All students agree that the price tag of a college education is scary. Between tuition, housing, meal plans, parking passes, textbooks, and more, it seems like the bills never seems to end. For most students, trying to avoid and/or overcome this mountain of student debt is…well…like trying to climb a mountain. Luckily, there are plenty of scholarships out there to help students fund our education.
When I began applying for these scholarships in my junior year of high school, I read articles about students who won hundreds of thousands–sometimes even millions—of dollars in scholarships. Although the chances of myself winning that much was slim, I knew that I didn’t need to earn that much as well; I just needed to earn enough to cover the essential costs.
I’m going to be honest: I haven’t won millions of dollars in scholarships and I’m not going to pretend like I have. Nor have I received every scholarship that I have applied to. What I can say is that I have applied for dozens of scholarships over the past few years, and throughout that time, I’ve learned a lot about what does and does not work for me. From what I’ve learned, I’ve been able to develop my own organization and application methods, which have allowed me to submit more high-quality applications in less time.
My hope is that by sharing what I have learned with you, you can apply it to your own scholarship endeavors.
Step One: Create a Scholarship Binder
While organization is something that some students dread, it is a crucial step for anyone who is wishing to apply to large amounts of scholarships.
The first step is to create a scholarship binder, and I have an entire article over how to do that by clicking here. It even comes with free printables! A scholarship binder will keep your deadlines organized, along with your applications, student activities, and other materials that you will need.
However, though I have several printables that can help you track your scholarship deadlines, I also recommend writing the due dates in your school agenda and your phone’s calendar. Having a deadline written in more than one place prevents accidentally looking over it or forgetting about it.
I also recommend writing the due date as being several days early, just to make sure you stay ahead in case you run into any last-minute snags.
Step Two: Collect Additional Materials
In my senior year of high school, I was constantly going to my school’s office to collect copies of my transcript, even though I was often requesting and picking up more than one at a time. This was because I kept extra copies of my essential scholarship materials, such as recommendation letters, resumes, and (of course) transcripts, in my scholarship binder at all times. These are common materials required by scholarship organizations, and if there’s ever a last-minute scholarship you’re applying to, or an overlooked an application material that you don’t see until the last second, then you don’t miss the deadline by not having extra copies of these items on hand.
In my own experience, I have had several occasions when I would be double-checking—or even triple-checking—the required application materials, only to realize that I had somehow skipped over a required material! If I didn’t have these extra copies on hand, then I would not have been able to apply; some of these scholarships I actually won, but if I had not had extra copies of these materials on hand, then I would not have been able to apply.
Step Three: Create a Portfolio
A portfolio is created because many scholarship applications will ask for a list and/or description of your community service, leadership positions, and student activities; this list should be started at the high school level, and be gradually added to as a student goes through college.
By having a pre-made portfolio, a student can easily refer to it each time they fill out an application, rather than trying to recall each item individually. The best part about creating a pre-made portfolio is because a student can essentially copy-and-paste this information into each application, speeding up the application process. My entire guide on creating a scholarship portfolio can be found here.
Step Four: Find Your Scholarships
There are multiple different scholarships engines out there (even apps!) that you can use to find scholarships. I recommend using 2 or 3 so that you don’t overwhelm yourself, but also so that you diversify the types of scholarship engines you use, as some scholarships may be listed on one site and not another.
I also recommend checking to see if your school has any applications available for local scholarships, as many community businesses/organizations will send their applications to nearby schools, but not list them on scholarship engines. This creates a much more limited pool, increasing your chances of winning.
For high schoolers, some of these local scholarships are only for seniors. However, even if your an underclassman, it doesn’t hurt to look at what these application require and what the essays are, as the applications are often the same year after year. This way, you can start brainstorming your essay and can make sure you fit any requirements the scholarship has by the time you’re able to apply for it yourself.
Looking for more places to find scholarships? Check out this post, which details several places where you can find scholarships!
Step Five: Organize Your Scholarships
This one sounds easy enough, right? That is because the key to applying to multiple scholarships is to stay organized. Find an organization method that works for you and then stick to it. I prefer to use a binder, but some people like to use accordion folders, notebooks, etc.
Besides organizing potential scholarships in my scholarship binder, I also organize them on my flash drive. With each scholarship, I create a document where I insert the criteria, name, and web address of the scholarship, and then save the file under a name that goes like this: “Month day—Scholarship Name”. For example, I might have it labeled “February 15th–Lincoln County Art Scholarship”.
Having the documents labeled like this organizes them by their due date within the folder, which makes it easy to see their due dates and find the one that I want to work on.
Step Six: Write Your Essays and Bios
Once you fill out your basic information (name, contact info, etc.) and copy-and-paste your activities and honors from your scholarship portfolio, writing your essays and “biographies” (a short “about me” paragraph required by some scholarships) is the only part of the scholarship application that you actually have to do.
However, before you even begin writing any essay, I suggest researching how to write the best scholarship essay (as a scholarship essay is quite different then an academic essay), as well as creating a list of what makes you unique and the best candidate for the scholarship. What are you involved in? What do you do in your free time? How would your friends describe you? These questions come up a lot in essay prompts, in bios, and even scholarship interviews.
Create a short list of these items, and also write a generic bio about yourself that you can then customize to each scholarship application, if needed. Doing these things beforehand can save you a lot of time as you’re essentially just copy-and-pasting and then customizing most information for each scholarship.
Step Seven: Postal Mail Materials
Once you have your essays written, the application filled out, and the additional materials collected, it is finally time to submit your application. When you are applying for a scholarship that needs to be sent through postal mail, it is important to make sure that you don’t get the “postmark” date and the “receive by” date mixed up.
I also recommend that you use large manila envelopes to mail your application, which means that you don’t have to fold your application up. Having it arrive with no creases and not in a bulging envelope makes it look much more professional upon arrival.
Additionally, I suggest taking the application to the post office and finding out how much postage you need, rather than guessing and sending it from your home mail box. I tried sending one of my applications from home once, thinking that I had put enough postage stamps on it, only to receive it back in the mail with a sticker saying that it required additional postage. The problem was, the day that I had originally sent it was the “postmark by” date, and since I had received it back in the mail days later without a postmark, it was technically no longer eligible for the competition.Believe me, you do not want this to happen to you, no matter how close or far from the deadline you are.
Step Eight: Document Your Scholarships
Applying to scholarships doesn’t just end when you submit your application. After each scholarship that I apply to, I write down the information on my “Applied Scholarships” printable, which you can access through my “How to Organize Your Scholarship Binder” post. This keeps track of what scholarships I have applied to, the benefactor, deadline, announcement date, and whether I won or not. By having this printable, you will also know when to keep an eye on your inbox/mailbox and when to check the sponsor’s website/social media pages for updates. It’s also a great way to track how many scholarships you have applied to and won.
While I’ll admit that this is a lot of work, I have found that it is the best method for me, and it has been extremely rewarding. By staying organized and using these steps to apply to scholarships, I have applied to dozens of scholarships, and have won quite a few of them. My one piece of advice is to never feel discouraged and give up, even if you don’t win a scholarship on your first few tries. You should also never ever focus on how many scholarships you didn’t receive; after all, you never hear any scholarship recipients discuss many they lost before they finally won, right?! Most likely, you’re going to lose more scholarship competitions then you’re going to win, but that doesn’t matter. As long as you keep trying, your hard work will pay off, and you can conquer that mountain of student debt before it even begins to build up.
Wanting more information on the scholarship process? Check out these posts: What to Do After You Win a Scholarship, Where to Find Scholarships, How to Create a Scholarship Application Portfolio, How to Organize Your Scholarship Binder, and What to Do After You Win a Scholarship.