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The Ultimate Scholarship Guide: How to Apply and Win

The final installment of a three-part series all about scholarships! This time we're talking scholarship applications, plus tricks to help you win more.

There are literally billions of dollars in scholarships out there. You are likely well suited for several of them. And winning some free money for college would be pretty sweet…But how do you find scholarships? When should you apply? And how can you improve your chances of winning? We’re going to get to all of that in this guide. Part one explained how scholarships work, while part two offered the best scholarship search tips. The final installment of this series will teach you how to apply for and win more awards. Let’s get to it!

Applying for scholarships

First things first: it’s important to remember that you are not going to win the majority of scholarships you apply for. And that’s okay! A lot of it is a numbers game. You should still make sure every scholarship application you submit is your best work. But it helps to have a realistic outlook. It’s going to be hard, but don’t get discouraged. That’s easier said than done, of course. But the benefits of winning even a single scholarship can pay back big time. Even if you spend 10 hours working on your scholarships and only win one $100 award, that’s like getting paid $10 an hour, which is still better than your minimum wage job (or no job at all). Sort your scholarships by deadline, then just start grinding through their applications one by one. Here’s a sneak peek at what they might entail.

Related: 3 Smart and Easy Strategies to Win More Scholarships

Applications

Scholarships vary a lot in their application criteria, so be sure to check each individual award for its unique requirements. Your college or university might use your application for admission to award you a scholarship (such as academic-based awards), or you may need to fill out a separate application—which may also have a separate deadline. You might need recommendation letters or to complete an interview (more on that below). If you’re pursuing a scholarship in the arts, you may need to submit a portfolio or complete an audition as well. Keep track of those requirements and double-check before sending in any applications that you’ve met them all. Below you’ll find a list of things you might need to gather, prepare, and think about before applying to scholarships.

  • Basic personal info: Name, address, email address, phone number, date of birth, etc.
  • High school info: Name of school, address, graduation year, school ID, etc.
  • High school academic info: GPA, class schedule, class rank (if applicable), honors classes, etc.
  • Standardized test scores: ACT, SAT, PSAT, etc.
  • High school transcript: Likely an official copy sent by your school/guidance counselor
  • Parent/guardian info: Names, places of employment, etc.
  • Application essay/personal statement: There’s a whole section of essay advice below!
  • List of goals: You should think about what’s important to you and what you hope to do in college and professionally.
  • List of extracurricular activities: Including school clubs, volunteer experience, work experiences, sports teams, musical groups, etc. Also make note of hours spent on each activity and any leadership roles you’ve held.
  • List of honors, awards, or other accomplishments: Scholarship providers are usually looking for official, demonstrable things, but a relevant accomplishment that’s important to you might also be applicable, even if you didn’t win an official award for it.
  • Up-to-date résumé: Including any internships, part-time jobs, after-school activities, etc. listed above.
  • Recommendation letter(s)
  • College info: Schools you’re applying to or your final-choice college, intended major, etc.
  • Financial info: Parent income (federal income tax return), Student Aid Report (SAR)—aka the results of the FAFSA (make sure you file!)
  • Art portfolio: With examples of your best work

Finally, edit your applications thoroughly and have someone else take a look too. The standards are high, so you want to make sure your scholarship apps are free from spelling, grammar, and other errors. You also want to ensure that you’ve answered all questions or essay prompts fully and accurately.

Related: How to Improve Your Scholarship Applications

Essays

You’ll be doing a lot of writing as you apply for scholarships, but luckily it gets easier with time and experience. You should also be able to reuse at least some bits and pieces of your scholarship essays; however, you’ll need to tailor the essay and application to each scholarship you’re applying for. The scholarship essay is not a place to whine, brag (too much), or beg. Rather, you want to set yourself apart in a sea of similar applicants. Be honest, genuine, and reflective. You don’t want to downplay your accomplishments, but you do want to have some humility. You also don’t want to go fishing for adversity; everyone has struggles of varying degrees, and you should be honest and genuine in what you learned from yours and how it affected (or continues to affect) you. Beyond that, your scholarship essay needs to do a few things:

  • Adequately answer the essay prompt. All the lovely prose in the world won’t make a difference if you fail to answer the given question. So make sure you read any scholarship essay prompts carefully and respond fully and thoughtfully.
  • Connect with the scholarship organization. Research the awarding organization so you get to know their mission, values, and goals—and address those things in your response.
  • Stand out. Much like your college application essays, you want your scholarship essays to tell a unique, genuine, and memorable story. After reviewing the essay prompt, think of anecdotes from your life that are both particularly meaningful to you and distinctive so your essay stands out from the crowd.

In short, you need to convince the awarding organization that their scholarship money will be well spent. The best way to do this is to be genuine, perhaps even a little vulnerable—just be careful to not let your essay stray into territory that might be deemed overly dramatic, boastful, or entitled. And this may go without saying, but you should also make sure your essay is free of spelling and grammatical errors.

Related: College Application Proofreading Tips From an Editor-in-Chief

Interviews

If you find yourself in a scholarship interview, remember there are no “right” or “wrong” answers, per se…but you obviously want your answers to reflect positively and accurately on you. Luckily, what goes for scholarship apps is generally pretty true for interviews as well. But a few tips apply uniquely to the interview process. Prepare by thinking about your past accomplishments and future goals. Describe how college and the experiences you’ll have there will help propel you toward achieving those goals. It also helps to practice with questions such as:

  • Why do you deserve this scholarship?
  • Who are your role models?
  • Tell us about yourself!
  • What are your greatest strengths/weaknesses?
  • What are your academic and career goals?
  • Where do you see yourself in five years?
  • Describe a time you overcame an obstacle.
  • What activities are you involved in and why?

They’ll also want to know how you’ll use the scholarship money. Show them by creating a budget, describe how you’re trying to keep college costs down in other ways, and show you’d put the scholarship to great use. Finally, remember that regular interview/life tips apply: dress appropriately (look up “business casual outfits” if you’re not sure what to wear), shake hands, make eye contact, speak clearly, try not to fidget, and send a thank-you note and/or email when you’re done. Try to be your best, most confident self during the interview, even if you gotta fake it ’til you make it.

More scholarship tips, tricks, and secrets

  • Meet the deadlines! A missed deadline is a missed opportunity, and scholarship providers are strict.
  • Make sure you answer every question on your college applications, including the “optional” ones. They may be tied to the awarding of scholarships, and you don’t want to miss out!
  • Read the directions and follow them carefully. Even if you think you’re making your application better by including “extra” credentials. It just looks like you’re not paying attention (or you don’t care).
  • Stay organized! Keep track of deadlines. Use a spreadsheet. Calendars are your friend.
  • Edit and review your applications. Not just to catch pesky grammar errors and misspellings but to make sure you’ve answered all questions fully and thoughtfully.
  • Make sure your online presence is respectable (at the very least). Do an online search for yourself. You may like what you see, but will scholarship providers?
  • Have a professional email. Sure, it’s a small thing, but it can say a lot.
  • Be respectful, patient, and polite in all email and in-person interactions. This includes sending thank-you notes.
  • Don’t knowingly apply for scholarships you’re not truly eligible for. Most experts say it’s a waste of time, because competition is just too tight.
  • Make sure any recommendations come from people who know you well. Don’t ask for a letter from someone just because you think it will impress the scholarship committee; your recommenders should be able to speak thoroughly and honestly about your character and abilities.

Related: The 3 Easiest Steps to Winning Scholarships

Remember, you can apply for and win scholarships all throughout high school and college. It shouldn't be a one-time thing that you put a good effort into and then forget about whether you win some awards or not. You should consistently look for and apply to scholarships through high school and college to give yourself your best financial foot forward.

You shouldn't stop searching for scholarships until you graduate college. Keep looking for more awards on CollegeXpress using our Scholarship Search tool, and best of luck in your quest!

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