How to win college scholarships

Everyone says it: a college degree is the new high school diploma.  While it’s totally possible to make a good life for yourself without one, today, you need a 4 year degree for a variety of entry level jobs, and more and more of them are requiring higher than a bachelor’s.  We can talk forever about why college really makes you successful, but ultimately, it’s generally agreed upon that it’s becoming more necessary for the next generations of workers.

But, it seems that that isn’t necessarily the issue: convincing someone that they need a college degree for today’s job market.  To me, this seems like a bigger issue: convincing someone to spend, no matter how valuable the future job prospects are, $150,000+ on, really, a slab of decorated parchment.  It’s a large financial commitment alone, and often, there’s a large opportunity cost that goes along with it.  It isn’t usually feasible to work a full-time job while in school, so you’re giving up the money you could’ve already been making to spend more time in a library and gnaw off pencils when it comes to exam season.

Enter financial aid.  Financial aid is money that is given to you that you can spend on college expenses.  Usually, they take the form of scholarships, grants, and loans, and the first 2 don’t need to be paid back (think of it like gift money).  Grants are great, but usually they’re distributed on a need basis; so, even if you’re in need of money for college, if it doesn’t look like it on the tax returns, then you probably won’t get much if you get anything.  But really, in my opinion, scholarships are the form of gift money you have more control over; you can apply to as many with as much effort as you want (even though some are income-based).  I can make a whole post on financial aid, but today, I’m going to offer some tips and lessons I’ve learned from applying for scholarships.  I’m not an expert, nor have I paid for all of my college with scholarships, but I’ve spent some long nights writing application essays, so I want to share what I do know and how you can maximize your chances of winning them.

1. Don’t discard sub-$1000 awards:  Here’s a fact: .3% of all students will receive full rides to college.  Forget your “all or nothing” mentality for a quick second.  Let’s be totally transparent–the chances of you scoring one single scholarship to pay for all of your schooling is out of the ordinary.  I’m not saying that it doesn’t happen, because I know plenty of people who’ve gotten full rides to study, but I don’t think it’s the wisest approach to only apply to the awards that promise your entire education’s worth.  From what I’ve seen, the competition for these programs is also really high–when you think about it, it’s a great idea in theory: just get one big sponsor to fund the entire thing, and you’ll never have to fill out another application.  But, the thing is that other people are thinking like you: many of them also want full scholarships with as little work as possible.  I know some people who don’t believe that <$1000 scholarship applications are worth their time, because you’re spending a decent amount of time filling out an application for less money.  But, when the competition for the $500 scholarship is less than the more popular, generous scholarships, the chances of you winning money are statistically higher.

2. Every season is scholarship-applying season:  There’s no one deadline for every scholarship available to college students.  Some have definitive deadlines and others have rolling, “while money lasts” deadlines.  SWE scholarships, for example, have all their website scholarship deadlines ending on one day via one application.  You’ll still find scholarships to apply for in August, just like you will in March.  Also, applications are just limited to second-to-last quarter high school seniors; undergraduate, graduate, and professional students can apply to scholarships, too.  Scholarships are for everyone! 🙂

3. Profit from what’s different about you:  What makes you unique is very important.  This allows you to find your niche scholarships to apply for–like we said before, those are the ones that have less competition, which means that they’ll be easier to win.  For example, let’s compare two extremes I found online: the $1000 College JumpStart Scholarship vs. the GRCP Arts Council of Greater Grand Rapids Minority Scholarship.  The first is open to anyone in high school through college, meaning you’ll have a wider range of competition; the second has requirements so specific (a certain race, major, county resident, socioeconomic status, and GPA) that only a couple people will probably meet them.  In order to win scholarships, you want to reduce you competition as much as possible, which means that you’ll want to go for more specific requirements with the ones you’re applying for.  However, make sure you meet the qualifications before you apply–if not, you risk wasting your time if your application gets thrown away, all because you didn’t follow the directions (those being: if a match, apply, if not, don’t).

4. Remember the locals: Usually, local community organizations. such as the Rotary Club, love to give out scholarships to students in their areas.  Again, by reducing the size of the area eligible students, you’re reducing your competition again.  National scholarships are great, but you’re competing against more students, and your odds can get significantly rougher.

5. Don’t just look in one place:  Having a go-to website like is a great start finding scholarships, but I don’t recommend you only look in one place.  Your university might post college-specific scholarships that a general college search engine doesn’t catch.  Having a few good, general websites to comb through, in addition to one or two niche scholarship websites.  This’ll give you an even larger list of all the scholarships available!

6. Don’t count yourself out until you get a rejection email: For whatever reason, it’s common for scholarship applicants to assume they’re not going to win the awards they apply for.  Until you get a letter from the committee that firmly states “sorry, you didn’t get this award,” don’t assume that you didn’t get the award.  It’s easy to create this perfect candidate in your head as your competition: one with a better GPA, better letters of rec, and more leadership roles.  However, that perfect candidate may not even be applying to this award; to someone else, you are the perfect candidate they made up in their head.  You don’t know who you’re competing against for most awards, but that doesn’t mean that they’re automatically more qualified than you.

7. Email and ask for clarification:  Leave no question unanswered.  If you can’t find out how long the essay should be, ask.  If you aren’t sure whether your major is eligible, ask.  By speaking up, you’re not only making sure everything in your application is right, but you’re also making yourself be heard and showing that you care about the criteria.  Sometimes, this doesn’t make a difference, but sometimes, one of the judges could be the one checking and replying to your emails.



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