How to Stand Out in Your Scholarship Applications

Last updated: Mar 25, 2020

Trying to find free money for college? Good luck with that. Advice is just about the only thing you’ll get for free. Almost everything else will cost you time and sweat equity. Here’s some advice that’s worth taking: Learning how to stand out in your scholarship applications can help you underwrite your college dreams. Here’s how it’s done.

Study the Application Process

You can’t make your scholarship application stand out if you don’t understand the process, and if scholarships are a must, it’s process time. Every good process begins with an assessment:

What’s Out There?

Beyond punching a clock for paychecks or subsidies, tapping savings accounts, borrowing money (including subsidized loans), and vying for grants, the primary option for funding college is the scholarship. There are two main categories:

Need-based scholarships award funding based on family income. Financial need is the primary factor, but most providers also consider applicants’ high school transcripts and test scores.

Merit scholarships are awarded based on, well, merit accrued through academic excellence, community involvement, leadership, extracurricular activities, other factors, or a mix of these.

Do You Qualify?

You could spend all your free time applying for scholarships; there are that many out there.

Here’s the prime directive and an important warning:

  • As long as there’s time, keep applying.
  • It’s hard to ace the application process if you’re applying for a scholarship that’s not a good fit.

If you find yourself squeezing the facts a bit to meet the scholarship criteria, you’re probably wasting your time.

Per CollegeCovered.com, the vetting process for scholarships that are a good match should focus on the deadline, who should apply, merit requirements, application demands, the value, and the fine print. One issue sometimes found in the latter: The scholarship is tied to performance demands you must meet in college.

This is critical: Read the directions – carefully. Once you have prospective targets, scour their guidelines and directives to determine whether you’re on the right track.

How Do You Apply?

Your targets will tell you. Just read the directions. This can’t be said too often or done too often.

A female student fills out scholarship applications on her laptop

When Do You Apply?

It varies. Some scholarship programs want your application a year or more before you begin college. The directions for each target will give you a timeline. Ink it on your calendar.

In a broader sense, it’s never too early to begin applying yourself to the scholarship process. Every good grade, every good test score, everything you do to enhance your transcript and extracurricular portfolio during high school can help you stand out in scholarship applications.

Once You Find Your Targets

So, with access to resources and some good tips, you mastered the college scholarship hunt and have a slew of solid targets. The next part of the process is heavy on technique. It’s about doing the research that enables you to tailor each application to the target and the prep work that makes the packet you send pop for the recipients. That means you must:

Get Your Letters of Recommendation Ready

You may have generic letters of recommendation from teachers, counselors, employers, or others that you have compiled during the college application process, but you need scholarship-specific letters. They need to be written with the award requirements in mind to be as effective as possible. It wouldn’t hurt to tactfully give the writers a template to go by.

The sooner you start the process, the more time your reference provider will have to write and polish.

Do the Research

This isn’t about researching the overall process. It’s about making each application deliver maximum effect by tailoring it to the target. If it’s an award from the Rotary Club, understand the group’s mission and keep it in mind as you address the scholarship requirements. (Read the directions again.)

Regardless of the type of scholarship – academic, community service, first in family, legacy – write to the audience. The writing, in fact, is where this gets granular. Having a noteworthy academic and personal profile means you can compete for the award. Knowing how to show the scholarship judges who you are and why you deserve their votes hinges on your ability to communicate effectively and proficiently.

A male student writes scholarship application notes in front of his laptop

Do an Honest Self-Evaluation

Know your strengths and your weaknesses relative to the scholarship. Note where your academic and personal accomplishments do and don’t apply, and stress the positive when you hit the keyboard.

Remember, too, that writing is done in the head and heart. The keyboard phase is the least difficult part of the process. The thing that makes the words flow freely and in the right direction largely is a function of how much thought you put into it before the typing begins. You might find that the best passages get written while you walk the dog or mow the lawn.

If an Essay Is Required, Prep Yourself to Write a Winner

Since you’re the subject of the essays, you’ve got a head start on the research. The time you save there can be spent reading essay examples that worked, studying scholarship essay prompts, and learning how to format your essays.

Here are the abridged versions of how to:

Fill out your application. Read the directions carefully, and follow them precisely. Fill the form out carefully and honestly. Put it aside for a while, then revisit and rewrite if need be. Put it aside for a while, again, then proofread. Have a capable person read/proofread it for you. Give it a final read before you seal and send.

Write your essay. Assess yourself and your high school and personal history. Envision your message. Outline your message. Write a first draft. Rewrite. Proofread. Get another pair of eyes to look at content, style, grammar, and spelling. Proofread again before you seal and send.

If you’re considering life as a USF Bull and have questions about school-specific scholarships, financial aid, or admissions, reach out to the Office of Admissions online or by telephone at 813-974-3350.

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