Develop a Strategic Plan for Winning Scholarships

Vice President of Programs, Jack Kent Cooke Foundation

It’s senior year. You’re busy with academics and extracurricular activities, you’re applying to a good number of colleges. . . . and you’re probably exhausted. But it’s crucial that you make time to apply for scholarships—and that you do it the right way.

Since scholarships can be worth thousands of dollars, you can think of it like you would a part-time job. And it is going to be a lot of time and effort. Except with this part-time job, you need to create an overall strategic plan. Here are a few ideas on how to put that plan into action.

Get organized

  • Identify a number of scholarships for which you are qualified. (Use a scholarship search tool like the one CollegeXpress offers!)
  • Remember that it’s a numbers game. Because most scholarship programs can only give awards to a few candidates out of many, you’re likely to be a finalist for only one or two. The more you applications you complete, the better your odds.
  • Make sure you read each application carefully and understand the requirements and components. Create a chart to keep track of materials, deadlines, and so on.

Start early

  • Starting early allows you to identify the sections that will require the most time and effort, so you can manage your time accordingly.
  • Some application materials take some time to obtain. You don’t want to be sweating a deadline while you wait for a transcript or letter of recommendation.
  • Problems almost always arise, and they’re often surmountable but can take some time. Don’t lose your chance to apply because you waited until the last minute.

Follow the directions carefully

  • Do exactly as requested by the scholarship application committee. Fill in all blanks; gather the right materials and nothing else. Use the space provided, not much more or much less.
  • Make sure your short answer items and essays actually respond to the question or prompt. While you want to tell your story, do so within the parameters.

Make your essay shine

  • Essays can be the difference between winning a scholarship and being passed over; be sure to devote a great deal of time to them.
  • They’re an opportunity to tell your story. It’s very difficult to “get to know” an applicant from grades, test scores, activities, and awards. There are many fine students out there, but the strongest essays will separate certain candidates from the rest.
  • Give reviewers a chance to see who you are, what you think, what you believe.
  • Use active voice and powerful verbs.
  • Don’t think of your essays as separate pieces but rather as part of a greater case to be made. Every part of your application should be complementary in order to reinforce and effectively communicate the qualifications and characteristics that set you apart.
  • Revise, revise, revise! Your first draft is rarely your best.
  • Ask a teacher or parent to provide feedback. The reviewer should absolutely not be the first person (who is not you) to look at your application.
  • Remember that essays are often behind only grades and test scores in terms of importance, and they are really the only major factor you can control at this point.

Arrange for superior letters of recommendation

  • Ask potential recommenders if they are able not only to submit a letter but make it truly superior. Be willing to accept a “no” if they feel they can’t do it.
  • Provide them with at least a few weeks and some written materials about your background and accomplishments to write a truly great letter. (You can learn more about asking for recommendations here.)

Throughout these efforts, remember to keep your grades and involvement up—there are always more scholarships to apply for in the future. Best of luck!

Note: Did you know you could win a $10,000 scholarship for college or grad school just by registering on CollegeXpress? This is one of the quickest, easiest scholarships you’ll ever apply for. Register Now »