When you’re applying for scholarships, it’s tempting to try and present yourself as perfect. After all, won’t other students have flawless applications? The truth is: there are strong applicants, but never perfect ones. 

Strong and successful scholarship candidates can have areas in need of improvement. For this reason, you should always take a moment to think about potential drawbacks in your scholarship application and assess whether you need to address them.

Let’s consider why you may want to directly acknowledge and address a perceived weakness when applying for scholarships (we use perceived weakness because sometimes what you think is a shortcoming is not seen that way by others, especially scholarship committees). First, it’s important to remember that scholarship committees are made up of real people who want to give money away. They aren’t looking at a bunch of numbers and statistics; they’re trying to get a sense of who YOU are as a person—what you’re passionate about and what your goals are.

Second, many scholarship applications ask you to submit a transcript and résumé. With your grades and test scores out in the open like this, it’s hard to hide a bad grade or a significant period of time with no extracurricular involvement.

This is particularly relevant when one of your application’s shortcomings is related to a scholarship’s eligibility requirements (e.g., SAT score, temporary drop in GPA). If this is the case, it’s probably wise to address the issue carefully in your application – this may elevate your chance to win the award.

Below, we’ll cover how to address potential profile weaknesses in a college scholarship application and show you how to turn them from a liability into an asset.

First, Let’s Define “Weakness” on Scholarship Applications

In the context of this piece, a weakness is a perception that a scholarship judge may have of your application in relation to the stated goal, mission, or eligibility requirements of a particular scholarship. It does not mean a character weakness – e.g., lazy, not dedicated, unmotivated, etc.

Does Talking About Your Weaknesses Make Sense?

As a general rule, it’s best to focus scholarship answers on strengths, accomplishments, work ethic, and overall themes of achievement.

One of the most common mistakes students make when writing scholarship essays is trying to address weaknesses that aren’t relevant to the committee.

For example, imagine you’re applying for a scholarship that requires you to write about your leadership skills. When writing your application, you feel compelled to write about a C+ that you got in your first college math class because it’s your only grade that’s not an A. It’s understandable that you want to show that this grade is unrepresentative of you as a student, but it’s likely not going to matter for this scholarship opportunity. Ask yourself, is it worth using any part of your scholarship essay’s word count for this issue? Does this anecdote increase the quality of your response and your chance of winning? In this case, probably not.

Ultimately, when assessing whether to address a potential weakness in your scholarship application, carefully consider if it is relevant to the scholarship committee. If it is, you should develop a plan of action to address it in your scholarship essay. If it isn’t really relevant to the scholarship’s mission and eligibility criteria, it’s probably not worth drawing attention to and addressing it.

Don’t Let Others Make Assumptions About Potential Weaknesses

If you have a shortcoming when applying for a college scholarship, it’s best to address it in your personal essay and not let others guess about what went wrong.

For example, if you got a bad grade in high school because of a family emergency or illness, you can explain what happened and how you worked to overcome the matter. You might also want to include evidence of how well you did in other classes.

If you address the shortcoming, you can better control how it’s perceived. In other words, rather than having someone guess about why your GPA dropped last term, you can state the reason and not allow the assumptions of others to work against you. Without addressing relevant shortcomings, scholarship committees may mistakenly assume you’re inconsistent, poorly prepared, or not as dedicated as other students when in reality, your GPA dropped because of a legitimate reason like a family emergency.

Be Honest in Your Essay

When addressing weaknesses in a scholarship application, be honest about why it happened and never make things up.

It’s important to be truthful when you address weaknesses in your application because you’ll earn trust from your reader and prove that you’re a responsible person who takes ownership of their mistakes. Honesty is also important because it shows that you’re willing to learn from your mistakes instead of making excuses for them (if the scholarship includes an interview, follow the same principle, which is also true for video submissions).

It’s okay to discuss how a weakness affected your life or interests, but don’t exaggerate the negative impact it’s had on you. For example, if you are having trouble with English composition classes because English isn’t your first language and you have little experience writing in English, don’t say that “English composition classes are not my strong suit.” Instead say something like “I am having trouble with English composition classes because English isn’t my first language and I have little experience writing in English.” This will help your reader understand what is going on in a clear and relatable way.

Show What You Learned: Turn Any Potential Weakness into an Asset

Once you have identified areas where improvement is needed, it’s time to think about how those weaknesses can be turned into strengths by demonstrating what you’ve learned and how you’ve grown.

If you do have an area in need of improvement, ask yourself whether you learned anything beneficial from that circumstance and/or what active steps you took to grow as an individual. For example, suppose your parent has a small business, fell ill, and all of the responsibility to keep it afloat fell on you during the first year of your undergraduate studies. As a consequence of needing to manage your parent’s business while doing full-time studies, your GPA dropped quite a bit by the end of the academic year. In this circumstance, although your GPA dropped, you may want to tell the scholarship committee that you juggled way more than the average student during this time and dramatically improved your productivity and time management skills. How many students can qualify their skillset with such a powerful personal experience?

To help you get a clear sense of how you can turn a negative into a positive, here are a couple of examples. Remember, it’s good to have others review your work and give you specific feedback on how your narrative comes across.

Example of How to Address Scholarship Application Weaknesses

I know that my grades were quite low in the first year of my undergraduate program, but the effort I invested to raise my grades taught me so much. I met regularly with an academic advisor, improved my critical thinking skills, and focused on finishing assignments early. Ultimately, I responded to a setback by finding solutions. When I graduate college, I want to be an entrepreneur, and I know that figuring out hard problems is a hallmark of entrepreneurialism. Rather than seeing my low grades as a negative in my profile, I believe my response is what should be noted. I know I have the capacity to overcome any obstacle that comes my way.

Final Word: Weaknesses into Strengths in Your Scholarship Applications

There are things from the past that you can no longer change, like your GPA, SAT score, or volunteer experience, but you can improve aspects of your scholarship applications with careful planning, attention to messaging, and a focus on what you are doing moving forward.

If you think that a scholarship committee will have a negative impression of something in your profile, address the issue head-on. Detail any past mistakes that you’ve learned from and show how you’ve grown as a person. Your essay should contain actionable language (like working with a mentor). This will show that you learned from your past experiences and have grown as a consequence.