The Ultimate Guide to Dominating Scholarships

by Allie Heemstra updated January 31, 2017

If you’re in your senior year of high school, chances are you are the busiest you’ve ever been. Navigating through the process of choosing a college in the midst of all of the activities and obligations of high school can seem like more than enough on your plate. Adding the search for scholarships and all that’s required for the application process may seem like more work than you can take on.

Bring Your A Game: Getting Prepared

Let’s take a quick break from your busy schedule for a moment and look at the facts, shall we? Most students (82.3%) are eligible to receive some form of financial aid. In 2010, first-time students received $49 billion in the form of scholarships. That’s a lot of billions of free money, being awarded to students just like you. Believe it or not, many individuals and organizations want to support the further education of your generation. While 48% of this scholarship money is coming from the federal government as need-based, another 36% of the aid is coming from private sources. The point is, there are several ways to earn a slice of the free pie, no matter your background!

Okay, so “free” may be a bit misleading. It’s going to take some effort on your part. You need to make yourself known and put some thought into convincing others to invest in you and your future. It’s going to require some organization and preparation to maximize your efforts and get the best results for your work.

Luckily, is here to help you stay on top of things. Armed with some knowledge and a plan of attack, the world of scholarships can go from a daunting task on your to-do list to a rewarding way to prepare for your next stage of life.

Think of the scholarship application process like a part time job. It’s a job with flexible hours and one that you can do “remotely” from the comfort of your own pajamas. The job description involves you sharing how awesome you are to people who want to support you. While you may not get paid (receive a scholarship) for every single application you fill out, you’ll get a higher return on investment by being persistent and staying organized.

Here are some practical ways to prepare for the scholarships you’ll be applying for.

  • Gather Important Documents: It’s likely that a lot of scholarship applications will require the same information. Gathering this information and having it in one location can help speed up the process. Keep a record of items like report cards, a transcript (if/when you have it), achievement awards, etc. In addition to these official documents, you might want to include some stamps for applications you send in and blank thank you notes to use after interviews or a way to express gratitude for receiving a scholarship!
  • Find Some Reliable References: Many scholarships will require letters of recommendation. Get a head start on asking people to speak on your behalf before there’s a deadline stressing both of you out. Brainstorm a list of people who can speak to your work ethic, your involvement in community and school activities, and character references. Reach out to them and ask if they would be willing to be a reference and possibly write a letter for you. Keep their contact information in your file so you don’t have to look it up with every application.
  • Create a Calendar of Deadlines: Perhaps the most challenging part of scholarships is keeping track of the various timelines. Avoid the stress of being down to the wire on deadlines or the frustration of missing opportunities for scholarships. Create a calendar to keep track of all the important dates to remember. Build out a plan for when you’ll research scholarships, when you’ll work on the applications and essays, and when you need to submit the applications. Be realistic about what you can accomplish and be sure to build in a margin for error.
  • Make a Personal Profile: Each scholarship committee is going to be asking you basically the same question: Why should we give you our money? Avoid feeling put on the spot with scholarship questionnaires or essay prompts by brainstorming a list of qualities, achievements, and experiences that have helped shape you into the incredible person that you are! Create a database of personal stories and a list of achievements that might help you stand apart from the crowd. When it comes to filling out the application, you’ve already done the hard work of brainstorming ideas, so you can focus on tailoring your unique talents to that specific scholarship.
  • Schedule a Consistent Time to Work: You need to be intentional about consistently setting time aside time to work on this. Think through your commitments and weekly schedule to find a time that works for you to work on writing essays and filling out applications. You’d be amazed at what just 30 minutes a day can do. If that doesn’t work, maybe you and your friends will commit to spending Saturday mornings at your favorite coffee shop, sipping lattes while you help each other on your applications. Find what works for you, and then stick to the plan!

Roadmap to Success: A Scholarship Timeline

Most scholarship deadlines fall in November-February, although there are others that happen throughout the year. You don’t want to wait to start the application process until early December. Most scholarships are time-sensitive, and the earlier you get your application in, the better.

You’ll likely be able to apply to more scholarships in a quicker amount of time by preparing some generic answers and preparing commonly requested information. Fight off that Senioritis as long as possible and be proactive!

This is a general timeline for getting the most out of scholarship opportunities. The starting point is the beginning of your senior year of high school, or a year before you head to college. Keep in mind that a lot of these recommendations apply to anyone hoping to get scholarship money. If you’re late to the game and are thinking about scholarship money in the spring, don’t despair! Do what you can and be persistent.

  • Fall: As the school year starts, plan which extra-curricular activities, volunteer opportunities, and organizations you want to invest in. Where it’s possible, seek leadership positions in the activities you do. These experiences will not only provide life-enriching memories but will also boost your resume and help your scholarship applications!

    Spend some time looking for scholarships that you want to apply for. Create a prioritized list and put their deadlines on the calendar.

    Reach out to five to seven people that might be willing to serve as a reference for you. Have a variety of people from different areas of your life, including mentors, teachers, coaches, spiritual leaders, employers, and family friends. Gather their contact information, and ask if they’d be willing to write you a letter of recommendation.

    Typically, the scholarships with the largest awards have earlier deadlines. Spend a larger amount of time and effort on these awards, knowing that the competition for such scholarships will be more intense.

  • Winter: Prime scholarship season starts now! Continue researching for scholarships that may apply to you and add them to your calendar. Try your best to turn applications in a week or two before the deadline.

    Meet up with a college student while they’re home for break. Ask them about their college experience, and get their insight into what scholarships they applied for and tips for success.

    Leverage your extra free time during winter break to work on getting several scholarship essays written!

    Meet with your guidance counselor and ask if he/she has any connections for scholarships you don’t know about.

  • Spring: For any schools you’ve been accepted, you’ll receive an award letter, spelling out the financial aid package that they’re offering. Determine the net cost by subtracting the total amount by the aid you’ll receive. This number is further motivation to get more scholarships and lower the number of loans you’ll have to take out!

    Continue applying for scholarships with later deadlines. If you’ve narrowly missed a deadline, don’t panic just yet. Many scholarship organizations may have a grace period.

    There may be award ceremonies or programs for recipients of scholarship awards. Be sure to attend and express your gratitude for the support you’re receiving!

    As your school year winds down, start looking for a summer job to get further ahead with paying for that first tuition bill. A job can also provide more opportunities that may lend itself to a scholarship down the road.

    Send thank-you notes to anyone who has helped you along the way.

  • Summer: While the window for most scholarship deadlines has closed, there still may be some available. Apply to ones that you may qualify for.

    Research scholarships that you can apply to in the coming year. There’s lots of financial aid for college students, not just seniors!

    Before the semester starts, take some time to prepare and organize for any scholarships you’ll apply to in the coming months. Take our word for it, you’ll be grateful for the prep you did when midterms come

Adult Learners: Who Qualifies?

"Do I Still Qualify for Scholarships?" and Other Questions Adult Students Have about Paying for College

Managing their own finances has taught nontraditional-age students a thing or two about the value of a buck. So it comes as no surprise that concerns about how to pay for college weigh heavily when contemplating higher education.

Don’t think for a minute, though, that financial assistance only goes to high school seniors following a “standard” path. Here, we tackle such misconceptions and answer common questions adult learners ask about affording college:

Do I still qualify for scholarships?

Yes, and scholarship money is awesome because it doesn’t require repayment. The key here is discovering pertinent matches. (No sense going after a football scholarship at any age if you don’t play the sport.) Gender, academic accomplishment, community service, ethnicity, proposed major, artistic skills, thoughtful essays, and a wealth of other factors go into choosing recipients for specific scholarships. And while some scholarships may limit the application pool to those currently getting their high school diploma, others are designed just for adults returning to school.

Am I still eligible to take on a student loan?

“Older students are absolutely eligible for a student loan,” says certified student loan counselor Andrew Pentis, personal finance expert at Student Loan Hero. “Start by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), the gateway toward governmental loans, grants, and work-study programs. Any student older than 24 who completes the FAFSA is considered an independent student and able to borrow more annually than teen and 20-something peers who are still dependent on mom or dad.”

Pentis also suggests comparing federal loan interest rates with APRs quoted from banks, credit unions, and online companies (though keep in mind that private student loans come with fewer repayment safeguards). “If you're further on in age, you might have a thicker credit file and the kind of credit score that would allow you to score a lower rate from one of these private lenders,” he says.

I’m interested in online studies. Do these programs offer/accept financial aid?

Older students often find online programs affordable because they don’t have to uproot and can keep their current job while pursuing an education. And here’s more good news:

“Federal Student Aid is not restricted based on modality, so many online universities -- or those offering online programs -- may offer and accept financial aid,” says Phil LeBlanc, director of student financial services at University of Phoenix. “It is available to eligible students at eligible institutions and is based on the student’s need and individual eligibility. Students who are interested in exploring financial aid options should contact their institution’s financial aid office for information.”

Is it really true that I could get college credit for life experience?

Depending on the institution and your background, the possibility exists to count things such as jobs, military service, and volunteer work toward your degree. Receiving such credit not only helps you graduate faster, it saves money.

At Purdue Global University, for instance, interested students enroll in a class in which they learn how to document relevant experience. Educators then evaluate the compilation for evidence of college-level learning and award credit appropriately. The school’s website states that “on average, portfolio submitters earn 33 credits and save more than $10,500 on tuition.

As with all matters pertaining to paying for higher education, talk with your individual school’s financial aid staff to learn specifics. Older students know that asking questions (and listening carefully to the answers) plays a huge role in success!

Can’t Fool Me: Avoiding Scholarship Scams

At some point, “free money” can sound too good to be true. Sometimes, it is. Scam operations pose as legitimate government agencies, scholarship foundations, and official-sounding organizations, luring people in with the promise of scholarships. It’s estimated that 350,000 students become victim to these scams annually, so it’s important to be on alert.

While the College Scholarship Fraud Prevention Act was put in place in 2000, making it harder for these scams to happen, families still lose out on thousands of dollars every year. Here are some red flags to be aware of to keep you from being a victim.

The Scam: Scholarships with Application Fees

While there are some legitimate scholarships that do require a small fee, this is one of the main ways that scammers get you. If they have thousands of applicants, each paying $5-$10 bucks, they cash in big. You may assume that you just didn’t get the scholarship, but the reality is, no one did. They just collected the money and then disappeared.

The Defense: Do some research about the organizations that are offering scholarships. Do they have accreditation, evidence of previous winners, and a legitimate presence in the community? If you haven’t heard of them, or they aren’t clear about where your application money is going, be suspicious.

The Scam: The Bait and Switch

You receive a letter, saying that you’ve won a large scholarship for thousands of dollars! In order to receive the money, you have to pay a “disbursement” or “redemption” fee before you can receive your prize. You send the check, and then nothing happens. Or the scholarship check you receive bounces and you’re left with nothing. It’s not common for there to be a fee associated with the scholarship money. If they’re asking you for money, start investigating!

The Defense: If you are suspicious, you can check The Federal Trade Commission's website. They have a list of reported and alleged scholarship scams. If you’re getting scammed, it’s possible you aren’t the first.

The Scam: Identity Theft

It’s common to have to provide some pretty personal information when filling out scholarship applications. Identity thieves see this as a perfect front to collect your information and steal your identity! They may ask for your social security number in the application or request your bank account number in order to direct deposit the scholarship money. If the questions are getting too personal, it’s time to pump the breaks!

The Defense: Never give out your social security number or bank account numbers, and don’t give out any other personal information until you’ve done your homework. Before providing any information information, do some checking into the organization that’s requesting it. What authority do they have to be requesting this information? What will they be doing with it and how can you be sure the information remains private? Have those answers ready before moving forward. And unlike iTunes or Facebook updates, you really should read the terms and conditions when it comes to free money.

Trust your gut. If you’re feeling uneasy, do some digging or ask around to other trusted people, like a financial aid office or guidance counselor to verify the source of the scholarship. Protect yourself by keeping a thorough record of communication and getting everything in writing, in case things go bad.

It’s very likely that this won’t even be a concern in your hunt for scholarships, but being aware is the best defense. If you do come across something that feels fishy, please report it to the FTC, so that the people responsible can be stopped.

Stand Out from the Crowd: Tips for Success

The reality is that you aren’t going to win every scholarship that you apply for. It can feel intimidating to put in so much effort when you don’t know what returns you’ll get on your investments. Let’s say that you apply for 20 scholarships, and each one takes you 1 hour, on average, to apply. Even if you only win one scholarship for $1,000, you’re still getting “paid” $50 an hour. Probably more than you’re making at your after-school job, right?

The idea of the scholarship application process is that fortune favors the bold. The more you apply for, the more likely you are to receive aid, increasing your earnings per hour. Here are some tips to help you maximize your efforts and stand out from the crowd.

#1. Be Thorough.

When judges are going through hundreds of applications, they are looking for easy ways to weed out candidates. If you haven’t filled out the application accurately or followed the instructions for the essay explicitly, your application may be discarded immediately. Taking the time to double check that you’ve met all of the requirements can set you apart right away. Be thorough and intentional in every aspect of the application process. Your hard work will pay off!

#2. Apply early and apply often.

A lot of scholarships are given out on a first-come, first served basis. You leave an impression, not only with the words in your essay and the activities listed in your application, but also with your promptness in returning the applications before the deadline. Going above and beyond with your communication can help leave a good impression as well. If you’re sending your application by mail, call to check that it arrived. Make it a habit of writing thank you letters, even to scholarship foundations that you didn't receive an award from. And above all, commit to applying to as many scholarships as you can.

#3. Be strategic about what scholarships you go fo

That being said, you want to make sure that you’re investing your time in scholarships you’re more likely to get. Take an inventory of what talents, achievements, and circumstances you have and use those as a guide for which scholarships to apply for. Look closely at the scholarship requirements and be realistic about whether or not you’d be a good candidate. Don’t waste time on scholarships that require a large amount of time but don’t have a good payout or would be a long shot for you to win. The competition is less in local scholarship contests, so you may want to make those a priority. Don’t discount scholarships with smaller awards. You’re more likely to receive those scholarships since there’s generally less competition, and they can start to add up quickly. Make it a balance of being bold but also wise.

#4. Nail the personal essay.

Keep in mind that your application and essay are going to be read by people that are looking to be inspired to support you. They want to find the perfect person to invest in that shows the characteristics that match their organization or reason for creating the scholarship in the first place. You need to set yourself apart from the hundreds to thousands of other applicants. One of the best ways to do that is to write a glowing personal essay. Avoid the temptation to copy generic essay responses. Think about your unique talents, what experiences have you had that most others have not, or what challenges have you overcome to find success? Or maybe you have a profound idea to change the world. Share what makes you special.

#5. Be yourself.

Confidence is key when it comes to looking for scholarship money. It might be intimidating to consider the competition you’re going up against. Know that you are worthy of receiving the scholarships you apply for and that your journey is one that others want to support. You don’t need to inflate the truth or go to extremes to impress others. Authenticity and confidence are inspiring. Whether you feel like you’ve lived an ordinary life, or you’re ambitions for college are coming out of a story with lots of obstacles, you have a lot to offer the world.


It’s time for the reality check. Most people tend to overestimate what they can receive for merit-based private scholarships. The reality is that it’s pretty rare for students to get their entire college bill paid for by scholarships alone. (Only 0.3% of students receive a truly “full ride” scholarship.)

Chances are that you’ll end up paying for the cost of your education through a variety of sources, including federal and state aid, your own savings, and hopefully some grants and scholarships. The main goal is to pursue as many options to pay for college that minimize your need for loans. While scholarships may not cover everything, it is very likely that you can cover a portion of your costs with scholarship money.

With realistic expectations, you can maximize your efforts to get the most amount of scholarships possible. The act of applying for scholarships is a way of advocating for your own growth. Pursuing a college degree has immense value. Thousands of organizations, individuals, and companies see this value as well and are looking to support students just like you. With a bit of planning and persistence, you can have access to this support to pursue your higher education dreams!

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