Fact: the average college tuition is about $34K per year. With this in mind, there’s little doubt — scholarships are in short supply and high demand. Providing a student with the financial resources he needs to pursue post-secondary education levels the playing field for those of us who weren’t born with a trust fund.
While Parentology can’t write your application essay for you, we can offer a curated list of ideas and resources to help you navigate the application process. Below are the top 10 things to keep top of mind when searching for precious scholarship dollars.
1. Don’t miss the deadline
It sounds obvious, yet, time and time again, scholarship hopefuls miss out on thousands of dollars, simply by not setting a reminder in their iPhone, or misreading the due date. “Start early and stay organized,” Julie Fulton, owner and head of counseling at Mosaic College Prep tells Parentology. “It doesn’t matter how great your application is if you miss the deadline.” Missing a deadline can automatically put you in the “no” pile – no matter how great your application is or how perfect you are for the award.
Half of all scholarships have deadlines in the fall and the other half have deadlines in the spring. Some even require you already be enrolled in a college. Fulton recommends starting your search for scholarships as soon as you can. Submitting early also means you’ll avoid last-minute technical issues, such as lost internet connection, or a crashed website.
Consider this process akin to job searching — use your planner, set email reminders or create a checklist to keep track of due dates and any supplemental materials.
2. Start Small
Searching for scholarship applications begins with a proverbial step. Start with one application, even just a small one. Some students create giant goals, only to find the process insurmountable and give up. Scholarships.com suggests finding five scholarships that have deadlines within the next six months and prioritize those applications. This approach is easier, better for self-confidence and gives insight into the application process.
3. Cast a wider net
A numbers game
Fulton suggests applying for as many scholarships as you feel you can comfortably accomplish, while also being smart about the time it takes. “It’s a numbers game,” she says, “so you want to go broad, but you should think of your strengths and individual characteristics and concentrate on those firsts. Are you an artist, a musician, a writer, a future scientist? Do you have a particular cultural background, identity, personal characteristic? Find the scholarships designed to award students with your specific strength.”
Seek out smaller scholarships
Smaller subject or interest-specific awards can add up to a lot of money. The big scholarships tend to be very competitive, Fulton advises. “Don’t just apply to free ride scholarships, apply to those that are $500 or $1000, as well. Smaller scholarships, especially obscure ones, have fewer students competing for them. Plus, little scholarships can add up.”
More work can yield greater rewards
Many students avoid applications requiring a lot of work, such as essays, videos or projects. As a result, the pool is much smaller, which means the odds are in your favor. Fulton says scholarships with essays over 1,000 words often have fewer than 500 applicants, compared to the 5,000 students who apply for the “easier” scholarships.
4. It takes a village
Sometimes it’s a great idea to get fresh eyes on your application and supporting documentation. Fulton suggests, “have someone you trust review your writing to make sure that you’re communicating what you think you are. And to double-check your spelling and grammar.”
The application process can be daunting and frustrating, so ask for help if you need it. This includes reaching out to parents, teachers, guidance counselors — anyone you know and trust to help you navigate the waters.
5. Check your brand
Your online presence
It’s important to look professional in all facets of your personal life as someone will be checking. “Be careful about what you post on social media, which is also a best practice for life,” says Fulton. Other suggestions include:
- Try Googling your name to ensure you have a solid online presence
- Remove any inappropriate material from your social media accounts
- Keep your email address basic and ‘boring’
If your application is essay-based, let your personal voice out. This can include details about you, identifying a problem you solved or describing a hurdle you had to overcome.
Create an “accomplishments resume”
List your awards, interests, activities and accomplishments in a worksheet or “accomplishments resume” to accompany your application. This can act as a guideline when you’re writing your application, or help a professor write you a more detailed letter of recommendation.
Getting involved in your community can have big benefits on paper. Many scholarship sponsors, themselves in the nonprofit world, are looking for a long-term commitment from their applicants.
6. Pay attention to details
Watch out for additional content
Most scholarship offers come directly from colleges, Fulton says. “If you have the right stats, it’s a good sign you’ll get offered some money to attend.” Just keep in mind colleges might have additional criteria to meet or work to submit. Fulton says these could include “a separate application, an additional essay or even a different deadline. Do your homework.”
Spelling and grammar mistakes can disqualify you. Proofread your work at least twice and ask someone to review it. The more eyes, the better (see #4).
Answer the optional questions
When providing your personal information and background information on scholarship search engines, answer the optional questions. You can generate more scholarship leads.
Take Your Time
Complete the applications and supplementary documentation to the best of your abilities. Don’t procrastinate — do your “homework” by researching the organization you’re applying through; consider its values and mandate, then tailor your application to reflect those values.
7. Think outside the box
To stand out from the crowd and really shine, Fulton recommends your writing “be compelling and specific — think about what’s unique about you and express it.”
She suggests not including everything about yourself right off the top. “Focus on one to three areas that stand out, rather than give all the details of your life.” Similarly, try telling an original story about yourself that challenged expectations or described a time when you overcame adversity.
Finally, tie your essay together by highlighting how your experience fits with the organization’s mission statement. Identify why you are the best applicant for their money.
8. Make sure you qualify
Fulton says it doesn’t matter how amazing you are. “Be smart about focusing on the (scholarships) that you are eligible for. If you don’t meet the scholarship criteria, don’t bother trying to ‘wow’ them and prove them wrong. Just move on to the next one.”
Finaid.com echoes this sentiment. “If the application requirements specify that you must have a 3.7 or higher GPA and you have a 3.6 GPA, don’t bother applying.”
9. Know your audience
There’s no need to fly blind; everything you need to know about the organization you’re applying to should be online. Fulton suggests that you “consider your audience; think about the organization or business that’s sponsoring the scholarship. What are their values? How do you identify or relate to these values? Think about this when you consider how to approach the writing. For example, a scholarship hosted by an animal rights group is probably going to be interested in how you support and/or relate to humane treatment of animals.”
Still stuck? If you can get your hands on them, check out essays from past years. These might provide some insight into what they’re looking for — just be careful not to mirror them too closely. After all, you want to be considered based on your merits, not someone else’s.
10. Don’t get discouraged
“Don’t get discouraged if you aren’t selected for a particular scholarship,” Fulton encourages. “Again, it’s a numbers game so expect to not win more often than win. Just keep going.”
Using a scholarship search engine will make your life a bit easier. Here’s a list of online resources that can help you find scholarships right for you:
- College Board
- Scholarship Match
- Scholarship Search tool (Found in the premium version of the MONEY College Planner)
Julie Fulton, owner and head of counseling at Mosaic College Prep
National Center for Education Statistics
College Data: What’s the Price Tag for a College Education?
Scholarships.com: Scholarships Trending Now
LiveCareer: Student Accomplishments Worksheet: Showcase Achievements
FinAid: How to Win a Merit Scholarship
CNN Money: Secrets of the Free Ride
College Board: Big Future/Scholarship Search
FinAid: How to Win a Merit Scholarship
College Board/Educational Professionals: Local Scholarships – When advising on scholarships, think, and act, locally
CBS News: 4 Ways to Win a Scholarship
CBS News: 10 Great Ways to Win a College Scholarship
Scholarships.com: How to Win a Scholarship – From a Girl Who’s Applied for 300 Awards
Money: Tips for Winning College Scholarships
Edvisors: How to Win Scholarships
Money: Best Colleges