Pity scholarships in 1000 words or less

Kaye Herranen

This spring, I’ve found myself once more looking for scholarships to which I can apply. I am continually trying to convince strangers to give me money — it’s a strange skill I’ve acquired. One of the scholarships I’m currently applying for has an essay question that I’ve probably answered five times by now. It seems this question never goes away.

The scholarship committee asks, “What was the most difficult time in your life, and why? How did your perspective on life change as a result of this difficulty?”

I am a bit troubled by questions like these. Yes, please let me detail the worst parts of my life to you, strangers on a scholarship committee. I know all scholarships make you jump through certain hoops — but this hoop in particular seems a bit sick.

Scholarships with essays like these exploit personal sorrow. Every time I write an essay for a scholarship about “the most difficult time” of my life, I feel like I’m selling my story, cheapening its value. I’ve sold my story for as little as 500 dollars.

I realize that all scholarship committees have good intentions; they want to support a student’s education. Scholarships are wonderful things, no doubt about it.

I am a poor college student, and I will gladly accept any money that is thrown my way. If a group of strangers wishes to give me a small sum of money, I will not ask questions. But is it ok to win scholarship money based in part on personal sorrows?

In a strange way, I depend on these types of scholarships. They seem like easy money to me. Life has given me some major trump cards when it comes to pity scholarships. I’ve got a stacked deck of cards. Cancer, unemployment, addiction, family tragedy — you name it, I’ve got it.

I am not above exploiting my personal history for scholarship money — but perhaps I should be. Am I willingly selling my story to strangers? What do organizations with scholarship essays like this expect?

It’s almost like some sick form of entertainment parading as philanthropy. Rags to riches, personal empowerment, overcoming tragedy — these are all common themes in movies, books and popular music. American culture genuinely enjoys these types of stories — that’s why everyone who’s ever had a bad day has written a memoir.

By writing scholarship essays about “the most difficult time” in my life, am I partaking in and implicitly endorsing this tragedy-as-feel-good-entertainment phenomenon? Am I merely giving wealthy people the opportunity to feel bad for me, and then erase that guilt by giving me a small sum of money?

I feel that these sorts of scholarship essays also encourage a problematic sense of entitlement. Just because my life has not been perfect, that my family has known tragedy, does that mean the world owes me something?

Personally, I find that line of thinking troubling. Just because bad things have happened to me, I do not expect people to give me money, and I especially do not want the pity of strangers.

I’m not saying that all forms of philanthropy are pointless — I believe it is extremely important to help others. But bad things happen to everyone, everyone experiences sadness. Does that mean that everyone deserves a scholarship?

These scholarship essays make light of personal tragedy, asking a student to explain their darkest time in 500 to 1,000 words, placing the student in a bizarre “who has the worst life” competition.

This form of scholarship isn’t healthy, or even at all considerate of the student’s privacy. People don’t like to think about or write about their worst times. It’s only insensitive to ask students to write about the most difficult time of their life and analyze that difficulty. Some things are best left in the past.

Some stories cannot be told in 500 to 1,000 words, and some stories cannot be told at all.

These scholarship essays favor students like me, who have a laundry list of things to write about. But what of others’ maybe smaller scale tragedies? Are these somehow unworthy?

Do you only deserve help in funding your education if you’ve had a tragic life? What about all those hard-working, “normal” students who have known sadness, although maybe in a less intense way?

I’m not sure what to make of these scholarships. While I find much of their intent problematic, I also know that I need the money. I will happily and graciously receive scholarship money earned with my sad stories. But I’m still a little uneasy. I’m just not sure it’s okay to benefit from tragedy, even if the tragedy is my own.

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