Forget an essay — earn a scholarship with a tweet

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(CNN) — Not too long ago, students had to craft an essay if they wanted to win a scholarship. Now, they just can craft a tweet.

The Kentucky Fried Chicken Foundation is asking eligible high school seniors to tweet a photo that illustrates their commitment to education and enriching their communities. The KFC Colonel’s Scholars winner, announced December 15, will receive up to $5,000 per year to pursue a bachelor’s degree at a public university in his or her home state.

KFC started the Twitter contest last year as a way of reinvigorating its scholarship program for the social media age. The competition saw over 2,800 applicants, with the winning tweet coming from California high school senior Amanda Russell: “#KFCScholar Hey Colonel! Your scholarship’s the secret ingredient missing from my recipe for success! Got the grades, drive, just need cash!”

Other organizations, perhaps weary of wading through applicants’ lengthy essays, also are offering eager students ways to turn a 140-character message into money for college. Last summer awarded a “Short and Tweet” $1,000 cash prize and Amazon Kindle e-readers to three students who tweeted winning answers to questions like, “What would an extra $1,000 for college mean to you?”

“No lengthy essay, no pile of paperwork — just your thoughts, in real time,” promised the contest’s website. “To enter, simply log on to Twitter …”

In place of an essay, the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business offered a full $38,000 scholarship to its MBA program for the best tweet from a prospective student. “That’s right, it’s a 140-character application that pays $271 per letter,” said the school’s website.

Why a tweet? Jodi Schafer, the University of Iowa’s director of MBA admissions and financial aid, told USA Today that application essays were “becoming unoriginal.” She said “we’re hoping that incorporating social media in the process will help bring back some of that creativity.” Applicants were encouraged to include in their tweet links to blogs, videos or Facebook accounts.

The college plans to bring back the tweeting scholarship next year to international applicants.

Competitions like these are done more for marketing purposes than finding qualified candidates, said Sree Sreenivasan, a digital-media professor who teaches classes on Twitter at Columbia Journalism School. He cited a scholarship sponsored by Dr. Pepper that was awarded to a girl who threw the most football passes into a giant Dr. Pepper can at the SEC Championship game.

“How is that better or worse than Twitter?” he asked. Sreenivasan believes these scholarships get buzz because they are “marketing to the extreme.” He said he would not be surprised to see more competitions like this in the future, because marketers are very imitative.

This year’s KFC scholarship competition explores students’ creativity in a different way by asking them to tweet a picture instead of just a snippet of text. The ideal image should capture their high school experiences and collegiate dreams. KFC Public Relations Manager Rick Maynard says snapping pictures and sharing them online comes naturally to this generation of students, and the scholarship is a new way to connect with social-networking teens.

“The Colonel was a lifelong learner, reinventing himself at the age of 65 when he turned a $105 Social Security check into what would become a global chicken chain. He would have been thrilled to see how KFC continues to adapt to fit the changing consumer landscape,” Maynard said.

Maynard said KFC is watching for new technological trends to help the company decide what to do for next year’s competition. In the meantime, students may submit photos until December 13, and the winner will be named around December 15.

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