When you were in high school, did you ever write an essay with the hopes of securing a college scholarship? If you did, you probably felt an ambivalent mix of emotions. On one hand, you felt a kind of frightening hope that your words could have the power to determine your future. On the other hand you were thinking, “Two thousand words? Surely I don’t need to go to college that badly…” In the end, whether you were awarded your scholarship or not, you benefited (even if it didn’t feel that way at the time) from sharpening your writing skills and learning how to distill your thoughts into something that translated to paper — something that could make others want to invest in you. Would your experience have been the same if instead of writing two pages, you only needed to write a sentence? What’s more — do the sponsors of these scholarships really care?
On December 1st, KFC announced that they’ll be awarding a scholarship based on a Tweet (a Twitter post of under 140 characters) for the second year in a row. The title of their scholarship’s contest page says it all: “Forget 1,000 Words: a Photo Could Now Be Worth a $20,000 Scholarship from KFC.” Last year, the company awarded a similar scholarship for a sentence. The winning tweet from high school senior Amanda Russell read, “#KFCScholar Hey Colonel! Your scholarship’s the secret ingredient missing from my recipe for success! Got the grades, drive, just need cash!”
This year’s contest asks students to tweet a photo. No words necessary. KFC explains the aim and award of the contest in a manner almost as concise as their requested entries:
“KFC is asking college hopefuls to tweet a photo that illustrates why they exemplify Colonel Sanders’ commitment to education and enriching their communities, and why they are deserving of a college scholarship. The scholarship winner, announced on December 15, will receive up to $5,000 per year for the next four years to pursue a bachelor’s degree at an accredited public university within his or her home state.”
Since KFC introduced the concept last year, companies and universities alike have jumped on board with scholarship contests of their own. The University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business ran a contest that rewarded the winning tweet’s author with a $37,000 scholarship to its MBA program. Jodi Schafer, the University of Iowa’s director of MBA admissions and financial aid, told USA TODAY that the impetus behind judging tweets instead of essays was to do away with the repetitive, unoriginal content of the average entry. Judges are charged with reading hundreds, even thousands of essays for scholarship contests and by the time essays make it into a judge’s hands, they’ve been so edited that all traces of the student’s creativity and personality are obscured. In Jodi’s words: “We’re hoping that incorporating social media in the process will help bring back some of that creativity.”
It’s questionable whether the tweeting trend is more beneficial to students or companies. The advantages to a company or institution are obvious — swapping essays only judges see for thousands of tweets with that companies name? It’s basically free marketing and branding. Not only does the sponsor get free advertising from every entry but with each tweet, that sponsor brands itself as a business that cares about bettering the education of students.
Is the switch as beneficial to students? It’s hard to say. Although the social media platform may allow for a wider breadth of engagement and the concise entries may call for a deeper level of innovation, the skill set needed is inherently different. In the real word, students will need to write cover letters, letters of intent, grant proposals, and other documents that are much more similar to a scholarship essay than a 140 character tweet. It’s great to see sponsors using social media technology to make students’ higher education dreams a reality, but wouldn’t it be ever better if they could find a way to provide those students with life-long skills in the process? The concept is still new. Hopefully as the years progress, sponsors will find a way to meld the old with the new and to sharpen real world skill sets in a digital setting.