Complete Guide to Scholarships
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Sometimes the entire process of getting into college can seem like barely organized chaos. A hundred deadlines, applications, choosing a school, and then the all-important question of how you’ll pay for your education. While many students turn to parents, many more cannot, and end up taking the student loan route. With the current student loan debt over $1 trillion, with students literally drowning in debt they can’t pay back, however, that avenue may not be the best either. There has to be a better way, and there is – scholarships.
The word “scholarship” is thrown around a lot, but a lot of students assume that scholarships are only for sports heroes or super-geeky academic overachievers. The truth is that scholarships are actually for everyone, it’s just a question of finding them and applying to the ones you qualify for. Scholarships are literally free money – you don’t need to pay it back. So even if you haven’t racked up any football records or science fair accolades, it’s still worth your time to take a look at what you may qualify for. Remember – free money.
This post will give a general overview of scholarships. Keep an eye out for links that lead to more detailed posts about specific parts of the scholarship process. These will help you increase your chances at winning scholarships and could be the difference between winning free money and having to take on additional student debt.
Who Offers Scholarships?
Astronomical amounts of money are given in athletic scholarships every year, but there are millions more given away for a host of other reasons. There are scholarships for everything from your chosen major to where you live, your race, or nationality. There are memorial scholarships as well, established to help further causes or fields of study that were important to a deceased person. Private endowments and donation programs also have scholarships to assist specific demographics or groups such as minority students. Try to prioritize the scholarships you apply to to give yourself the best chance at winning. There are thousands of scholarship programs available, and to motivated students who are willing to do the research and application process, it can help tremendously – or even pay your full tuition.
How to Find Scholarships
Finding the scholarships you qualify for can seem like a daunting task, but in reality it’s just a question of dedicated research and understanding how scholarships work. There are many websites outlining lists of various programs, and they’re a good place to start.
Another excellent resource is your school’s financial aid office, or your high school’s guidance counselor. They may have school-specific programs and awards, or carry information on some of the more well-known scholarships. Keep in mind, however, that you may be better served looking at many smaller scholarships instead of trying to get one big one. To find the lesser-known programs, think about your field of study, hobbies, ethnicity, and even religion, and do some searches for the organizations and professional groups that are known in those communities – then see what they offer.
If you’re a Hispanic female who’s studying nursing and you have a father in the military, for instance, you could check for scholarships for military family members, nursing students, Hispanic students, and even perhaps programs offered to the specific school or region where you’re looking to attend school. If you’re a Greek-American male who’s planning to go into aerospace engineering, you could try not only Greek heritage organizations, but also professional aviation and engineering organizations to see what they have available.
Applying for Scholarships
Each scholarship program has its own application process. Some expect essays and letters of recommendation or character references, some come with certain strings (such as agreeing to appear on advertisements for the organization, attending a conference, or working after graduation in a specific field or location), and some require you to maintain a high grade point average while you’re in school. Be sure that you’re aware of not only the requirements for application, but that you’re willing and able to meet any post-award agreements, such as appearing at the award ceremony if your presence is expected or relocating to an area to work after graduation.
The best way to create a successful application package is to pay attention to the criteria for that particular program. Take the time to alter your essays to cater to the individual program you’re applying to – don’t just write one generalized essay and spam it to every program. Do what’s necessary to ensure your package meets every single requirement as well – and never miss a deadline. Don’t assume that they’ll still consider your application even if you don’t meet their criteria. Chances are far higher that they’ll disregard you immediately.
Scholarship Essay Tips
Many programs expect a personal scholarship essay. While the length may vary from short to fairly long, they all want to know why you’re the one who should get the award.
The hard truth is that even if you fulfill all of their requirements for the program, chances are that you’ll still be one of many applicants who do. Your essay is your chance to shine, and show them why they should choose you out of the applicant pool. If you make your scholarship essay amazing, it may set you apart and help you win the scholarship.
To do that, you’ll need to take some extra steps with your essay. The most important tip is to ensure that you fully understand what they’re asking for. Understanding the award and the people reading your essay is critical, and will help you write an essay that truly speaks to what they’re seeking in a candidate.
It’s also important to give yourself enough time to write it well. If you procrastinate until the last minute, you’ll end up doing poorly – and that means all of your effort was probably wasted. It’s far better to give yourself much more time than you actually need to write an essay that’s individualized for that particular program to maximize your chances of earning the scholarship.
Lastly, have someone read over your essay before you send it – and make sure that person is someone like a parent, boss, professor, or someone with excellent written communication skills. It’s important that the person editing your essay understands both the program and how to communicate effectively in that setting. Read your essay out loud slowly as well – it’s a great way to catch mistakes your eyes may skim over when you’re just reading the essay silently. When you do finish the essay and it’s been edited, make sure that the copy you send isn’t dirty or dog-eared; its physical appearance matters as well.
It may seem excessive to go through all of these steps – especially if you’re doing multiple essays for an assortment of different applications – but that’s the best way to maximize your chances of being awarded a scholarship.
Letter of Recommendation Tips
Part of a scholarship application package are the letters of recommendation that you’re expected to collect. These can cause a significant amount of stress, since you’re dependent not only on someone else to write it, but you also need them to write it on time. Here are a few tips to help you navigate that process efficiently and gracefully.
When deciding on who to request letters from, you might be tempted to go to the professor of the class you got your highest grade in, a well-known personality, or other ‘important person.’ In reality, these letters won’t help you unless that person knows you very well. Stick to people who can speak intelligently about who you are; these people can talk about specific facets of your personality or events in your life that make you truly stand out.
Often people who agree to write a letter of recommendation for you will ask what you want it to say. Rather than seeing it as them being lazy or unqualified, take it as an opportunity to explain what constitutes an excellent letter. Specific, quantified data is always a positive addition. Notice the gap between the two statements below:
- Jill is a good leader.
- Jill showed excellent leadership while organizing a toy drive for needy children during the 2016 holiday season that helped over 250 children receive toys.
Those two statements are the difference between you looking like every other candidate, and you standing out with specific actions that show you to be worthy of the award.
Avoiding Scholarship Scams
Unfortunately, as with almost anything, there is a dark side to the scholarship world. Scholarship scams exist, and it’s important that you protect yourself from them. The whole point of a scholarship is to award ‘free money’ that helps you further your education. A scam, however, is all about taking money from you.
Common scholarship scams include programs that require some sort of fee, whether it be an application fee or a charge for “disbursement.” Others promise a “guaranteed scholarship matching service,” where if you pay for their services, they promise to send you a list of programs you qualify for. While this might seem like a convenient way to get out of doing your own research, it’s a scam.
A real scholarship program doesn’t require you to pay fees, and there’s no shortcut to the research necessary to identify and apply for the right scholarships. Knowing this up front can save you the hassle of wasted time – and stolen money.
Finding ways to pay for your education can seem like too big a task. If you’re willing and motivated, however, scholarships can be an excellent way to get money for college that doesn’t come with an interest rate or repayment plan.