If you’re a college student – or trying to be – then you’ve already seen how expensive college can be. The idea of graduating with thousands in student loan debt probably doesn’t appeal to you either. A much better option is getting a scholarship. While that’s a fantastic course of action, it can often bring more questions, the biggest and most obvious of which is probably “How can I increase my chances of winning one?”
Scholarships are, bluntly put, free money for education. There are literally thousands of scholarships available, and they’re offered by corporations, nonprofit organizations, religious groups, and even individuals who wish to memorialize a loved one or simply give back to the community. Millions are given away every year to deserving students, and while the programs are competitive, the requirements for each individual award vary greatly.
There are a number of tips that successful scholarship awardees use to maximize their chances of winning, and you can put these tips to use for your own journey to getting money for college as well.
Find niche scholarships
While most people think of scholarships as being limited to either athletic accomplishment or academic excellence, the truth is that most scholarships are actually given for other reasons. There are programs geared toward just about everything, regardless of who you are or what you’re into. There are tons of weird or niche scholarships you can apply for. Here’s just a sampling of scholarship targets. You should prioritize the scholarships that fit you the most.
- Chosen major
- Home state or region
In addition to the list above, there are even scholarships available for left-handed students, zombie fans, and many more off-the-wall things that most people don’t even look for; you might be able to qualify for scholarships you’ve never even heard of.
In order to maximize your chances, seek out some of these more unique scholarships. They’re generally not advertised as well as the bigger programs, and since their criteria is geared to such a small demographic, you’ll be competing against a much smaller number of fellow students. In addition, you’ll be able to apply for scholarships that are personal to you and your interests, as opposed to trying to fit into a broader category you may not fit into as well.
Smaller niche scholarships are easier to win, and while they require a bit of research to find, they’re well worth your time to check out. You never know – you might be able to put that zombie movie obsession to use!
Find local scholarships
In the same vein, smaller local scholarships are often easier to win as well. Often philanthropy organizations with local chapters, such as the Lions, Kiwanis, Rotary Club, etc., give away their scholarships at the chapter level. That means you could speak directly with the people who are going to make the decision, and possibly ask specific questions about how best to frame your application.
In addition, these chapter clubs are often excellent places to engage in community service, which not only helps your chances of getting a scholarship from that chapter, but also helps all of your other applications. Some scholarships look for proof of leadership and a general pattern of service to the community. Engaging in those activities with a local chapter can often help you on all fronts.
Local businesses also sometimes offer scholarships, and while the amounts on these are often small (under $1000), they are relatively easy to win – and multiple small awards can add up.
Apply to as many scholarships as possible
Just as you may have applied to several different colleges so that you have options to choose from, you’ll want to apply to every scholarship program you can possibly qualify for. You don’t have to only choose one; if you apply for and win several awards, you can use them all. Many awards are smaller, and so one scholarship may not cover your entire tuition. Because some programs are also awarded for books, fees, and anything else associated with school, it’s worth your while to apply to as many as possible to get the most money you can.
This can seem like a daunting workload, but there are ways to be efficient about it. First, once you’ve identified the list of scholarships you qualify for, look at their requirements. How long do you have to apply? What characteristics do they have in common? By grouping programs together that have common dates or requirements, you can whittle down the workload and ensure that your application packages are in on time.
It’s also helpful to have a schedule for your tasks. Many scholarships have the following components:
- Letter(s) of Recommendation
- Transcripts or Grade Reports
- Additional Proof for other Criteria (proof of residence, major, etc.)
Plotting these on a calendar while giving yourself enough time to request this information, and giving the people writing your letters of recommendations enough time to submit, means you’ll be less stressed and more likely to submit packages on time.
Once you have plotted out when your deadlines are, figure out how long you have to compile the package and get it in before the due date. Set up weekly goals for the components of your package. A typical list of weekly goals may include:
- Write essay for X program
- Gather proof of residency for Y program
- Request letters of recommendation for Z program and give them a date to have it back to you
The next week, you may be giving your essay to someone for editing, checking the status of the recommendations, and moving on to filling out another application for a fourth program. It’s all about managing a workflow. Scholarships are meant to help you gain an education that will help your professional life, so it’s important to approach the scholarship application process as a professional endeavor that requires discipline and organization.
How to make an application stand out
Your application package is your only chance to impress the decision-makers for a given program – all of whom will view many packages just like yours – so it’s important that you make yours memorable. Now, that doesn’t mean engaging in colored paper, or sending glitter in the envelope; in fact, deviating from the stated requirements in an effort to make your package stand out is almost guaranteed to get your application relegated to the trash bin.
As we mentioned, the scholarship application process is something the grantors take very seriously. They are investing in your education with money they are responsible with, and so they’re very careful who they award it to. In order for your package to be taken seriously, it needs to be presented seriously and in a professional manner.
To do that, you’ll want to ensure that you understand the requirements for that particular program. As we mentioned earlier, that’s the most important thing about the process. If you do not exactly meet the qualification standards for eligibility, do not apply. You will be wasting time that would be far better spent applying for other programs you do qualify for.
Pay attention to the details as well; have someone read over your application and look for grammatical errors, spelling mistakes, or other things that could possibly reflect poorly on you. Keep your paperwork in a folder or envelope so that it doesn’t get crinkled or dirty. Every detail matters, and could be the difference between your appearing to be a stellar candidate, and someone who is sloppy or unprofessional.
How to make a scholarship essay stand out
The dreaded application essay can be the most frightening part of the scholarship package for many students, especially if they’re already having to write admission essays for college. There are ways to help your essay rise to the top, however, so there’s no reason to be afraid of it.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember about writing an essay is to keep it error-free. It seems common sense, but you’d be surprised at what you might miss when you’re the only one reading it. Use a spellchecker, but go over it yourself several times as well. Read it aloud, and then have someone else read it – preferably someone who is a bit of a grammar nerd and can catch any mistakes you miss.
You’ll also want to give yourself plenty of time to do a good job, so don’t procrastinate and leave the essay until last. Make sure you have time to dive into the essay, and let it reflect who you are and what your passions are. Let yourself shine through the essay, and show them why they should choose you.
Smart students will look at scholarships instead of moving right to a student loan. Being able to graduate without huge amounts of student loan debt will position you for a much better start after graduation; scholarships allow you to pay for school without that weight of unpaid debt over your head. Since there are so many different types available, you’ll be able to find quite a few that you may qualify for.
While the process can seem convoluted or difficult, if you stay organized, disciplined, and focused, you’ll be able to navigate the world of scholarship applications like a pro – and you’ll have a far higher chance of being awarded multiple scholarships!