How I Apply for Scholarships

"How I Get Scholarships" over image of succulent

For the last two years, I have taken out around $7,000 in student loans. I don’t use all of the loans I take, but I put my refunds aside to pay the loans back after I graduate. I didn’t need student loans my first two years of college because most of my tuition was covered by scholarships. I get student loan refunds because a lot of my tuition is paid with scholarships.

I have two renewable scholarships through my school and two others that I apply for every year.

Disclaimer: I usually pay between $9,000 and $10,000 every academic year. My tuition is not high because I am a communication/professional writing major. It would be a little higher if I were an engineering or medical major.

It does not take a lot of scholarships and loans to cover my tuition. Regardless, I apply for scholarships every year because “free” money is the best money. I write “free” because you don’t have to pay it back. You do have to work for it; there are essays to write, forms to fill out, and any other task the scholarship application asks you to do. You work, but it’s entirely worth it. If you win the scholarship, you get the money. If you lose ,you have essays you can improve, and experience you can use for the next application.

Scholarships don’t just “happen” to people. Albeit, sometimes people are given scholarships as a means of incentive, recruitment, or they were nominated for the award. Outside of these instances, most people get scholarships because they applied, and they applied to a lot of them. Not everyone gets every scholarship they apply for, that’s why you can’t stop at just one or two.

These are the tips I use to apply for scholarships:

First things first, be wary of due dates and the amount of work you will need to put into the applications. Many scholarships have two due dates. Applications submitted before the first due date (or priority date) will have a higher chance of consideration than applications that are received at the last minute on the last due date.

Save every essay you write! You can recycle them with minor tweaks and this saves time and effort if you are applying for a lot of scholarships. Recycling essays is easy, and you can pick from multiple essays to put a new one together, you can shorten or lengthen existing essays, or use them for inspiration for a new one. Type all of your essays into a word or google doc and have someone proofread it for you. Never write essays directly into online application “boxes,” copy and paste it from a separate document.

If the application seems too hard, it’s because they are looking for people who are willing to work for their money. Don’t give up on a difficult application because the odds are, most do. Do these well and complete them to the best of your ability. I have received two scholarships from the same organization in the same year because I was the only applicant (out of three) who actually completed the application correctly. It was tedious and enraging, but completely worth it.

Stop thinking “I will never get that scholarship because…”  You will never get that scholarship because you aren’t willing to try and that’s the only reason. There are some real reasons why you will not get a scholarship, but they are not good enough for you to not try. There are some exceptions to this that I will get into later. Apply for almost every scholarship you find.

Where to look for scholarships:

It is pretty easy for high school students to find scholarships. It’s a little more difficult when you are a college student. There are scholarships out there, you just need to look at every application you find because many do not differentiate between high school and college students. There are a lot of places to look.

Does your hometown, or the town you currently live in offer scholarships? Local scholarships are often exclusive to high school students, but there are many that aren’t. The first place to look for scholarships is in your community. My freshman year I got a scholarship from the electric company that served my part of the county. My dad found the application in a magazine we know a lot of people throw away.

Your college or university offers scholarships. Go to your financial aid website, check your school email for notices about scholarships. Most schools have “foundation” scholarships. My school has a list where you can look at the selection criteria of all of the ones offered, then you can check every single one you want to apply for and write between four and six essays that will be used for all of them. I applied for 30+ scholarships doing this.

Ask your grandparents and parents if their employer or organizations they are a part of offer scholarships. The Emblem club, which is a part of the Elks club, has given me quite a bit of money because I apply every year and my grandmother is a member. You usually can’t apply for these scholarships without a member representative. There are a lot of these, utilize them because that means the selection pool will be smaller. Both of my parents work in companies that provide scholarships to their employee’s family members. Odds are, you know someone with this connection.

Look for scholarships for a hobby or skill you have. Don’t just look for academic or financial need scholarships. Also look for organizational membership or talent-based scholarships. If you love to write poetry, you can probably find a scholarship for poets. This is the same for many hobbies and talents regardless of how obscure they might be.

Be wary of scholarships websites. They advertise a large variety and “thousands” of scholarships to apply for. Many of these scholarships are a lottery simply because of the density of people who apply for them and the competition will be higher. If you want to apply for scholarships through these websites, go for it, but they often come with a “login” and you will get a lot of spammy emails from them.

Apply for every scholarship you can, even if you don’t exactly fit the criteria because it’s good to get the practice. If your grades aren’t quite there, or you aren’t a member of ____ organization, apply anyways. It’s good practice and you never know which requirements are flexible if you can compensate in some other way. If your grades aren’t great, but you have a lot of community service hours, they might ignore the grades.

With this said, do not apply for scholarships that are for minorities or people in specific circumstances, if you are not. Never, EVER misrepresent your race, sexual orientation, financial situation, or disability to apply for a scholarship. This is unethical and could eliminate opportunities for people who do not lie in their applications and truly deserve the scholarships.

Things you need to do outside of filling out applications:

Collect a few official transcripts from every school you have gone to. Keep these on hand for last minute scholarships, or applications with a short application period. Request individual transcripts for all other scholarships. Use the “on hand” transcripts if you don’t have time to request new ones.

Get a good head shot and print a handful of wallet sized copies (on picture paper, not printer paper). These can be strategically cropped selfies or a professional head shot. Some scholarships require head shots in the application if you are mailing it. There is a particularly difficult scholarship I apply for every year that requires a glossy finish, wallet-sized head shot, to be attached to my physical application. It took ten days to order these special and I had to do something last minute once because I did not have them on hand and did the application last minute. I did not get the scholarship that year.

Know who to ask for letters of recommendation. Don’t just ask for one, but also provide an idea of what you want them to write about, so you don’t get something obviously generic. This can be as simple as asking for a character recommendation, an achievement highlight, etc. If you have a positive relationship with the person you ask or have made a good impression, they will know what to write and be happy to do it. Also ask for a copy of the letter so you can save it and use it later. I have a folder full of letters of recommendation, but I always ask for at least two new ones from two different people every time I apply for scholarships.

If you receive a scholarship:

Always send a thank you card or note, even if the scholarship wasn’t significant ($200 or less). Thank you cards will express your appreciation for their donation to your future, will make them feel good about selecting you or donating to the scholarship, and may remember you if you apply again. Not all scholarships provide information required to send a thank you letter to anyone in particular. In some situations, you could send a letter to the organization. In my experience, you will probably get a letter from the organization, foundation, or individual. Send your thank you letter to the address that sent you the acceptance or congratulations letter. Often there is more information you will need to send to the scholarship organization, and this is the best time to send a thank you letter as well.

Be genuine in your thank you letter. Thanking someone for giving you money is tricky. Thank them for contributing to your future. Let them know how much you appreciate their help. Tell them where the money is going, this means sharing with them what your end goal is. Tell them what you want to do with your degree and the career you intend to choose. Illustrate a product (you are the product), because at this point they invested in you, it would be nice to see what that investment is going to do.

These are the things I consider and do every time I apply for scholarships and I hope they are helpful. Scholarships are opportunities you should never pass up. Remember, don’t get discouraged if you don’t receive a scholarship you wanted, or didn’t get any one year. Never give up, keep trying and stay motivated to do your best.

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