As a senior applying for college scholarships, I know it can be difficult to muster up the motivation to write essays and fill out form after form of monotonous information that always seems to be slightly different than the one before. Scholarship applications have the unfortunate tendency to ask repetitive questions, and it’s easy to get frustrated and be tempted to call it quits. But it's important to remember that although the reward is not immediate, being awarded a scholarship can make the difference in attending your first- or second-choice school. Here’s a list of what I consider to be the most important and relevant advice concerning scholarships and how to tackle the process the right way.
1. Start applying for scholarships early
I began filling out a few scholarship applications during my junior year of high school, but I didn’t get serious about it until my senior year. Even as a junior, with graduation only a couple of years away, it’s hard to realize you’ll need money soon. When graduation feels so distant, scholarship applications tend to be relegated to the back burner in favor of homework, extracurricular activities, and doing whatever you can to raise your GPA by one-10th of a point.
Once I finally got to my senior year, graduation seemed just around the corner—taunting and inevitable—and it became glaringly obvious that if I wanted to go to a private school, I was going to need more money. I will say the scholarship process does become slightly easier during your senior year: Your friends have also realized they need money (so you can complain about it together), you may have fewer classes to keep up with, and more scholarships are available to graduating seniors than to juniors and high school underclassmen. Even so, don’t fall into the trap of waiting until the last minute. Every deadline missed is money wasted. There are scholarships available to you as early as your first year of high school, so set a realistic goal for yourself—maybe one scholarship a week—and above all, start now.
2. Only apply for scholarships you qualify for
Regardless of when you start your scholarship search, don’t waste your time and energy applying for scholarships that do not apply to you. Always read the requirements carefully; they are usually in a clear bulleted list. Using a customizable app like Scholly or ScholarshipOwl will make this step infinitely easier by filtering out inapplicable scholarships. Applying for a scholarship that you have no chance of receiving is an exercise in frustration, and it will only serve to discourage you further from applying to scholarships that you can actually win!
3. Ask your school counselor about local scholarships
At my high school, we had a giant three-ring binder full of local scholarships that was kept in our grade counselor’s office. Things may be done differently at other schools, but always look for scholarships that are offered exclusively in your hometown or area. Your school counselor is an excellent resource for you to consult about what local options are available to you. Local scholarships are particularly great because the competition won’t be as fierce—there will be fewer students who meet the geographic requirements. Additionally, if the scholarship is local, you're more likely to know someone on the scholarship committee, and it can be very valuable when a decision-maker can personally vouch for your character.
4. Apply for all the institutional scholarships you can
This is especially relevant for students who want to attend private schools. Always, always, always apply for scholarships exclusive to the colleges and universities to which you apply. It can seem like a hassle, but you might be surprised by how much money some schools are willing to offer for the chance of attracting your interest. Another tip is to sign up for admission interviews if possible. Doing so will make you stand out not only for admission purposes but for institutional scholarships as well. You will have spoken to an administrator with influence, and making a good impression can take you far. When I signed up for an interview with Southwestern University, I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I went and spoke with an admission counselor anyway. We talked for around 30–40 minutes, and it was very conversational and low pressure. Above all, don’t act like someone you’re not, make eye contact, and you will be memorable.
5. Always save copies of previous essays
A piece of good news: Scholarship application essays do get easier—not only because you have practiced, but because you can use saved copies of previous essays over and over. While this may not work with every scholarship essay, most prompts are similar enough that with a bit of tweaking, you may never have to rewrite an entire essay. This might make the essay prompts seem even more repetitive than they actually are, but just keep in mind that you could be writing an entirely new essay! I personally keep all of my scholarship essays in a separate folder in Google Docs for easy access, and it has served me well so far.
6. Make and update a spreadsheet of your progress
There are few things more stressful than realizing a scholarship is due the next day, and you still have to write two essays, request a transcript, and dig out three letters of recommendation before the deadline. Make a simple timeline to keep yourself organized, especially if organization doesn’t come naturally to you. My scholarship spreadsheet has columns for the scholarship name, my application status, the amount of money awarded, the due date, and the notification date. Just keeping a table current can help you prioritize and focus on how much money you have applied for, how much you have received, and how much you still have to go.
Bonus tip: Don’t give up!
When you’re swamped with schoolwork, family, and college preparation, you can easily get frustrated with scholarships. This is especially true if it’s your senior year and senioritis (a very real thing) is setting in. Even so, remember just how little effort that essay will feel like on the other side of $5,000. Good luck!
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