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How to Apply for and WIN Scholarships

Suzanne Shaffer

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The number one question parents and students ask when they contemplate college is, “How are we going to pay for it?”

Even if you were diligent and saved for higher education, tuition costs are constantly on the rise. Did you know the average annual tuition (not including room and board) at a private college or university is $35,000 per year? State institutions are also costly, with tuition rates around $25,000 per year. This creates a challenge for most families.

In order to avoid borrowing or taking money from your retirement, your student can apply for and win scholarships to help pay for college. Although many parents and students believe applying for scholarships is a waste of their time, nothing could be further from the truth.

It does, however, require a serious time commitment from your student.

Where Do You Begin the Search?

There are scholarships available for every student from grade school to graduate school. Most students begin searching during high school and neglect to continue applying during college. By doing this, they are leaving free money on the table which could lead to excessive borrowing and additional student loan debt.

When searching for scholarships, it’s crucial to know where to look. Parents can help by listening and watching for scholarship opportunities. There are smartphone apps like Scholly that allow you to search while waiting in the car for your student (which I used to spend quite a bit of time doing). Once you find a scholarship that would be a good match for your student, share it with them via text or email.

In addition to using online sources, keep your eyes open for scholarship opportunities posted at fast food restaurants, coffee shops, chain store registers and local bulletin boards.

Here are five more ways your student can search:

  • Locally — Always begin with local scholarship searches. Look on school websites and ask local companies and charitable organizations if they offer scholarships. While you are at it, ask friends and family, especially those who have previously won scholarships.
  • Social media — With just a simple search, students can find a wealth of scholarship information using Pinterest, Facebook and Twitter. Don’t forget about college prep blogs like Monica Matthews’ How to Win College Scholarships and Jessica Velasco’s monthly scholarship list.
  • Scholarship search engines — Scholarship search engines abound. Websites like Fastweb and Cappex are good places to start.
  • High school counselors and college financial aid offices — Both may maintain lists of scholarships. Check in often to ask about any new ones that become available.
  • Areas of specific interest — Look for scholarships that are the best fit. Is your student interested in television and film? A budding scientist? A pre-med or pre-law major? Do a Google search using this criteria.

Next: How Does Your Student Rise to the Top?

1. Craft a winning scholarship essay

Some scholarship applications take little effort, such as no-essay scholarships, while others require creative submissions like videos, artwork or photography. Most, however, have an essay as the main component.

Writing an essay that stands out and impresses the reader is key to winning the scholarship. Be smart and read some winning essays, especially if your student can find ones for the scholarship they’re interested in.

In addition, follow these steps:

  • Format correctly. If the format isn’t correct, the essay/application may be rejected outright. Read instructions carefully and follow them explicitly. Stay within the suggested word count limit. Use the correct font and type size, following any specific guidelines provided. And of course be sure to answer the essay question!
  • Know your audience. Before typing one word, research the sponsor of the scholarship. Knowing about the sponsor will help you tailor your essay using specific information about the sponsor if applicable. Otherwise you’re likely to produce a generic essay, which gives the impression you’re not interested in the sponsor and what they do. When planning the essay, use the information you find and make the reader feel like you are the perfect match for their scholarship.
  • Outline the essay. Before you begin, decide what you want to convey and plan out each point. An essay that rambles and never reaches a conclusion will not make a positive impression.
  • Be authentic. If you want to connect with the reader, make your writing authentic and personal. This will happen if you write about your own real life experiences and use natural (but not slang-y) language. Your essay should convey the sense of a real person telling a unique story.
  • Proofread carefully before submitting. There must be no spelling or grammar mistakes in your essay. It should read fluently and demonstrate your writing skill. Ask someone else to proofread it, too. This is also a good moment to confirm that your essay answers the prompt, so ask your reader to tell you what question they believe the essay is answering.

Your student should be prepared to write multiple drafts, so remember to leave time for that.

2. Follow instructions carefully

Print a list of every element required for completion of the scholarship application. Create a checklist and verify that you have followed every instruction listed in the scholarship guidelines. A missing component is a sure rejection.

You are presenting your best self through these submissions, so check and double-check your essay and supplemental materials. It’s critical that you do not miss the deadline. In fact, if possible submit the application at least two weeks before the deadline.

3. Package the application

Your student’s application must stand out. Recommendations, if required, should be stellar. Choose the people who write these recommendations carefully.

If there are no instructions about not including additional elements (newspaper clippings, awards, etc.), include them; and if submitting online, include a link to a personal website (for example, look at created to highlight accomplishments. It’s all about marketing yourself to the scholarship committee.

Mistakes to Avoid

Applying for scholarships is not easy. Your student may apply and get rejected. If that happens, don’t be discouraged. But if your student keeps trying without seeing positive results, they might be making these mistakes:

  • Applying to the wrong scholarships. Read the guidelines carefully and only apply if it’s a good match.
  • Applying to scholarships with thousands of applicants. Maximize your chances by applying to lesser known scholarships with fewer applicants, such as local ones. Remember, several small awards can add up to a significant amount of money.
  • Having a bland or incomplete application. Following instructions and packaging properly is everything.
  • Giving up too quickly. The more applications your student sends, the better their odds of winning one or more.

It's important to be aware of fraudsters prepared to take advantage of unsuspecting students and their families. Learn more about how to spot and avoid scholarship scams >

Applying for Scholarships Should Be Part of Every Student’s College Prep

First, it’s free money that will never have to be repaid.

Second, your student will have a greater appreciation for the sacrifice required to finance their education and this will motivate them to strive to be academically successful.

Lastly, it pays better than any minimum wage job — a $1,000 scholarship that took four hours to complete paid $250 an hour!

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Suzanne Shaffer counsels students and families through her blog, Parenting for College. Her advice has been featured in print and online on Huffington Post, Yahoo Finance, U.S. News College, TeenLife, Smart College Visit, Road2College and more.
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