Getting scholarships to pay for school is a goal shared by just about every person with dreams of going to college.
“Scholarships are the holy grail — free money for college that you don’t have to repay,” says Jean Chatzky, CEO of Her Money and College Ave Blog contributor. “Getting them, however, requires a game plan. You need to start with research (a scholarship matching tool helps), make sure you look like a gem online, fine-tune your applications including putting the time into your essay, and cast a wide net by applying to as many as possible.”
And that’s just broadly speaking. It can all seem overwhelming so this article breaks it down into ten simple tips designed help you find scholarships that can lower your college costs.
1. Start early (before junior year).
There’s no need to wait until junior year to start applying for scholarships. Getting a head start gives you more time to research which scholarships are worth your time and energy. Once you know the best options, you’ll have plenty of space to complete the applications that other students may have skipped. Some scholarships are available to freshmen and sophomores in high school, so knock those applications out of the way as early as possible!
Tip: Many scholarships have limited funds. That means the earlier you apply, the more likely it is you’ll be rewarded before that budget runs out. It’s even more of a reason to get a move on. Read more on Why You Should Apply for Scholarships (Year-Round).
2. Use a scholarship matching tool.
Gone are the days of paper applications in the guidance counselor’s office. Now you can quickly search through huge databases of thousands of available scholarships online. Through filters and keywords, you can find the ones that fit your qualifications, experiences, background, or unique interests. Focus on the scholarships you’re a good match for and rule out the ones where you don’t meet all the requirements. Don’t get overwhelmed by all the options. Just take your time narrowing down the scholarships that make sense.
Here’s a list of sites you can use for your search:
U.S. Department of Labor’s free scholarship search tool
3. Lean on your advisor.
Your high school counselor or college advisor is a great sounding board for finding the right scholarships. While you may not be applying in their office, they can help you choose which scholarships are the best to apply for. Advisors will often take the time to review your submissions and help you improve your essays and applications. You can also learn a lot by checking out past scholarship winners and how they approached their submission.
Ask your guidance counselor which scholarships are the most popular and which are more tailored to your background. You can also work together to find specific scholarships from the schools you want to apply to. Talking with an expert will help you focus your search so that it serves your needs more efficiently.
Read more about What’s the Difference Between Grants, Scholarships, and Loans?
4. Tap into your network.
Spread the word to your employer, coaches, friends, and members of your community that you’re looking for scholarships. Ask your parents to check with their friends and HR departments at work about scholarships for family members.
There are usually a lot of scholarships offered locally that are not particularly well advertised. You can often find these through your high school counselor, in the local paper, or at the library. Check in directly with local foundations, community organizations, and local businesses to see if they offer any scholarships, too.
5. Polish your online presence.
When applying for scholarships (or jobs or colleges), the person reviewing your application might Google you. Make sure they find the right kind of results. Most students opt to make their social media private, but you should know that there are still ways for colleges to see what you post. It’s a good idea to refresh your LinkedIn profile, social media accounts, and personal website so you can control what searchers will find.
If you don’t have a personal website or portfolio, now is the time to make one. Sites like Wix, Squarespace, and Weebly offer free, easy-to-use website builders. It’s never too early to invest in a domain name and website you control. Getting your name out there and highlighting your strengths and interests is a great way to make yourself known and available.
6. Look beyond your grades.
You don’t have to have a 4.0 to qualify for scholarships. In fact, some scholarships don’t even take grades into account. Aside from your GPA, it’s important to find a way to stand out from the crowd on your applications. Before you start filling out the forms, think about what makes you uniquely qualified and deserving of that scholarship.
What special talents or skills do you offer? Perhaps you can demonstrate your perseverance in the face of adversity as a first-generation student. Maybe your leadership skills on the basketball court are what make you unique. Find an area where you excel or that means a lot to you and focus on that. Your passion will shine through when it comes time to describe your extracurricular activities in your scholarship applications.
7. Collect letters of recommendation.
Scholarship and college applications usually require a few letters of recommendation from teachers and community members who know you best. They could include your employer, teachers, coaches, high school counselors, or other adults who can testify to your strengths, qualifications, and ambition.
Since you’re asking for a significant favor, it’s best to provide as much relevant information as possible to the letter-writer. You might even want to provide a Word template for them to use as they write your recommendation. Here are some other things you can provide:
Overview of the scholarship (if it’s for a specific application)
Your key strengths as related to the requirements AND your relationship to the reviewer. (Example: If you’re applying for a leadership scholarship, you might ask your Honor Society advisor to address your successful reelection as president.)
A copy of your resume
Any other plans for the future, like which colleges you’re applying to and what major you will pursue
After you collect your letters of recommendation, make sure you thank your reviewers for taking the time to help you.
8. Apply for MANY scholarships, big and small.
Earning enough scholarship money to pay for college will likely come from many different sources. You’ll need to apply to lots of scholarships to cover all your bases. Don’t overlook those with smaller awards. Winning $1,000 here and there will add up quickly. Plus, the more you apply to, the better your odds of winning.
Make applying to scholarships your new habit. Set a goal to apply to one or two each month, starting sophomore year so you’re ahead of the curve. There are scholarships available for high school students, undergrads, and graduate students, and some scholarships allow you to enter multiple times. For example, you can enter to win our College Ave $1,000 scholarship sweepstakes once a month. To have a good shot at the numbers game of applying to scholarships, make sure you keep your numbers up!
9. Write a great essay.
Many students shy away from scholarships that require essays, but a well-written essay can be your ticket to standing out from the crowd. If you don’t have great writing skills, consider working with your advisor or attending a writing workshop to help you develop a memorable essay, which is also great practice for college applications.
Tip: You may be able to reuse portions of your essay for more than one scholarship application. Just be careful to follow the scholarship rules, including essay word count. The most important thing to remember is to answer the question that’s being asked. Don’t reuse another essay because it’s well written. Make sure you understand the prompt and can show your comprehension and writing skills simultaneously.
10. Practice your interview skills.
Some scholarships require an in-person interview. Being a good interviewee takes time, so practice answering questions about your background, interests, achievements, and aspirations. Remember that the more comfortable you are chatting with the interviewer and answering questions, the better the interview will go. Don’t be nervous; your interviewer wants to get a real feel for who you are and what makes you a good fit. Now’s your chance to show them.
To earn scholarships, you need to give yourself enough time to research your options, complete thoughtful applications, and lean on people at school and in your community for support. With just a little bit of work, you’ll save thousands of dollars on your education and start college on the right foot.