Scholarship Basics and Tips
We all know college is super expensive; not only do you have to pay tuition, but there's also room and board (for those of you staying on campus), a meal plan (yay for cafeteria food…), and textbooks (buying hundred-dollar books for one chapter). It's a lot. Luckily for us, there's help: scholarships! Of course there's no guarantee that you'll actually be awarded any money, and sometimes it can seem like a whole lot of work for a whole lot of nothing. But that's why I'm here! I've gone through the process recently (and am doing it again), and I'm at your service with suggestions and tips.
A lot of these tips come from StudentAid.gov/scholarships, so check out that page for a more comprehensive, detailed guide to scholarships.
Types of Scholarships
There are scholarships for almost everything—all you have to do is look. Applying for scholarships doesn't have to be tedious—find scholarships for things you're passionate about. Some scholarships are really cool. There are scholarships for animal rescue, volunteering with the elderly, etc.; you can find them through specific organizations, too.
You can't apply for scholarships if you don't know where to find them. Here's a handy list of places you can get money from:
- Scholarship websites like fastweb.com (my personal fave) and collegegreenlight.com
- A college's financial aid office (offers scholarships just for that specific college)
- Community/religious organizations, local businesses, community foundations (you usually have a better chance of winning these because there's a smaller pool of applicants)
- Your employer or your parents' employers
- Your high school counselor's office
- Your state higher education agency
- Organizations related to your field of interest (give it a quick Google search)
Who Can Apply
Anyone who is going to be attending college next year—current high school seniors and current college students. Different scholarships have different eligibility requirements, so check and make sure you meet all the requirements for a scholarship before you apply.
When to Apply
Now. Just assume that you should be looking for and applying for scholarships right now. Even if the due date isn't for months, it's good to get a head start. It seems to me that "scholarship season" is in late winter/early spring for the next academic year, though, and that is when most scholarships will be offered.
There are several things that often pop up as requirements for scholarship applications, so it's good to get those things ready early. Some scholarships, along with an essay, will require:
- FAFSA information; so file the FAFSA as soon as it becomes available
- At least one letter of recommendation from a teacher, counselor, or someone else familiar with your academic achievements
- A professional picture of you—it doesn't have to be an actual professional headshot, but it has to be nice and appropriate (senior pictures are good for that)
- Your latest transcript and GPA
The Dreaded Essay
A lot of scholarship essay assignments are really similar and want you to answer questions like "What is your biggest accomplishment in life?" so you can do a decent amount of copying and pasting from one application to another. Many scholarship applications will ask for rather dry and academic responses, but sometimes you can use your hobbies as material for your essays. That definitely makes the essay-writing easier. If you're looking to actually enjoy the scholarship application process, fun essay prompts do exist. My favorite one was an essay about the best food experience I've ever had. I wrote about eating a mango on a roof in Guatemala; it was awesome.
Time for the fun part. Here are my recommendations:
- Sort your applications by due date and do them in the order they're due; but keep in mind that some require more work (letters of recommendation, a longer essay, etc.) and may take more time.
- Make sure your essay follows the instructions and is within the word limit.
- Have several people (preferably people who have recent experience with essay writing/reviewing) look over your essay to make sure it's good.
- Present yourself as worthy of a scholarship, but not cocky or like you're pathetic (it's hard, I know).
- Try to submit your application at least a day ahead of the deadline. Right before the deadline the website can get clogged and potentially even shut down with a high influx of activity.
- Make sure you include all the required materials and submit everything properly.
- Get started as soon as possible.
- Check out fastweb.com and StudentAid.gov/scholarships.
- Apply for all scholarships you are eligible for—keep an eye on deadlines!
- Have an educated mentor review everything.