According to the College Board’s Annual Survey of Colleges, the average out-of-state tuition for public four-year colleges is around $43,280. Not surprisingly, the price jumps to a whopping $54,880 for private four-year institutions. How can you possibly pay for these enormous costs without amassing debt from student loans? You can apply for scholarships, of course! But in order to sucessfully win scholarships you need to learn how to win.
Step 1: Search smart
One of the best places to start your scholarship search is with your college. Check out your school’s website or catalog to find out if it offers any scholarships—it most likely will. Also, contact the college’s financial aid office to see what scholarship listings or other tips they can offer, especially since some colleges automatically submit your name to their scholarship programs when you apply for financial aid. You can also ask the upperclassmen at your college for help. They doubtless have experience applying for college scholarships, and they might even suggest specific financial awards that match your college major or interests.
If you look closely enough and you can probably find scholarships available in your area too. These might be sponsored by religious institutions, your family’s employers, or local branches of nonprofit service organizations such as the Kiwanis and the Rotary Club. Once you cover home ground, strive to earn state and national scholarships: the Gates Millennium Scholars and Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation are a chance for you to earn both money and prestige. (And why not kill two birds with one stone?) Finally, don’t forget that amazing college search websites such as CollegeXpress can match you to a myriad of scholarships! Search for scholarships with a list in hand of all the qualities that might make you eligible for a scholarship: sports you play, artistic talents, volunteer experience, cultural or ethnic background...even weird scholarships. Brainstorm, brainstorm, brainstorm. Then search, search, search!
Step 2: Fill out your scholarship applications like a pro
Once you finish step one, give yourself a pat on the back. You’ve done a lot of the tedious work—gathering a big list of scholarships to apply to—especially since you may be able to rework or reuse some of your application materials (essays and résumé) when you apply to all those spiffy scholarships you found! The scholarship application is where you get to show what an amazing person you are. You not only list all the proud accomplishments of your life, but you are also given the opportunity to express your voice. The specific requirements differ from one scholarship to another, but usually, they ask that you write an essay in response to a given prompt. Well, how do you write a quality essay that stands out from hundreds of others? To craft an award-winning (literally) scholarship essay, just follow these simple guidelines:
- Answer the prompt: It’s easy, almost tempting, to go off on a tangent when passionately discussing your thoughts or reflecting on your life experiences, but sticking to the prompt and having a focused angle to your scholarship essay is crucial. Just like how you would when writing a paper for school, begin by choosing a theme or a specific topic and then outlining your ideas. Make sure you keep the prompt in mind constantly as you write your essay, and remind yourself what message you are trying to convey.
- Answer the real prompt. So there’s the prompt, and then there’s the real prompt. Let me explain: scholarship prompts are usually very simple. For instance, the Kiwanis’ Linda Canaday Memorial Scholarship asks, “What has been your most significant contribution to your home, school, and community?” At a glance, it appears as if you are free to talk about any service you have done for your home, school, and community. But you need to remember, all scholarship prompts ask, in essence, “Why should we give you money?” So, in applying to something like a Kiwanis scholarship, you should keep their specific mission statement and values in mind and convey that in your scholarship essay.
- Show excitement. You have probably cranked out papers for school, slogging through some topics that don’t really interest you. Fortunately, scholarship essays are the exact opposite: they want you to write about experiences and opinions that truly matter to you. As a result, it is extremely important that you display sincerity in your words—and be excited about what you are writing. Be passionate. Be real. Be you.
- Edit your work. Perfection takes time, and a perfect essay requires some editing. Read over what you have written, and revise as necessary. Ask a fresh pair of eyes to catch any silly typos or grammatical errors you might have missed, and have them read the prompt to make sure you’re answering it well. When you finish editing, your essay should flawless.
Step 3: Submit applications in a timely manner
This final part—sending your scholarship application in—seems so easy, but you need to finish strong! Make sure you check the scholarship application itself (not just the essay) for any errors and that you met all the requirements. Check and double-check! Remember to submit everything before the deadline too, and keep in mind whether you are applying through the mail or an electronic medium, as that will obviously impact how fast it gets there. And whatever you do, don’t lose confidence that you can win the scholarship.
We have plenty of additional advice that digs deeper into the scholarship search process and really refines the details, but on a surface level, these are the three most important and basic steps to the search. You need to be smart in what you’re looking for, you need to pay attention to the details in each application, and you need to submit your applications in a timely manner. If you stick to these three things, you’re sure to be successful.
Start searching for and applying to scholarships using our Scholarship Search tool.