How to Win Scholarships for College: 20 Expert Tips
Scholarships are one of the best ways to help fund your college education. But unlike financial aid or grants, which award funding based on financial need, scholarships require a bit more work than just filling out a FAFSA. Most awards are merit-based, so even if you meet the eligibility requirements, you’ll still have to put in a bit of elbow grease to win over the selection committee. Fortunately, there are many ways to demonstrate merit — and plenty of opportunities to do so.
Education Data Initiative estimates that approximately 1.7 million scholarships are offered each year. And according to ThinkImpact, 30% of scholarship winners have GPAs from 3.0 to 3.4. That means you don’t necessarily have to be at the top of your class to win big. All you need is to think strategically, work hard, and be persistent. To help you do just that, we compiled this list of 20 strategies for how to win college scholarships.
How to win scholarships: 20 top strategies
Looking to supplement your financial aid? Here are 20 top strategies you can use to win scholarships to help pay for college.
1. Start the process as early as possible
If you want to increase your odds of winning a scholarship, giving yourself ample time to prepare and perfect your applications is critical. Like preparing for the SATs, it’s never too early to start your scholarship search. While many scholarship contests target high school juniors, seniors, and current college students, plenty of programs are open to applicants of all ages. Even if you’re not ready to enroll in college any time soon, you can still begin the research and organization process today.
2. Sign up for Going Merry
One of the most time-consuming parts of the scholarship application process is the search. With more than a million different awards out there, it can feel daunting to try and find the ones you’re actually eligible for. But when you sign up for Going Merry, you’ll get high-quality awards that fit your eligibility profile — all delivered directly to your inbox.
Once your profile is complete, a robust scholarship-matching software will connect you to a list of scholarships that are perfect for you. You can also apply to the majority of these awards directly through Going Merry. This means you won’t have to keep track of a bunch of different logins or re-upload your transcripts or documents each time you apply. Instead, it’s all in one place, poised and ready to send.
3. Make a list of college scholarships
On Going Merry and other scholarship websites, you can browse through tons of scholarship listings, but at a certain point, they may all start to blur together in your head. To streamline your application process and avoid wasting time, keep a running list of scholarship opportunities that you’re eligible for. (You can find the eligibility requirements listed alongside most scholarships. On Going Merry, you can also search scholarships by your personal criteria, be that gender, race, state of residence, or GPA.) Try to include a variety of scholarship types — national scholarships, merit scholarships, and local awards, too. At this stage, it’s great if your list is extensive.
4. Search for awards specific to you
In the beginning, you’ll likely add a lot of general scholarship opportunities to your list. However, it’s also important to seek out awards where you might have an edge. There are many types of scholarships, including programs for artistic students, student-athlete scholarships, awards for those pursuing specific majors, and even some super-niche scholarships. Think through your unique interests, then search for awards to match.
5. Research local organizations
As you continue building out your list, look into local organizations that might offer unique, area-specific scholarships. Going Merry collates a huge variety of awards, like national, local, and state-specific awards (see no. 18 here). But there are still many small businesses and nonprofits that offer under-the-radar local scholarships. These are usually designed to help local students offset the cost of college, either in their home state or beyond. The best part about these local opportunities is that they tend to have smaller applicant pools, which could boost your chances of winning.
6. Reach out to your chosen colleges
If you’re a student in your senior year of high school and already know the university you want to attend, consult the college financial aid office. Most universities offer their own specific scholarships, and you can add those to your list, too. If you’re still working on your college applications and/or don’t have a particular school in mind, reach out to your high school guidance counselor. They might know about some great scholarship opportunities you haven’t thought of.
7. Prioritize your scholarship list
Once you’ve built your long list of scholarship opportunities, it’s time to create a game plan. First, organize your list into different categories. It might make sense to categorize them based on dollar amount, how likely you think you are to win, or the amount of time it’ll take you to complete the application. Many large national scholarships carry large prizes but also garner thousands of applications, making them more competitive. While local scholarships typically aren’t as lucrative, you could have a greater chance of winning. Don’t neglect either category. Make a list of your top ten awards, and include some of each.
8. Create a deadline calendar
Missing a deadline is the easiest way to take yourself out of the running for a scholarship. Create a specific calendar, either on paper or on your computer. Then, record the due dates for each award on your top-ten list. Put your calendar on your bulletin board or save it to your desktop — any place where you’ll see it often. Also include some self-assigned deadlines. For example, you might aim to submit your letter-of-recommendation requests a month before the relevant scholarship’s due date, and have your essay’s first draft complete two weeks before the final deadline. All these mile markers should be clearly labeled on your calendar.
9. Apply to easy scholarships first
If none of your deadlines are urgent, then the first awards on your to-do list should be the easy ones. These are the scholarship programs that don’t require too many specific documents, essays, or letters of recommendation. (There are even a number of free scholarships that are sweepstakes style, which means all you need to do is sign up to apply.) If you get these easy applications out of the way first, you’ll have less on your to-do list and more energy to focus on the more extensive applications.
10. Apply to awards in bulk
The more awards you apply for, the more you’re likely to win. And one of the best ways to maximize your application output is to apply in bulk. On Going Merry, you can apply to a number of scholarships with a single click. Simply look for scholarship “bundles,” which are similar awards with similar requirements, on the platform’s main search page.
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11. Watch out for scholarship scams
Any time you waste applying for a scam award is time you could have spent applying for real scholarship money. For that reason, a key component to a smart scholarship search is learning to avoid scams. On reputable scholarship platforms (like Going Merry, for example) you can rest assured that every scholarship advertised is legitimate. On other websites, be sure to double-check the provider, the type of information they’re asking for, and whether or not they require payment. No scholarship application should come with a fee. If it does, stay away.
12. Research the scholarship providers
An easy way to make your application stand out is to speak directly to an organization’s mission. As you get ready to write your essays, take the time to read up on the scholarship provider. If the award is sponsored by a climate-focused organization, be sure to write about that beach clean-up you attended or highlight the volunteer activities on your resume. Personalizing your essays will only take a few extra minutes and could make a huge difference in your chances of winning.
13. Write a resume
Make or update your resume before you begin the scholarship application process. It’s a required document on many applications, but that’s not the only reason it matters. A thorough resume can help your teachers and mentors write their letters of recommendation, which will, in turn, help you get those letters back faster.
Since letters of recommendation can be a huge bottleneck in the scholarship application process, anything you can do to streamline this step is a great way to boost your odds of hitting your deadlines — and therefore your chances of winning free money. There are a variety of resume templates you can use. Be sure to include your extracurriculars like sports, hobbies, and artistic endeavors, as well as your employment history, community service work, and any honors or awards you’ve received.
14. Get amazing letters of recommendation
Letters of recommendation are an opportunity to make your application shine. Be thoughtful about who you ask to write on your behalf. Great candidates are people like your guidance counselor, your homeroom teacher, a trusted coach or mentor. Ideally, the person writing your references can speak to your character and your academic ability. (Also check the application to see if it requests a specific type of letter. For example, if you’re applying to a STEM-related scholarship, it might require a letter from your science teacher.) Then, put together a packet of helpful information, including your resume, grades, test scores, and any personal essays or statements you’ve already completed for the scholarship. Most importantly: be sure to give your reviewers ample time to write their letters. Ask them at least one month before your application is due. If you’re already crunched for time, acknowledge that before you ask so your letter-writer knows what they’re getting into.
15. Take the time to craft an outstanding essay
Particularly for competitive scholarships, the scholarship essay is of utmost importance. It can help your application shine and really give you a chance to demonstrate why you deserve this award. There are a number of different guides to help you start writing, but here are some of the most important tips to remember:
- Start early. Don’t let this wait until the last minute. Scholarship selection committees read thousands of essays. Don’t doubt their ability to pick out the one that was written 30 minutes before the deadline.
- Read the question twice. Thoroughly read the essay question and make sure you understand it.
- Do a little research. Read examples of other successful scholarship essays to learn more about the format and how to execute it well. You may also want to seek out templates to help you craft a solid outline.
- Brainstorm. Write down a list of things that make you unique, and jot down some reasons you’re qualified for this award. Also brainstorm some things you’d like to say about the essay topic at hand.
- Write a first draft. This doesn’t have to be anywhere near perfect; the most important thing is to get it done with plenty of time to edit. A few days later, re-read your essay to make sure you’ve answered the question. If you haven’t, add whatever’s missing.
- Share your draft. Have a trusted friend, parent, or mentor read your first or second draft. Remember: The most time-consuming part of the writing process is rewriting. Listen to feedback and address it. If something about your essay isn’t working, don’t be afraid to go back to the drawing board.
16. Practice your interview skills
For more competitive scholarships, you might be asked to schedule an interview as part of the application process. Even if this hasn’t yet been requested of you, it’s never a bad idea to prepare. Find a list of typical scholarship interview questions online and brainstorm your answers. When you think you’ve got a good one, write that answer down. They don’t need to be perfect, but having an idea of what you want to say will help you perform under pressure. Once you feel ready, ask a trusted friend or teacher to perform a mock interview with you.
17. Proofread your application
So, you’ve gathered up all of your documents, you’ve written an amazing essay, and. you’ve collected your letters of recommendation. You’re probably feeling ready to smash that submit button. But take a step back. Go back through each of your documents (yes, even your address and contact info) and make sure it’s all correct. Keep an eye out for typos and anything that might cause a selection committee to reconsider.
18. Submit on time — or early
As you work on your college applications and scholarship essays, refer back to your calendar to ensure you’re on track to submit your applications on time. Even better, submit your applications early. Many scholarship programs take note of submission dates. Completing your application early is another way you can express your passion for a specific award and help your application stand out. Submitting early is also a great way to make sure you don’t run out of time to complete any aspect of your application. There’s nothing worse than going to submit on the due date and realizing you forgot about an essay. Avoid that stress by planning to apply with days or weeks to spare.
19. Clean up your online presence
In this day and age, so much of our lives are online. It’s amazing what you can learn from just a quick Google search. Before you submit your application, look through your online presence from the perspective of a college scholarship selection committee. It’s probably a good idea to delete those tweets about how much you hate writing essays, and get rid of any photos that might paint you in a negative light. When in doubt, less is more. You might even want to consider setting your accounts to private. Particularly for competitive scholarships, dubious posts of any kind could work against you.
20. Write thank you notes
Whether it’s a teacher or a coach who wrote on your behalf or even a friend who proofreads your essays, be sure to thank them with a heartfelt note. This can be an email, but a handwritten card goes a long way. If you’re applying to a scholarship that includes an interview, you should also send your interviewer a note after the meeting to thank them for their time. This will ensure that you are perceived as professional, humble, and mature.
Apply to more scholarships with Going Merry
College scholarships are a great way to beef up your resume, reduce the cost of college, and reduce (or eliminate) your student loan debt. To win them, though, you’ll need to be strategic, diligent, and willing to do some extra work.
Organization is particularly essential to a winning scholarship strategy. The more organized you are, the more awards you can apply for — and that increases your odds of winning. That’s where Going Merry comes in.
A powerful scholarship platform, Going Merry provides all the tools you need to organize your documents, transcripts, and scholarship deadlines all in one place. Sign up for a free profile, and we’ll also automatically match you with scholarship opportunities you’re already eligible for. It’s never too early to begin the scholarship application process. To get started, fill out your Going Merry profile today.