To get the most scholarship dollars from your limited time, you'll need to really get your act together. Here are some tips for efficiently producing outstanding (and hopefully winning) applications.
The better organized you are, the more scholarships you can apply for and the better your scholarship applications will be. Before you even request a single scholarship application, set up a system for tracking requirements and filing needed materials. Here are some suggestions.
Keep a calendar of all deadlines and follow-up dates.
Make a checklist of each scholarship's requirements.
File the materials for each application in separate folders. In each folder, include a photocopy of the completed scholarship application.
Develop a list or resume of your accomplishments, both academic and extracurricular. You can refer to it (rather than your memory) as you complete your applications. This list will also help people who are writing your letters of recommendation.
Gather or prepare commonly requested items. These include tax returns, financial aid applications, essay samples, letters of recommendation, and a good headshot.
Request the Application
The scholarship rules will usually indicate how to obtain the application, either online, by letter, phone, or e-mail. You may be able to pick up applications from your counselor's office. If the application is coming by mail, request it several weeks in advance of the deadline. You don't want to wind up with only a few days to prepare the application.
Some college-based scholarships are awarded based on your admissions application—there is no separate application to complete.
Review the Application Package
Study the rules. Judges quickly eliminate applications that are incomplete, have errors, or otherwise violate the rules. If you must submit your application even one day late, there is no point in proceeding.
Find out what the sponsor is looking for. Pay close attention to any information about goals and eligibility. Your application should not only show that you meet (and exceed) the requirements, but make the case for what a perfect match you are. For example, if the goal of the scholarship is to encourage students to pursue a certain career, is that career one you can write about enthusiastically? Can you provide academic and extracurricular evidence of your interest?
Collect the materials that go with the application. These may include work samples, transcripts, test scores, even income tax forms if the scholarship is need-based. If recommendation letters are required, give your recommendation writers at least three weeks to write and send their letters.
Carefully Fill Out the Application
Be neat and use correct grammar. Get some help to check your spelling and grammar before you send the application. First impressions count, and misspellings may disqualify you. (These same guidelines apply to all correspondence between you and the scholarship sponsor.) Most scholarship applications are online, but if you submit paper applications, type your answers or print very clearly. Put your name on each page, including the extra materials.
Don't miss any steps or pieces. Don't skip any questions. If you are applying online, be sure attached files are in the right format. Make sure any requested hard copies arrive on time.
Put serious effort into your essay. Many scholarships ask for a short piece of writing (one to two pages). In some cases, the writing sample is the only evidence the judges will see of your talent. If the topic is not specified, choose one that is meaningful to you and allows you to highlight your unique strengths. Rigorously check spelling and grammar and have someone else proofread the essay.
Finally, submit and wait. Make a copy of the entire application before sending it, even if you are sending it by e-mail. If sending by standard mail, use "return receipt requested" or a delivery service that tracks the package. Submit the application early if possible. Don't cut it close. As for the results, it may take several months before winners (or finalists) are notified. Call the organization or check its website if you have not heard back after three to four months. For some scholarship finalists, there may be an extra step: a personal interview.
Fill Out Your Financial Aid Forms
Many colleges and private scholarship sponsors want to see information from your financial aid applications. That means you should submit a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and, if required by your college or the scholarship, a CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE. Even if you don't think you are eligible for need-based aid, it may pay to submit these applications anyway. You can access the FAFSA at fafsa.ed.gov and the PROFILE at collegeboard.com.
Applying for scholarships is a lot like applying to college. You improve your chances by matching your strengths to the sponsor's needs—and then making a terrific case for why you should be selected. Apply wisely, and you may very well be amply rewarded!