Scholarship Search Best Practices

Editorial Assistant, Carnegie Communications

It’s true: the scholarship search can be a crazed, time-consuming endeavor. With the college search, high school classes, extracurricular activities, and everything in between, you may think you don’t have time for yet another scholarship application essay that may or may not pay off.

But before you throw in the towel, remember: “scholarships are no longer just a nice honor or some extra spending money,” says Mary Wynne, Vice President of Dollars for Scholars at Scholarship America. “They really have become an important part of how someone can finance their education.”

And just like your education, the scholarship search should be taken seriously. “Look at it like a part-time job that has the potential to pay a big salary,” Wynne says. “What other job can you get as a student that might give you $1,000 for 10 hours of work?” The key is to make the most of it. By organizing your information, managing your time, and using your available sources, your scholarship search will turn from stressful to successful in no time.

Get organized

“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” Ben Franklin’s words apply to many aspects of your college career, including the scholarship search. “Preparation and organization are really key to help save time in looking and applying for scholarships,” Wynne says. The most effective search begins with well-laid plans.

Many scholarship applications require several components, like transcripts, recommendation letters, résumés, family financial information, and lists of activities, academic honors, leadership roles, work experience, community service, and more. Before you start your search, gather all of this information and save it in a folder for easy access.

Wynne suggests making a “scholarship résumé” that outlines all of your personal, academic, and extracurricular accomplishments. Having this list on hand will save time and ensure you don’t forget important information to include on each application. It’s also helpful to give to the teachers, coaches, and employers writing your recommendations.

But it’s not just about organizing your past; you need to do it in the present too, keeping track of each award you apply for. “I recommend creating an Excel spreadsheet to track scholarship applications,” says Tamara Krause, a writer for “Students can include fields for deadline dates, award amount, required documentation, contact information, and other necessary items, which can all be easily filtered for quick review.” Making a calendar of due dates is also beneficial—meeting deadlines is crucial, as most scholarship committees throw late applications out the window.

Get looking

Now that you’re well prepared, it’s time to start the search! With so many awards out there, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Streamlining your search and looking in the right places can help you find scholarships you have the best chance of earning.

It’s easiest to start close to home. Some students may dismiss local scholarships since they’re usually smaller awards, but these can add up, according to Cherie Galyean, Education and Scholarship Manager at the Maine Community Foundation. “I have seen students piece together a tremendous amount of money—$10,000 or more—from small scholarships, just because they were organized about it and took the time to apply,” she says.

Your high school guidance counselor will have lists of scholarships offered by school groups and local organizations, like the Elks Club and American Legion. You can also check local newspaper archives and old commencement programs from your high school, which will often list the names of scholarships next to that year’s recipients.

Even closer, your parents’ employers, unions, churches, and clubs may have established scholarship programs. You could be eligible for awards as a student employee or organization member as well. Not quite as local, county and statewide sources, like community foundations, also connect students with scholarships. These awards will have smaller applicant pools compared to national awards, which means less competition and increased odds of securing funds. “While national scholarships are impressive and important, it is much easier to actually get one from the local Rotary,” Galyean says.

The Internet is an invaluable source for students searching for scholarships. Many websites and blogs (like CollegeXpress!) help students find awards and offer advice on the application process. Even a quick Google search using keywords related to your interests, hobbies, major, talents, or experiences can direct you to awards you may be eligible for. Most of these online services are free—as every resource should be, Galyean stresses. “It really can’t be said enough: never pay for scholarship information.”

While it is sound advice to not buy into scholarship scams, some students are spending money on smartphone apps to simplify their scholarship search. Several are free, including ScholarshipAdvisor, Mobile University, and Scholarship Explorer, but some come with a price. Scholly, an app that creates targeted lists of scholarships for high schoolers, undergraduates, and grad students, costs 99 cents in the App Store.

Another smart online scholarship source is social media. “Whether students are on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, or Reddit, they will find tons of scholarship advice and award listings,” Krause says. But Wynne reminds that there are important do’s and don’ts when it comes to social networks. You know admission counselors and employers look at your online posts—but scholarship providers do too.

“When it comes to thinking about your future, remember this rule of thumb: if you don’t want your grandma—or the funder of the scholarship you’re applying for—to read the post or see the picture, don’t put it out there for anyone to see,” she advises. “Make sure what scholarship providers find about you is what you want to showcase about yourself,” like talents, volunteer work, special interests, and job history.

Get smart

It may seem obvious, but many students need a reminder to focus on awards they’re truly eligible for. Don’t waste time filling out information, writing essays, and mailing in applications that will be tossed aside because you don’t meet the GPA requirement.

At the same time, don’t let limitations you presume to exist deter you from applying for an award! Not every scholarship seeks students with the highest grades or a concrete amount of work experience. If a requirement is not set in stone, don’t assume you aren’t qualified—you may miss out on a valuable opportunity!

To find scholarships targeted to you, it’s helpful to know yourself and realize your strengths. Are you a star student? Then focus on finding scholarships where grades are the most important component. A comedian? Applications that require an anecdote let you make a lasting impression with your sense of humor. An artist? Search for contests that require you to send a copy of an original piece of work. “Students will put more effort into something they enjoy, and that will increase their chances of winning,” Krause says. No matter what your background, enter as many free drawings or “no essay” scholarships as you can—somebody has to win them, after all!

Successful students often designate a certain day of the week to search for new awards, work on applications, and write essays, says Krause. Some materials can be recycled for multiple applications as long as they’re edited properly. Just start the process as soon as possible to avoid submitting sloppy, rushed work at the last minute. As Krause says, “Slow and steady wins the scholarship race.”

Finally, students should remember that scholarships aren’t just about them, Galyean says. Free money for college exists because “a donor somewhere along the way decided they wanted to help the world in some way,” she explains. “Be respectful and appreciative of that donor’s commitment to education by doing the best job you can in applying. And don’t forget to say thank you!”

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