Essays

Ultimate Guide to Scholarships

Introduction

The high cost of high education is one of the main deterrents keeping students from enrolling in college after high school. We’re currently in the midst of a tuition epidemic, so that cost is expected to only grow higher. As federal and state funds for education are being cut, tuition is increasing to make up the difference. This trend has led to the average undergraduate finishing school with over $35,000 in debt. Much of the debt comes in the form of student loans with high interest rates. In fact, 71% of students seeking a bachelor’s degree are reported to take out at least some amount of student loans. The result is the graduating class of 2015 being declared the “Most Indebted Ever,” with the class of 2016 already in position to claim that title.

But despite the prohibitive costs of college, the benefits of a degree are undeniable. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, those with a bachelor’s degree experience about half of the unemployment rate of those with only a high school diploma. They also earn nearly $25,000 more per year on average. College degrees bring more money and more job security. So the question becomes: How do you minimize the upfront costs to in order to maximize the long-term investment of a college degree? One answer is scholarships.

Scholarships can greatly reduce — or even eliminate — your out-of-pocket costs for tuition, room and board, textbooks, and supplies. Just last year, nearly $50 billion in scholarships were awarded to college students. So rather than focus on the doom-and-gloom of rising tuition costs and debt statistics, we’ve created this in-depth guide to help you find, apply for, and win some of that scholarship money so you can lower your cost of attendance and more quickly reap the financial benefits of a higher education.

The Basics of Scholarships

Scholarships are just one of many college funding options available to you. Before you begin your scholarship search, you need to understand exactly what they are as well as the what sets them apart from all of the other forms of aid. In order to do that, you should be aware of some key terms and definitions. College – and especially financial aid – has its own language and acronyms that can be confusing to those just starting their journey toward higher education (and even to those already well on their way). This list isn’t exhaustive, but it includes the terms you’re most likely to come across during your tuition planning and scholarship search.

Financial Aid Terms and Definitions

Award LetterThe financial aid award letter details all of the various forms of aid you’re eligible to receive through your prospective school. It includes grants, scholarships, and loans. It is simply a statement of all the aid that you qualify for. You’re under no obligation to accept all of it. For example, you may decide to decline the loans while accepting the grants.
Cost of Attendance (COA)The cost of attendance is the total price for one year of college after all tuition, fees, and required personal expenses are calculated.
Expected Family Contribution (EFC)Your EFC determines how much federal financial aid you qualify for. The government assumes that all students will receive some form of tuition assistance from their parents. They determine that family contribution based on your parent’s financial information that must be submitted as a part of the FAFSA.
FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid)The FAFSA is the form used to apply for federal financial aid. The information you provide on it determines your Expected Family Contribution.
Federal Student AidFederal student aid is the largest form of tuition assistance in the United States. It consists of federal student loans, grants, and work studies that are awarded based on financial need.
Financial Aid PackageThe financial aid package is the combination of all forms of aid, from all sources, that you are eligible to receive. Your aid package is detailed in the award letter sent to you by your prospective school.
GrantsGrants are a form of tuition assistance awarded based on financial need and certain demographic requirements. Unlike loans, the funds are a gift and don’t need to be repaid. Grants are typically awarded by federal and state governments.
LoansStudent loans are tuition money that must be paid back to the lender over time with interest.
Net PriceNet price is the true cost of college after all gift aid and educational tax benefits are deducted. It’s what’s left for you to pay out of pocket once all of your grants and scholarships are applied.
Room and BoardRoom and board is the cost to live and eat on campus. For those doing so, it will increase the overall cost of attendance.
ScholarshipsLike grants, scholarships are a form of financial aid that doesn’t need to be repaid. Unlike grants, they are most often merit-based (academic achievement, volunteer work, etc.).
Student Aid Report (SAR)The SAR is the notice sent to you after completing the FAFSA. It is often confused with award letters. However, the Student Aid Report doesn’t list the aid you’re eligible for. It is simply a copy of your processed FAFSA that now includes your official EFC.
TuitionTuition is the money charged for class instruction only. It is either charged on a per-credit basis, or a flat fee. It doesn’t include room and board, textbooks, supplies, or other fees.
Tuition ReimbursementTuition reimbursement (or tuition assistance) is when a company refunds some or all of the cost of tuition for employees studying in a work-related area. It’s a kind of “retroactive scholarship” offered by some employers.
Work-studyA work study (or work award) is a form of federal financial aid in which students are given tuition funds in exchange for part-time employment. It’s a subsidized salary in which the employer pays a portion and the federal government pays the rest.

The Purpose of Scholarships

While federal student aid is the largest and most-used form of tuition assistance in the country, a majority of it still results in mountains of student debt. The federal budget currently provides $140 billion in financial aid to students. Of those total funds, only 18 percent are grants, which is gift money that doesn’t need to be repaid. Two percent are work studies, and 80 percent are interest-accruing loans. Federal student loans often have more favorable terms than private loans, but that interest still accounts for a considerable amount of debt over time.

For example, at the current rates, a $10,000 Federal Direct Subsidized Loan will end up costing almost $12,000. When you consider that $10,000 is only enough to cover one year of average tuition for in-state students at a public university, you start to get an idea of how that interest can contribute to serious debt.

The best way to avoid that heavy burden is to reduce the amount of loans that you need to take out in the first place. That’s where scholarships come in. Like grants, scholarships are gifts that don’t need to be repaid. The money awarded from them goes straight toward paying tuition and expense costs. But unlike grants, which mostly come from the federal and state governments, scholarships are sponsored by many different sources — schools, employers, private companies, nonprofit organizations, religious groups, etc. – for any number of reasons. Some are merit-based, while others are based on financial need.

Because of the wide variety of scholarships and sponsors, more people qualify for them than grants. There are enough scholarships available that everyone applying to college qualifies for at least one. Each is different and has its own criteria and application process, but they all have the same purpose: reducing the overall cost of your education.

Types of Scholarships

There are two main types of scholarships:

School-sponsored: School sponsored scholarships are affiliated with a specific institution. They can either be funded by the school or an outside organization, but they are only available to students attending that particular college. Information and applications can typically be obtained through the school’s financial aid office.

External: External scholarships are sponsored by outside donors, businesses, organizations, foundations, etc. They are not affiliated with a specific institution and can be used at any school of the recipient’s choosing.

From there, scholarships fall into a few broad categories:

Merit-based: Rather than taking into account financial need (though some may factor it in as a secondary requirement), merit-based scholarships are awarded based on individual achievement: academic, artistic, philanthropic, etc.
Need-based: Need-based scholarships are awarded based on demonstrated financial need. Many need-based scholarships are school-sponsored and funded directly by the college. Their eligibility and awards are based on the financial information submitted to them through the FAFSA.
Demographic: There are a large number of scholarships set up for students that fit a specific demographic. Money might be awarded to students of a particular race, sex, age, religion, sexual orientation, or to those from a specific geographical region.
Major/Career: Many colleges and organizations sponsor scholarships for students who major in a specific subject area. Likewise, there are companies and trade associations that sponsor scholarships for students studying for a specific career.
Athletic: Athletic scholarships are awarded to students based on their performance in a particular sport. There are external organizations that award athletic scholarships, but the majority are sponsored by the school itself. Coaches use scholarships to entice the best players to their teams.

Some of these categories do cross over. For example, need-based scholarships can be awarded based on demographics. Merit-based scholarships can be also major-specific.

Early Preparation

The earlier you start preparing for a scholarship the more likely you are to win one. To increase those chances there are some areas you should focus on well before graduating high school.

Study

A large portion of merit scholarships are awarded based on academic achievement. They’re dependent on high grades and standardized test scores. This is perhaps the area that requires the most diligence and foresight. You may be able to cram for a final exam, or even the SAT, but there’s no last minute solution to fix a low grade point average, especially if the scholarship sponsor looks at the grades for a student’s entire high school career, not just those during their graduation year.

Students graduating in the top five to ten percent of their class are the most likely to be eligible for academic scholarships. Earning that position takes a lot of studying and hard work. Academic scholarships are the long game. The sooner you set your sights on one and study accordingly, the better.

Participate

Extracurricular activities open up the possibility for a number of scholarships outside of the obvious opportunities. The mention of extracurricular scholarships usually brings to mind the big four athletic ones and the dreams of that rare “full-ride” that can come with them: baseball, basketball, football, and soccer. In reality, there are scholarships for every sport you can think of. There is money available for bowling, golf, tennis, volleyball, gymnastics, field hockey, chess… the list goes on.

Participating in certain activities, clubs, and organizations can also place you in one of those special demographics that some sponsors are looking for. Nearly every activity that you can think of has some scholarship associated with it: student government, drama, orchestra, debate team, writing for the school newspaper, etc. There are even scholarships for knitting.

Extracurricular participation also makes you more uniquely qualified for those scholarships where categories overlap. For example, being associated with certain academic clubs can make you eligible for specific merit-based scholarships. Participation in the drama club can give you an edge when applying for an art major scholarship. So follow your passions, but where possible, participate in activities that support your intended major. The activity alone may be enough to qualify you for a scholarship, but the combination of the two can push you over the finish line in the race for another.

Basically, you don’t want to leave any blanks on the “extracurricular activities” section of a scholarship application. Any experience outside of your classwork can be an advantage, even if you don’t immediately see the value of it. That part-time job bagging groceries might be the thing that separates you from an applicant with an otherwise-identical application who never held a job during high school.

Volunteer

Many colleges place a high value on volunteer work and community service, and more and more of them are even requiring it as a part of their admissions process. It can also greatly impact your chances of receiving a scholarship, both school-sponsored and external. There are a number of school-sponsored scholarships where community service is a secondary requirement. There are also privately-funded opportunities created exclusively for students with a history of outstanding volunteer work.

And volunteering is another example of where you can take advantage of overlapping scholarship categories. If you volunteer in an area that both interests you and relates to your intended field of study, you may find yourself eligible for a lot more major/career scholarships than you would without the volunteer work.

Of course, the true purpose of volunteering and community service isn’t monetary gain. But still, taking the time to work in your community during high school can result in some much-needed financial benefits in college.

Take the PSAT

Most high school students think of the PSAT (Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test) as a practice run for the real SAT test. In some ways the pre-SAT (as it’s commonly called) is just that. There are no real negative consequences with taking the PSAT. It has no bearing on your college admissions or your high school transcript, so it is a good way to study and prepare for the big test. However, the PSAT serves a dual purpose.

The PSAT is often listed as PSAT/NMSQT. That second part stands for National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. The National Merit Scholarship Corporation awards approximately $50 million in scholarships every year. Your eligibility for that scholarship is dependent on your PSAT scores. Students who score in the top percentiles are in the running, but the competition is stiff. Of the approximately 1.5 million students who take the test:

50,000 are given National Merit recognition
34,000 are recognized as Commended Students
16,000 are selected as Semi-finalists
15,000 are selected as Finalists
8,000 are selected as Scholars and are awarded scholarships

To qualify for a National Merit Scholarship, you must take the PSAT in your junior year. Unfortunately, many students don’t even find out about the scholarship aspect of the test until their senior year when searching for funding opportunities, and by then it’s too late.

Admittedly, the odds of winning a National Merit Scholarship are against most who take the test. But your odds are even worse if you never take it. Plus, even receiving the lowest level National Merit recognition looks good on applications and can help you win different scholarship awards. And don’t forget the fact that taking the PSAT can improve your SAT or ACT scores, which does have a direct impact on your eligibility for many scholarships. Because of all this, we highly recommend taking the PSAT.

Finding a Scholarship

With over $50 billion in scholarships awarded last year, it would seem that an opportunity shouldn’t be hard to find. But the truth is that with so many options spread across such a wide variety of eligibility requirements, finding the right scholarship is one of the hardest steps in the process. The key is knowing what you’re looking for, where to look for it, and when to start.

Define Yourself

Rather than slowly wading through the entire sea of scholarship opportunities out there, you should narrow your search to the scholarships that you qualify for. To do that, you first need to define yourself. We’ve already seen all of the different categories of scholarships and the many demographic and merit requirements they have. You want to be able to cast the widest net possible during your search in order to take advantage of as many of those as you can. Therefore, you need to define yourself in the broadest terms.

Make a list of all of your personal accomplishments, academic achievements, and awards. Then include all of your extracurricular activities and group affiliations. Next, think about who you are and where you’ve come from. Write down your ethnicity, gender, geographical location, talents or passions you have, military service, your desired career…anything you can think of that defines who you are in some way.

Now, you can take that list and search for scholarships by each of those categories. The more categories you fit into, the more scholarships you can apply for. The more scholarships you apply for, the better your chances of winning one.

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More Free Resources

With so many scholarships offered by so many different organizations, there is no single source for information. To find them, it’s going to take a lot of searching in a lot of different places.

In today’s day and age, the first stop for information is usually a basic internet search. But you need to be careful. College is big business and internet scammers are well aware of that fact. You’re bound to come across a number of scholarship scams during that initial search. The key to avoiding all of them is to never pay for commercial financial aid services or for scholarship searches. Scholarship information is freely available. Anyone charging you to search for it is taking advantage of an often-stressful and confusing process by charging you to do something you may not realize that you can do for yourself.

Like us, the U.S. Department of Education also warns against any scholarships that charge an application fee. These scholarships can still show up in the results of a free search. Remember, scholarships are gift money. Think of them as a form of charity on behalf of the sponsor organization. They are meant to lighten your financial burden, not add to it. It is extremely unlikely that any reputable scholarship would charge an application fee. Most likely, it’s a scammer charging you to apply for a scholarship on your behalf.

Paying to find or apply for a scholarship is counter-intuitive and not at all what the sponsors intended. Keep yourself safe by never paying for help of any kind. There are enough free, reliable resources to help you find scholarship opportunities that you should never have to resort to anything else.

Your safest, most reliable sources for scholarship information are:

Your college financial aid office
The U.S. Department of Labor’s free scholarship search tool
Your State Department of Education
Your library’s reference section

Those should be your first stop. For a broader search, there are also a number of reliable, free internet scholarship search engines. Some recommended ones are:

FastWeb Scholarship Search
College Board’s FUND FINDER
Scholarships.com LLC
Peterson’s Award Database
Student Scholarship Search
NextStudent
ScholarshipExperts
BrokeScholar
CollegeData

Explore all potential sources

In order to increase your chances of winning a scholarship, you need to widen your search beyond those traditional sources, especially considering the fact that nearly everyone else in the hunt for a scholarship is searching in those same places. So in addition to those sources, think about smaller, local ones, places you already have a personal connection to. If any of them offer scholarships, not only are you uniquely qualified through your association with them but they might also have a much smaller candidate pool for you to compete with.

Some examples of potential scholarship sources are:

Work: If you currently have a job, your company may offer career scholarships for work-related degrees. If not a scholarship, they might have a tuition reimbursement program worth exploring. If you aren’t working, a parent’s employer might offer scholarships. It’s a common practice for companies to offer financial aid to the children of employees. Often, they aren’t career scholarships and can be used in the pursuit of any degree.
School networks: Your local school district may have scholarship opportunities available in a variety of academic and major categories. If not the schools themselves, then perhaps organizations associated with them. For example, if you’re a member of the school’s AV club, a larger regional or statewide AV association may offer scholarships for technical degree seekers. And if you’re planning on attending the same college as a parent, check with alumni organizations for any potential funding opportunities.
Community organizations: Veterans associations, social clubs, recreational sports leagues and more have been known to sponsor scholarships for students in their communities. Any organization that you’re associated with in your community has the potential to be a funding source, even if only for a small amount.
Religious groups: Many churches and independent religious organizations sponsor scholarships. The United Methodist Church administers over 50 scholarship programs. The Catholic fraternal organization the Knights of Columbus also has several opportunities for the children of current members. If you have a religious association, be sure to inquire about any similar programs.
Campus organizations: Students already attending a college should research any opportunities with various campus organizations. Fraternities, sororities, academic groups, social clubs, and religious societies have all been known to sponsor their own scholarships.

These are just some common examples of scholarship sources for you to explore. Don’t be afraid to get creative in your search. Anyone you think may sponsor some form of financial aid is worth a quick inquiry. You never know where funding may come from.

Write query letters

Dedicated scholarship webpages and online applications have eliminated much of the need for traditional query letters. But you should be prepared to write some. Once you’ve compiled a list of potential scholarships, you should plan on quickly sending (or emailing) those letters to the sponsors where necessary. You want to leave yourself plenty of time to apply after their response. The letters don’t need to be elaborate. You aren’t writing an application essay yet. This is just a simple request for an application, complete guidelines, and a list of relevant deadlines.

Again, you’re not likely to have to write many query letters today. But it would be a good idea to come up with a template in which you can substitute specific information in order to send out to multiple sponsors and save some time.

Search Early, Search Often

The earlier you find a qualifying scholarship, the more time you’ll have to prepare your application and the earlier you can get it in. Every scholarship has a different application deadline. Some can be as early as a year before you even graduate high school. You should start your search as early as your junior year and start sending out applications during the summer before senior year.

It’s also important to keep searching, even after you’ve compiled your initial application list. New scholarships are announced every day and some existing scholarships have different application periods. A good opportunity can arise at any time and you don’t want to miss it. You should plan on sending out multiple waves on applications, not just one batch.

This is true even after you’ve started college. There are plenty of opportunities for current students, and because tuition is typically billed by semester or year, there’s always a chance to reduce one of those bills with scholarship money.

Applying for a Scholarship

After you’ve compiled your list of potential scholarships comes the tedious task of applying for them. In addition to filling out an application form, you may be required to supply a variety of supporting documents, write an essay, and even face an interview or written exam. Here’s information on what you can expect and some tips to help get you through the application process.

Organize

The first thing you should do before sending out any applications is organize your scholarship list. The more awards that you apply for, the better your chances of winning one. But with those many applications comes a lot of overlapping paperwork and deadlines. Things can get mismanaged and misplaced very quickly. Anything you can do to keep yourself organized throughout the process will only benefit you in the long run. Everyone has their own organization system, so use what works best for you. That said, here are our suggestions for keeping everything running smoothly:

Whether you do it physically or digitally, make a separate file for each scholarship and sort them by application deadline.
Gather any required documents and keep a separate copy with each file.
Create a single document that you can use to track of all your applications in one place. We recommend including the following items:
Scholarship name
Scholarship sponsor
Contact information
Scholarship website address (if applicable)
Application deadline
Award amount
Summary of specific criteria (GPA, test scores, volunteer hours, etc.)
A list of required documentation (transcripts, essays, etc.)
Date you applied
Current status (not yet applied, applied – pending, denied, awarded)
Total amount awarded (if any)
Throughout the process, be sure to constantly update your application list and files. It will help to ensure that you don’t miss any deadlines, forget to include any required documents, apply for the same scholarship twice, or skip over an opportunity because you thought you already applied for it.

Be sure to keep a copy of every completed application and add it to your scholarship file.

Check your qualifications

There are plenty of scholarship opportunities out there. The more you apply to, the better your chance of being awarded one. But you shouldn’t waste your time applying for a scholarship that you aren’t qualified for. Use that time to find and apply for another one that you are.

You should already be thoroughly reading all of the scholarship information, but take extra care to read all of the requirements to ensure that you’re actually eligible. If you aren’t paying enough attention, it’s easy to inadvertently apply for a scholarship that you shouldn’t. A lot of scholarships have secondary qualifications beyond the primary one. A scholarship might be advertised as being for aspiring Art History majors, but a closer read could reveal test scores or income thresholds that you don’t meet.

And above all, be honest. It can be tempting to “massage” your qualifications on paper in order to make them meet the scholarship requirements. Ultimately, the judges will see through any deception and reject your application. You will have wasted your own valuable time and possibly gotten yourself disqualified from any future opportunities with that sponsor. It’s always better to focus on the scholarships you are clearly eligible for than to lie or exaggerate in order to apply for one that you aren’t.

Application requirements

A majority of scholarships involve more than just filling out and submitting an application form. Most require some sort of supporting documentation. You should also be prepared to do a little “homework” as well, either in the form of an essay, written exam, special project, or even a face-to-face interview.

Documentation

The supporting documents required for a scholarship application help prove your eligibility for the award. Not all scholarships require every document, but the most commonly requested ones are:

High school transcript: A high school transcript is a documented record of your entire high school career. It details your academic accomplishments by listing every class you took, when you took them, the grade you received, standardized test scores, and any honors or awards. You’ll need a transcript for any scholarship with GPA requirement.
Standardized test scores: Your test score report details your SAT or ACT results. This is usually included as a part of your high school transcript. If not, it can be obtained separately from your high school or the school district’s administration office. Any scholarship with a minimum test score threshold will request a copy of this report.
Financial aid forms: Need-based scholarships request financial aid forms proving the student’s economic need. Those forms will require your parent’s financial information as well. Often, students can satisfy this requirement by submitting their FAFSA information via a copy of their Student Aid Report. If not, the sponsor will most likely have their own financial forms that need to be filled out.
Letters of recommendation: A letter of recommendation is just what it sounds like. Someone writes a letter on your behalf recommending you as a person worthy of winning a particular scholarship. Ideally, it will directly address your qualifications for the specific award you’re applying for instead of just a blanket recommendation. Letters should come from academic or professional sources (teachers, professors, employers, clergy, etc.), not family or friends.
Curriculum Vitae (CV): In this case, a CV is an educational resume. It should list all of your academic accomplishments, study experiences, volunteer work, hobbies, interests, and educational/career goals. A lot of this information is included as a part of a scholarship application, so you’re less likely to need to include a CV than you are other documents. But you should still be prepared to create one in case you do.
Essays

Essays are an important and often-used method for determining scholarship winners. Everyone is competing on the same grade scale and there’s a ceiling on how high a GPA can go. It’s very likely that you’ll be competing for an award with a number of students who have the same grades and test scores as you. So instead of relying strictly on numbers, judges use personal essays to differentiate those students and help make their decisions.

Scholarship essays often have a main prompt that asks you to discuss a certain topic or answer a specific question related to the mission and goals of the sponsor organization. They will vary in length and formats. You could be asked to write a 500-word essay for one scholarship application and a 5,000-word essay for the next. Because of that, you need to be prepared to write separate essays for each application instead of just one that you can submit multiple times.

Other potential requirements

Supporting documents and essays are the most typical application requirements. However, depending on the type of scholarship and level of competition, your application could also require one of the following:

Special Projects: Major/career-specific scholarships are known to ask applicants to submit projects based on the major they intend to study. Students applying for scholarships in one of the arts could be required to submit relevant short films, songs, paintings, or photography portfolios. IT scholarships might ask for completed computer programs. Prospective English majors could be required to submit a short story in lieu of an essay.
Written exams: Written exams for academic scholarships are rare since they usually rely your existing grades and standardized test scores for qualification. But some prestigious, high-dollar-award scholarships with heavy competition might require an additional test to determine the winner.
Interviews: Like written exams, you’re less likely to sit down for a face-to-face interview with a scholarship review board than you are to complete other requirements. But again, there are awards that utilize them. During the interview you will be asked basic questions about why you deserve the scholarship and how you plan to use it if you win. Your responses and overall demeanor influence their decision.

Be aware of deadlines

Every scholarship has an application deadline. If you’ve organized your scholarship list well, you should already be aware of them. But just as important as knowing the deadline is knowing what it’s going to take to meet it. There are a lot of factors that can result in a late application if you don’t plan ahead.

All of the various application requirements take time. For every scholarship, you need to give yourself plenty of time to gather all of the needed documents and complete any essays or projects. An application form can be filled out the day before a deadline, but there are unknown variables in those other requirements that make them hard to put an exact timeframe on. Writer’s block, a setback in your project, or a hard-to-find document could all negatively affect your schedule. You should start working on your requirements as soon as possible.

That is especially true of recommendation letters. With them, you’re dependent on someone else to complete a key requirement, someone who may not operate on your schedule. You need to leave yourself plenty of time to request a letter, allow the person to write it, get it back, and submit it with your application.

Don’t miss an opportunity because you didn’t get an application in on time.

Double-check and proofread everything

Applying for scholarships can be stressful, especially when you’re rushing to meet a deadline. When you rush, mistakes happen. It’s important that you double-check and proofread every aspect of your application. It’s a common-sense tip for someone heading to college, but one that is still extremely important and needs to be stated. Not only do typos look unprofessional, they can easily cost you a scholarship. With so many students competing for the same award, grammar errors in an application essay are an easy way for judges to disqualify you and narrow the field.

Any missing paperwork will result in an immediate disqualification as well. You also don’t want to review an application after you’ve submitted it and realize you forgot to list that academic award that could have given you a real advantage in the competition.

The best thing you can do is have a trusted friend or family member review your work before you submit it, no matter how many times you’ve checked over it yourself. They are more likely to catch a mistake that you might have overlooked from “application fatigue.” It’s a simple step, but one that can have a huge impact on your chances at winning a scholarship.

Essay, Interview, and Recommendation Letter Tips

Filling out an application form is the easiest part of the scholarship process. It’s all of the additional requirements that can prove difficult. It’s also those additional requirements that often make the difference between you winning a scholarship or not. To help, we’ve compiled some basic tips for the most common ones.

Essay Tips

Essays are the most common application requirement, but they are also the most varied. They all have different formats and lengths depending on the scholarship. Some have specific prompts and questions they want answered, while others leave the topic up to you. But regardless of what form the essay takes, there are some guidelines you’ll want to keep in mind.

Follow the instructions. Any time an essay comes with specific instructions, be sure to follow them. If there is a word limit, stick to it. If the sponsor requests a certain format, stay within it. The instructions usually have a two-fold purpose. First, they are designed to make the essays easier to read and judge since there are so many being submitted. Second, they are a test to see who can follow directions. Not doing so is a quick way to have your essay removed from consideration.
Address the prompt. If the essay asks you to discuss a certain topic or answer a question, make sure that you specifically address it in a clear, concise way. Usually, the prompt is related to the mission of the scholarship sponsor. Because of that, it becomes especially important to stay on topic in order to show them that you are a candidate with goals in line with theirs, a student that they can feel comfortable supporting.
Develop a theme. If the essay doesn’t have a prompt, you should develop your own theme that fits the scholarship. Do some research so that you fully understand the sponsor’s mission and tailor your essay to their expectations. Adhering to a theme will also keep your essay from wandering and prevent you from going off on a tangent just to hit a word count. A consistent theme keeps your essay clear and concise.
Get specific. You already defined yourself in the broadest possible terms in order to find scholarships available to you, but now you need to tailor yourself – through your essay – to the organization sponsoring the award. You’re presenting yourself to them through your writing, so tell them about your specific qualities that fit into their overall mission.
Be Unique. Scholarship judges have a lot of essays to read. You want to make sure that your essay is unique so that it stands out. The easiest way to do that is to make them personal. You’re the only you. So write an essay that only you can, and you’re most likely to write one that a scholarship judge has never read before.

If an essay doesn’t have a prompt, we have some suggestions for topics:

Personal achievements: An essay is one of your best opportunities to sell yourself and stand out from the competition. Your application already listed your personal achievements, but now you have a chance to describe them in your own voice and use them to illustrate why you’re worthy of winning the scholarship. You’ll especially want to include any community service or volunteer work.
Academic plans: Describe your educational goals. Tell the sponsor exactly what you plan on doing with the scholarship should you win it. Give them an idea of the impact their money will have on the world if they invest it in you.
Social issues/current events: Discussing social issues and current events in an essay is a great way to illustrate your intelligence, character, and personality all at once. Again, tailor the subject to the scholarship. Give your opinion or insight on an issue related to the mission of the sponsor.
Mentors and influences: Give the judges an idea of who you are by describing mentors and role models. Describe learning experiences and specific instances where their example influenced your life. If possible, choose an influence from your academic major or intended career, or choose someone in the same field as the scholarship sponsor.

One of the most important things to remember is to address the prompt. But if the prompt allows you an opportunity, it might be beneficial to include some of the above ideas as well.

Interview tips

If a scholarship review board requests an interview, it probably means that you’re among the finalist for the award. A physical interview provides you a unique opportunity to sell yourself in a way that transcripts and essays can’t. Admittedly, interviews can be intimidating, so you’ll want to prepare as much as you can in advance so that you make the best impression. We’ve compiled some tips to help you do just that.

Your first step should be researching the sponsor organization. You need to have a solid understanding of their history and ideology so you’re prepared to discuss how you fit into their mission. That’s the easy part. The difficult part is preparing for questions that you don’t know yet. Honestly, there’s no way to fully prepare all of your answers ahead of time, but you can avoid potential mind-blanks and awkward silences by studying some sample questions.

Here’s are some common scholarship interview questions:

Tell us about yourself.
Why did you apply for this scholarship?
Why do you think you’re the best candidate for this scholarship?
What makes you stand out from other candidates?
What is the most important thing you’ve learned in high school?
What are your greatest strengths?
What are your weaknesses?
Tell us about a time when you displayed leadership qualities.
How do you contribute to your community?
Tell us about a specific event that greatly influenced you.
What are your academic goals?
What are your career goals?
Where do you see yourself in five years?
How do you spend your free time?
What is a skill or experience you hope to leave college with?
What personal achievements are you most proud of?
What’s one of the biggest mistakes you’ve made and what did you learn from it?
Tell us about a person that has influenced your life and how.
Talk about a significant challenge you have encountered.
If you could do high school over again, what would you do differently.

You can expect to be asked some variation of a least a few of these. The interviewer may also ask you to elaborated on details from your application, ask questions about your recommendation letter and its author, or ask you to discuss current events.

Be prepared to answer any question honestly and thoroughly. And just like your essays, remember to be as specific about yourself as possible and relate your answers to the sponsor’s mission where applicable.

Once you’ve prepared all of your answers, you just need to remember some basic interview tips:

Dress professionally: First impressions count for a lot in an interview. The first thing an interviewer sees is how you’re dressed. You’re competing with a lot of other students for award money. Dress professionally and do your best to look like someone worth investing money in.
Be honest: Just like on your application and essay, make sure to be completely honest during your interview. It’s one thing to lie on paper, it’s another to lie to an interviewer’s face. Again, the judges will most likely find out the truth. You’ll be doing yourself more harm than good. If you’re in an interview, you’ve already proven your qualifications and are in serious contention for the award. There is absolutely no need to lie at this point.
Study your application: Before the interview, you should carefully review the application you submitted because the review board will have a copy of it. You shouldn’t exaggerate any details about yourself anyway, but it’s especially dangerous during an interview. If you embellish your record in the heat of the moment, you could easily contradict something written right there in your file. It’s important to remember everything you originally wrote.
Be yourself: The interview is your chance to show the scholarship sponsor that you’re more than a GPA and a list of accomplishments. Be respectful, but also be relaxed and be yourself. Your unique personality is what is going to set you apart from other candidates.
Be grateful: It’s true that you earned the scholarship interview through your hard work, but you wouldn’t have had the opportunity if the sponsor hadn’t created the scholarship in the first place. You want to sound confident during the interview, but not arrogant. One way to avoid that is to make sure you convey your appreciation for the opportunity the sponsor has provided you with and your excitement at the possibility of winning. Follow up with an email (or letter) the day after the interview to reiterate your gratitude.

If you’ve never been on an interview before, the scholarship interview will just be one of many in your lifetime. Keep all of these tips in mind in the future because they can apply to college admission and job interviews as well.

Recommendation letter tips

A solid recommendation letter can go a long way toward advancing your application in a scholarship competition. We’ve compiled some tips to make sure you get the best letter possible.

The first step is decided who to ask for a recommendation. Here are the most important things to keep in mind:

Don’t ask family or friends. Your family and friends are expected to speak glowingly of you. Because of that, they have no credibility when it comes to official recommendations. Your letters need to come from objective, professional sources.
Choose someone who knows you well. It’s important to choose someone who is familiar with your work and achievements, as well as someone who understands your educational goals and the goals of the award that you’re applying for.
Know your audience. The most common sources of recommendation letters are teachers, professors, coaches, and employers. But you want to tailor your letter to the scholarship, so even though the ultimate goal is using the money for college, a teacher might not always be the best choice. For example, if the scholarship is sponsored by a religious organization you might consider asking a trusted clergy member for a recommendation.
Make a list of potential writers. Because you need to tailor your letters to the scholarship, you can’t necessarily have them all written ahead of time. A newly-discovered scholarship might require a new letter from a different source. What you can do ahead of time is make a list of potential letter writers and their contact information. Group them by their area of expertise so you have a pool of writers to approach as each opportunity arises.

Once you’ve compiled a list of writers, you need to actually solicit them for the letters. It’s important to remember that these people are taking time out of their busy schedules to do you an enormous favor. To make it easier for them, and to ensure that you get the letter you need (when you need it), follow these tips:

Give them plenty of time. Give the writer a large enough timeframe to complete the letter so that it doesn’t interfere too much with their schedule. Ideally, this would be a few weeks. You also need to give yourself extra time between your request and the application deadline just in case the letter isn’t completed in that window.
Make a formal request. Where possible, arrange a meeting where you can ask for a recommendation letter in person.
Be prepared for rejection and have a backup plan. Be open to someone denying your request. It isn’t necessarily personal. Some people don’t feel comfortable writing recommendation letters for a variety of reasons. Perhaps they aren’t a strong writer and don’t feel they could write the quality letter you need. If that is the case, ask if there is someone else they could recommend. If not, have a second choice lined up from your list.
Give your writer all the information they’ll need. You want to solicit a recommendation from someone who knows you well and understands your goals. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they know all of the specific details of you, the scholarship, or what you would need the letter to address. Giving them all of that information ahead of time will make the process easier for the writer and help ensure that the letter gets submitted on time. Make sure they have:
Your complete contact information
Any forms they needs to fill out as a part of the recommendation
The sponsor, title, and description of the scholarship
The contact information and address of the recipient
Scholarship deadline information
A copy of your completed scholarship application for reference
A full list of your academic achievements and a transcript
Your resume or CV
A brief letter of your own reminding the writer of your past work together (If a teacher: a description of outstanding coursework in their class, a past essay, etc.)
After the Award

If you apply for enough scholarships that you qualify for, you’re bound to win at least one, even if it’s only for a small amount. If you do win scholarship money, there are just a few things to keep in mind.

Receiving the money

How the funds are actually distributed depends on the scholarship sponsor. The money might be sent directly to the college on your behalf where it will be applied to any tuition or fees that you owe. If the award amount is greater than the amount you owe, the difference will be given to you by the school for you to spend on school expenses.

If the money isn’t sent directly to the school, it will most likely be sent directly to you in the form of a check. Regardless of the method, the scholarship sponsor will tell you exactly what to expect when they informs you that you’ve won the award. If for some reason they don’t, be sure to ask. You don’t want to miss a tuition payment over confusion with your scholarship funds.

Effect on other aid

If you win a scholarship award, you should immediately notify your college’s financial aid office. That money can affect any previously-awarded aid. Firstly, the financial aid office will need to subtract the scholarship amount from both your cost of attendance and any other aid that you’ve been offered. If you’ve already accepted a student loan, the scholarship will reduce the amount that you need to take out. That number needs to be adjusted and the extra returned to the lender so that you aren’t paying interest on those funds.

The scholarship money may also decrease your financial need in the government’s eyes. If the scholarship pushes the total amount of all your financial aid $300 above your calculated need, the government will reduce the amount of the need-based aid that it previously awarded you.

Depending on the amount of any outside scholarships, the college may decide to cut some of the school-funded aid it awarded you as well. If the outside scholarship was sent directly to you in the form of a check, it’s important to report it so that they can make that adjustment. If you don’t report it and they find out later, they may charge you with what’s called an “overaward” and force you pay back the money that they would have otherwise cut.

If this sounds like you’re losing money by winning a scholarship, don’t worry. A scholarship will never result in you paying a higher share of college costs. This is what happens if you win enough scholarship money that it surpasses your need. Even then, the financial aid office is simply redistributing funds so that scholarship money replaces financial aid package money.

At the end of the day, a scholarship will always be your best option to lower your cost of attendance and save you some of the headaches of student loan debt so that you can fully enjoy the financial benefits of your hard-earned college degree.