How to ace the Flinn Scholarship essays

October 3, 2013

By hammersmith

By Matt Ellsworth [director of the Flinn Scholars Program 2012-2015]

A few weeks ago, one of the applicants for the 2014 Flinn Scholarship wrote me and asked a simple question: “Is it okay to be creative when I answer the essay prompts?”

Below is my response. There’s no reason it shouldn’t be available to anyone who’s working on the 2014 Flinn Scholarship application. (And while essay questions change each year, the principles behind what I’m saying should hold true.)

You’re absolutely on the right track with the essays, in this sense: There are straightforward, fairly easy ways to answer any of the three questions, and sometimes we’ve been rather prescriptive in terms of what we’re expecting an essay to address.

We will probably receive 400 sets of essays that take those straightforward approaches, even with this year’s prompt asking for a portion of a “commencement address.” The better among these essays will demonstrate that the writer has thought about the prompts and answered the questions they explicitly contain; these will be unremarkable essays that don’t hurt the rest of the writer’s application. The less-distinguished among these essays will be confusing, rushed, ungrammatical, and/or inauthentic. These essays will make it almost impossible to advance the writer’s application into the second round of our review process.

So, you should most definitely find *some* way to make your essays creatively distinctive. Certainly, there is opportunity to do that with the “commencement address” prompt; much will change in the world in 40 years; you will change, too. We will get *lots* of essays written from the perspectives of politicians and doctors and entrepreneurs. Probably quite a bit fewer written from the perspectives of parents, community activists, classroom teachers, artists, ex-cons, professional magicians, or victims of terrorism, shark attacks, or Martian abductions. There’s so much you can do.

There is room for the other two prompts to yield creative responses as well. For the “compromise” prompt, I hope that we’ll receive essays that talk about group dynamics in school settings, in extracurricular activities like marching band and athletics, in religious organizations, in local politics, in junior-high student council, and on and on. I hope that some of the essays will reveal the writers’ senses of humor, or emotional depth, or courage, or sense of personal moral strength. I hope some will be written in the third person. I hope they’ll all take the question seriously.

For the challenge question, I know we’ll get lots of responses about education, immigration, divisiveness in politics, health care, and economic development–as we should. Those are essential issues confronting our state. I really hope we’ll also get responses about less well-known issues about which the writer really knows something important, issues in which the writer has a meaningful stake but about which the writer can still think and argue dispassionately.

Hope that helps.