How To Win A College Scholarship By Mark Kantrowitz
More than $6 billion in scholarships is awarded each year to more than 1.5 million students. Here’s how you can win one or more of these scholarships.
Odds of Winning a Scholarship
Winning scholarships should be part of your plan for paying for college. For most students, however, it should not be the entire plan.
Parents have a tendency to overestimate their child’s eligibility for scholarships and underestimate their child’s eligibility for need-based financial aid.
Only about 1 in 8 college students wins a scholarship, and the average amount used to pay for college is about $4,200 a year. Very few students win $25,000 or more in scholarships each year (only about 0.1%). Among the students who win scholarships, 97% win $2,500 or less.
Getting good grades and admissions test scores is not enough to win a free ride. It is hard to stand out from the crowd based on academic performance alone. Each year, there are more than 80,000 valedictorians and salutatorians. With grade inflation and weighted GPAs, a 4.0 or better GPA is quite common. An A is the new B. Thousands of students earn a perfect SAT score each year.
Although students with a higher GPA tend to win more scholarships, that isn’t because the scholarships are awarded based on academic performance. Very few scholarships applications ask about the student’s GPA, other than a few hundred full-tuition academic scholarships offered by colleges and universities.
Instead, you have to excel in some other area. Scholarship providers want to see excellence in an area that matters to the scholarship provider. Long-term involvement is also a key criterion. Depth matters more than breadth.
Investing Digest: Know what’s moving the financial markets and what smart money is buying with Forbes Investing Digest.Sign Up
What’s the Difference between a Scholarship and a Grant?
Scholarships and grants are both types of gift aid, which is money that does not need to be earned through employment or repaid.
Although the two terms are used as synonyms, there are important differences.
- Eligibility for a grant, such as the Federal Pell Grant, is based on financial need.
- Eligibility for a scholarship is based on merit, such as academic, athletic or artistic talent. For example, there’s a $10,000 scholarship for creating a prom costume out of duct tape. The winners demonstrate an incredible amount of creativity and an elegant design sense.
Use the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to apply for need-based financial aid, such as grants.
Scholarship applications are submitted to each scholarship provider. Your first step will involve finding the scholarships for which you are eligible.
How to Find Scholarships
It is important to start searching for scholarships immediately. Many scholarships have deadlines in the fall of the senior year in high school, not just in the spring. There are also scholarships available to students in younger grades, even in elementary school. You can continue applying for scholarships after you enroll in college.
Search for scholarships using free scholarship matching web sites such as Fastweb.com and the College Board’s Big Future. It takes only about half an hour to search for scholarships. The real work is in submitting the scholarship applications.
Scholarship listing books can be good for random exploration of possible scholarships. You can find them in local libraries and bookstores, as well as Amazon.com. Before buying any book, check its copyright date. If it was published more than a year or two ago, it is too old to be useful, as scholarship information changes frequently.
You may be able to find information about small local scholarships, such as a PTA scholarship, on bulletin boards outside your school counselor’s office or near the library’s jobs and careers section.
How to Increase the Number of Scholarship Matches
The more scholarship matches you get, the greater your opportunities to apply for scholarships.
Most scholarship search sites ask optional questions in addition to the required questions.
Students who answer the optional questions tend to match twice as many scholarships as students who answer just the required questions.
The optional questions are asked because they trigger matches with specific scholarships. The scholarship search site can’t match you against those scholarships unless you answer the questions.
Pitfalls to Avoid When Searching for Scholarships
Beware of scholarship scams.
Most scholarship scams try to get you to pay them money. But, scholarships are about giving away money, not getting money. If you have to pay money to apply for a scholarship, it’s probably a scam.
Don’t be fooled by scholarships that claim you have to pay them the taxes. Scholarships that are used to pay for tuition and textbooks are tax-free. If you do have to pay taxes, the taxes are paid to the IRS, not to the scholarship provider.
Other scholarship scams charge a “refundable” application fee or a nominal application fee. They might call it a processing charge. They might say they need your credit card or bank account number to “hold” the scholarship for you. They might send you a scholarship check for too much money and ask you to pay the difference. By the time you realize the scholarship check was a worthless forgery, they are long gone with your money.
There are also paid scholarship matching services. These sites don’t have better scholarship databases than the free scholarship search web sites. So, don’t waste your money on them.
Many paid scholarship search services try to convince you to use their services by guaranteeing results. Use of a guarantee, other than “satisfaction guaranteed or your money back,” is on its face fraudulent because the scholarship provider can’t guarantee your performance. They might also falsely assert that some scholarships go unclaimed or that they have exclusive access to specific scholarships.
How Many Scholarship Applications Should You Submit?
You should apply to every scholarship for which you are eligible. Do not limit yourself to just one type of scholarship, such as less competitive scholarships, more generous scholarships and no essay scholarships.
There are many talented students, so the odds of winning a scholarship involve some luck, not just skill. You can increase your odds of winning a scholarship by applying to more scholarships.
But, don’t apply to a scholarship if you don’t match the selection criteria or if you’ve missed the deadline. Your scholarship application will not be considered.
Don’t get discouraged when you get rejections. Even students who win a gazillion dollars in scholarships get dozens of rejections for every scholarship they win.
Isn’t Applying for Every Scholarship a Lot of Work?
Applying to many scholarships is not as much work as it might seem.
After your first half-dozen or so scholarship applications, you’ll find that you can start reusing your old scholarship essays, tailoring them to each scholarship provider’s goals. Just remember to change the name of the scholarship program if you mention it in the essay. (Oops!)
Applying to scholarships is a worthwhile use of your time, even for the less generous scholarships. Suppose you apply to 10 scholarships worth $500 each and you win one. If it takes an hour to complete each scholarship application, that’s $500 for 10 hours of work, or $50 an hour. That pays better than babysitting or shoveling snow.
What to Do before Applying for a Scholarship
Start by getting organized.
- After you assemble a list of scholarships, organize them by application deadline.
- Make a checklist of the application requirements, such as essays and letters of recommendation. Some scholarships may require work on a project, such as a science fair project.
Create a scholarship resume, where you list all of your accomplishments, including honors, awards, hobbies, sports, volunteering and other activities. Be specific as to dates and other important details. Share the scholarship resume with the teachers and other people who will be writing letters of recommendation for you.
Google your name and review your social media accounts to look for negative information. Delete any negative information, such as pictures of underage drinking or drug use, and posts demonstrating a negative attitude. Scholarship providers are investing their money in your future, and they don’t want to risk awarding a scholarship to someone who will reflect badly on them. More than a quarter of scholarship providers require finalists to friend them on Facebook to get to know the applicants better.
Print or save a copy of your scholarship application before you mail or submit it. This will make it easier to resend your application if it gets lost.
If a scholarship requires nomination, ask the nominator to nominate you. Give them a copy of your scholarship resume. You might get nominated because you’re the only student to ask to be nominated. If you don’t ask to be nominated, you probably won’t be considered.
How to Write Better Scholarship Essays
There is a simple trick that can help you write better essays and avoid writer’s block.
Instead of struggling to write an essay, answer the essay question out loud while recording your response. Later, you will transcribe the recording.
Most people write or type at 30 to 60 words per minute, while they speak at about 200 words per minute. The act of writing interferes with the flow of thought.
Answering the question out loud will also yield a more passionate and powerful essay. You will be telling a story, which is more interesting than a recitation of abstract facts.
Of course, you’ll need to edit the transcription, organizing the content into an outline to give it structure. As you do this, you’ll find it easy to add more material and examples, expanding on your ideas.
After you’ve written the essay, proofread it. Grammar and spelling errors can give a bad impression.
Reading the essay out look can also help you proofread it. Print out a copy of the essay, so that it looks different than the way it appears on a computer screen. As you read it, mark any place where you stumble. Disfluencies can be signs of a problem with the essay, such as bad flow, bad lexical choice or logic errors, as well as spelling and grammar errors. Afterwards, correct the problems and read it out loud again.
How to Ace the Scholarship Interview
Practice, practice, practice. Ask a friend or a parent to conduct a mock interview, to give you practice interviewing. Record a video of the interview and watch it afterward. You’ll be shocked at all your ums and ahs.
Think about answers to likely interview questions in advance. For example, you will probably have an opportunity to say why you deserve the scholarship. So, prepare an elevator speech that highlights three relevant aspects of your background. Don’t memorize this speech; just remember the key points you want to make, so you can have a natural response to the interviewer’s questions.
Before you start interviewing with Zoom or other videoconferencing software, take a picture with your webcam and examine it carefully. Clean your webcam if it is dirty. If there are any inappropriate posters in the background, remove them. Try to present a neat and tidy appearance, without a lot of clutter.
For an in-person interview, bathe or shower the morning of the interview, use deodorant and brush your teeth. Dress professionally. Do not chew gum or smoke. Arrive a few minutes early, in case you get lost on your way to the interview location. You are trying to give a good impression.
What to Do after You Win a Scholarship
Many scholarships are renewable. After you win the scholarship the first time, you can keep on receiving it each year you are in college. But, you have to take a few steps to keep it.
Many renewable scholarships require the recipient to maintain good grades. Some require participation in community service or a meeting organized by the scholarship provider. Many scholarships require sending in grade reports and updating the scholarship program about your academic and non-academic activities.
Scholarship providers also want to hear about the impact the scholarship has made on the recipient’s life. Some scholarship recipients have written such heartfelt and genuine thank you letters that the scholarship provider decided to turn a non-renewable scholarship into a renewable scholarship.
Winning a scholarship is the hard part. After you win the scholarship, review the requirements for keeping it.
Don’t forget to add the scholarship to your scholarships resume. Winning smaller scholarships can help you win bigger scholarships.