to share things about yourself with the selection committee that they might not have gotten from other parts of the application,” says Long. It’s important that the essay is edited for grammar and spelling, and that it addresses the essay prompt they’ve provided. Don’t recycle an essay that you used in another application, because the prompts in different applications almost always vary, even if it’s subtle.
  4. Make sure your essay meets the guidelines. There is likely a minimum and maximum required word count. To make sure the essay reads well, read it out loud. Again, make sure it addresses the prompt from the application.

    Long has served Scouting in a variety of roles. He is currently the vice president of alumni relations for the Pathway to Adventure Council and serves on the BSA Alumni Association National Committee. He has earned a Silver Beaver award for his service. Photo courtesy of Spencer Long


When it comes to writing the essay itself, Long encourages applicants to use the STAR method

  • S = situation. “Many times, these essays are behavior-based, and the prompt is asking the applicant to tell about a time or a situation in which they applied a specific skill or addressed a specific problem,” says Long. “So think about a similar situation in which you have found yourself.”
  • T= tasks. Next, write about the tasks that you were required to achieve to address these situations.
  • A = actions. After that, address the actions that were involved. Basically, “After you have outlined the tasks that you knew you needed to do, share the actions that you took,” says Long.
  • R = results. And, finally, share the results that were achieved. “Share what you learned,” he says. “And share anything you’ve learned since then that might shape what you’d do if a similar situation was presented again.”

Other writing tips

When applying for a scholarship from NESA or any other organization, chances are the competition is going to be stiff. That’s why it’s important that the applicant go above and beyond to stand out from the crowd.

One easy way to do that is to do some research on the organization that will award the scholarship.

“It’s important to understand the purpose of the organization and what it values,” Long says. “As you write the essay, anytime you can align your response with the values of that organization, the more favorable they will likely view your application.”

Ultimately, Long says, it’s important that you appropriately address the prompt given in the application, which is why consideration of the prompt comes up several times in his suggested process.

“Take time to reflect on the prompt,” he says. “Then reflect on your own experience and how it aligns with the prompt.”

It’s almost scholarship application season

Eagle Scouts may apply for NESA scholarships beginning in their senior year of high school through their junior year in an undergraduate program or by the halfway point of their associate degree program or skilled trade program. (Yes, a NESA scholarship can be applied to trade schools.) To apply for a NESA scholarship this year, your Eagle board of review date must be on or before Jan. 24, 2023.

The application portal opens Dec. 1, 2022, and closes Jan. 31, 2023. Bookmark this page and check back regularly for updates.

Other organizations, however, may start the process sooner. In addition to scholarship opportunities offered by the institutions themselves, Long encourages Scouts to look into opportunities through other community organizations like Kiwanis International, Lions Club International, Rotary International and the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks.

Long has one last bit of advice for those applying to NESA.

“It’s probably not the best idea to share about your Eagle Scout project, because everyone who’s applying for an Eagle Scout scholarship has done an Eagle Scout project,” he says. “You could, however, talk about how what you learned in doing your project might help you in another situation.”

Long, with his Cub Scout son. Photo courtesy of Spencer Long

About Aaron Derr 467 Articles
Aaron Derr is the senior editor of Scout Life and Scouting magazines, and also a former Cubmaster and Scouts BSA volunteer.