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7. Guide to applying for scholarships

The Basics of Scholarships

Financial Aid Terms and Definitions

Before you start to apply for any scholarships, you should familiarize yourself with some basic terms and definitions. The following list isn’t exhaustive, but it includes the terms you’re most likely to come across during your search.

Scholarships versus Grants

Grants are similar to scholarships in that they are gift money for college that doesn’t need to be repaid. The main difference between the two is that the grants are sponsored by the government rather than private organizations.

There are currently four types of federal grants available:

Your search for college funding should include grants as well as scholarships, especially considering that there are no extra steps involved to find them. Grant eligibility is determined based on the information you provide in the FAFSA.

If you weren’t planning on filling out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid, you should. There are enough different programs and opportunities available that everyone could potentially qualify for some form of assistance. There are also a number of state-level and school-sponsored programs that rely on the FAFSA for qualification.

You can find all of the information you need at the official FAFSA website.

Types of Scholarships

There are two main types of scholarships:

School-sponsored: School sponsored scholarships are affiliated with a specific institution. They can either be funded by the school or an outside organization, but they are only available to students attending that particular college. Information and applications can typically be obtained through the school’s financial aid office.

External: External scholarships are sponsored by outside donors, businesses, organizations, foundations, etc. They’re not affiliated with a specific institution and can be used at any school of the recipient’s choosing.

From there, scholarships fall into a few broad categories:

  • Need-based: These scholarships are awarded based on demonstrated financial need. Many need-based scholarships are school-sponsored and funded directly by the college. Their eligibility and awards are based on the financial information submitted to them through the FAFSA.
  • Merit-based: Rather than taking into account financial need, these scholarships are awarded based on individual achievement: academic, artistic, philanthropic, etc.
  • Demographic: A large number of scholarships are set up for students that fit a specific demographic such as race, sex, age, religion, sexual orientation, or residents a specific geographical region.
  • Major/Career: Many colleges and organizations sponsor scholarships for students who major in a specific subject area or who are training for a specific career.
  • Athletic: These scholarships are awarded to students based on their performance in a particular sport. There are external organizations that award athletic scholarships, but the majority are sponsored by the school itself.

When to start

Every scholarship has a different application deadline. Some can be as early as a year before you graduate high school. You should start your search no later than the beginning of your junior year and start sending out applications during the summer before senior year.

If possible, start even earlier. Many scholarships are offered year after year. Even if you can’t apply for one until your junior year, knowing all of the details and requirements in your sophomore year will give you more time to make sure you meet all of the qualifications by the time you’re eligible.

Finding a Scholarship

Create a list of your qualifications

First, write down all your personal accomplishments, academic achievements, awards, extracurricular activities, and group affiliations. Next, list out your ethnicity, gender, geographical location, talents or passions, military service, your desired major/career, and anything you can think of that defines you and makes you unique in some way.

Each item on your list can be used as a filter on a scholarship search platform. The more categories you fit into, the more opportunities you’ll find.

Use a scholarship search platform

With so many scholarships offered by so many different organizations, a basic internet search would never uncover them all. A dedicated scholarship search platform will give you much better results and save a lot of time.

The best platforms have large, continually updated databases with plenty of academic, demographic, and geographic filters to help you find every opportunity for which you qualify. To find the right search platform for you, refer back to our complete ranking of the Best Scholarship Search Platforms of 2017.

Explore all potential sources

In addition to internet scholarship searches, think about smaller, local sources to which you already have a personal connection. If any of them offer scholarships, not only are you uniquely qualified through your association with them but they might also have a much smaller candidate pool, which increases your chances of winning.

Some examples of potential scholarship sources are:

  • Work: If you currently have a job, your company may offer career scholarships or tuition reimbursement for work-related degrees. If you don’t work, inquire with a parent’s employer.
  • School networks: Your local school district may have scholarship opportunities available in a variety of academic categories. If not the schools themselves, then perhaps organizations associated with them. For example, if you’re a member of the school’s AV club, a larger regional AV association may offer scholarships for technical degree seekers. Also, if you’re planning on attending the same college as a parent, check with alumni organizations for any potential funding opportunities.
  • Community organizations: Veterans associations, social clubs, recreational sports leagues and more have been known to sponsor scholarships for students in their communities.
  • Religious groups: Many churches and independent religious organizations sponsor scholarships for members.
  • Campus organizations: Students already attending a college should research any opportunities with various campus organizations such as fraternities, sororities, academic groups, social clubs, and religious societies.

Write query letters

A query letter is a simple request for a scholarship application, complete guidelines, and a list of relevant deadlines. Dedicated scholarship webpages and online applications have eliminated much of the need for traditional queries, but you should be prepared to write some just in case.

Come up with a single template in which you can substitute specific information so you can send the same letter out to multiple sponsors and save some time.

Search constantly

To make sure you don’t miss out on any opportunities, you should plan on searching and sending out multiple waves of applications, not just one batch.
This is true even after you’ve started college. There are plenty of scholarships available for current undergraduates as well as graduate students.

Be aware of scams

The most common scholarship scams are ones that charge for information or services that are otherwise freely available. The key to avoiding all of them is to never pay for commercial financial aid services (such as paying a company to fill out your FAFSA for you) or for scholarship searches.

The U.S. Department of Education also warns against any scholarships that charge an application fee. If you come across one in your search, it’s most likely a scammer charging you to apply for an existing scholarship on your behalf.

If you ever have any questions about scholarships in general, or the validity of any opportunity you find, your safest, most reliable sources for scholarship information are:

Use this government resource to locate your state’s DOE agencies

Applying for a Scholarship

Gather any required paperwork

A majority of scholarships involve more than just submitting an application form. Most request that you include additional materials as well. If you fail to submit them as a part of your application, you’ll be disqualified from the competition.

Supporting documentation

The supporting documents required for a scholarship application help prove your eligibility for the award. Not all scholarships require every document, but the most commonly requested ones are:

  • High school transcript: This is a documented record of your entire high school career. It details your yearly academic performance, final grades, standardized test scores, and any honors or awards you earned. You’ll need a transcript for any scholarship with a GPA requirement.
  • Standardized test scores: Your test score report details your SAT or ACT results and is usually included as a part of your high school transcript. If not, it can be obtained separately from your high school or the school district’s administration office. Any scholarship with a minimum test score threshold will request a copy of this report.
  • Financial aid forms: Need-based scholarships request forms proving the student’s financial need. Students can often satisfy this requirement by submitting their FAFSA information via a copy of their Student Aid Report. If not, the sponsor will most likely have their own financial forms that need to be filled out.
  • Letters of recommendation: This is when someone writes a letter on your behalf recommending you as a person worthy of winning a particular scholarship. It should directly address your qualifications for the specific award instead of just a blanket recommendation. Letters should come from academic or professional sources (teachers, professors, employers, clergy, etc.), not family or friends.
  • Curriculum Vitae (CV): This is an educational resume. It should list all of your academic accomplishments, study experiences, volunteer work, hobbies, interests, and educational/career goals. A lot of this information is included as a part of a scholarship application, so you’re less likely to need to include a CV than you are other documents, but you should have one prepared just in case.
  • Essays: Judges often use personal essays to differentiate equally-qualified students and help make their decisions. Scholarship essays typically have a main prompt that asks you to discuss a certain topic or answer a specific question related to the mission of the sponsor organization. They vary in subject, length, and format, so you need to be prepared to write separate essays for each application instead of just one that you can submit multiple times.

Other potential requirements

Supporting documents and essays are the most typical application requirements, but depending on the type of scholarship and level of competition, it could also require one of the following:

  • Special Projects: Major/career-specific scholarships are known to ask applicants to submit projects based on their desired area of study. For example, students applying for scholarships in one of the arts could be required to submit relevant short films, songs, paintings, or photography portfolios.
  • Written exams: Though they are rare, some prestigious, high-value scholarships with heavy competition require applicants to take a written exam in addition to submitting their existing grades and test scores to help determine the winner.
  • Interviews: Like written exams, face-to-face interviews with a scholarship review board are rare, but there are awards that utilize them. During the interview, you will be asked basic questions about why you deserve the scholarship and how you plan to use it if you win. Your responses and overall demeanor impact the judge’s decision.

Verify your qualifications

A lot of scholarships have secondary qualifications beyond the primary one. For example, an academic scholarship might also have a demographic requirement. Take extra care to read through all of the qualifications to ensure that you’re truly eligible.

It’s also important to always be honest. It might be tempting for you to embellish your accomplishments on paper to make them meet a scholarship’s requirements. Ultimately, the judges will see through any deception and reject your application. Not only will you waste valuable time, you will most likely get yourself disqualified from any future opportunities with that sponsor.

It’s always smarter to focus on the scholarships you are clearly eligible for than to lie or exaggerate to apply for one that you aren’t.

Organize and track your applications

Try to use a scholarship search platform that includes tools for tracking your applications. If the platform you decide on doesn’t have those tools, or if you feel more comfortable using your own system, here are our suggestions for staying organized:

  • Make a separate file folder (either physical or digital) for each scholarship and sort them by application deadline.
  • Gather any required documents and keep a separate copy with each file.
  • Create a single document that you can use to track of all your applications in one place. We recommend including the following information:
    • Scholarship name
    • Scholarship sponsor
    • Contact information
    • Scholarship website address (if applicable)
    • Application deadline
    • Award amount
    • Summary of specific criteria (GPA, test scores, volunteer hours, etc.)
    • A list of required documentation (transcripts, essays, etc.)
    • Date you applied
    • Current status (not yet applied, applied – pending, denied, awarded)
    • Total amount awarded (if any)
  • Keep a copy of every completed application and add it to your scholarship file.
    • Throughout the process, constantly update your files to ensure you don’t miss any deadlines, forget to include any required documents, apply for the same scholarship twice, or skip over an opportunity because you thought you already applied for it.

      Manage your deadlines

      For every scholarship, you need to give yourself plenty of time to gather all of the needed documents and complete any essays or projects. You should start working on those requirements as soon as possible to ensure that you meet all of your deadlines.

      This is especially true of recommendation letters. With them, you’re dependent on someone else to complete a key requirement, someone who may not operate on your schedule. You need enough time to request a letter, allow the person to write it, get it back, and submit it with your application.

      Double-check and proofread everything

      Typos look unprofessional and can easily cost you a scholarship. With so many students competing for the same award, grammar errors in an application or essay are an easy way for judges to disqualify you and narrow the field.
      You also don’t want to look over an application after you’ve submitted it and realize you forgot to list an accomplishment, such as an academic award, that could have given you an advantage in the competition.
      Have a trusted friend or family member review your work before you submit it, no matter how many times you’ve checked over it yourself.

      Essay, Interview, and Recommendation Letter Tips

      Essay Tips

      Essays are the most common application requirement, but they are also the most varied. Some have specific prompts and questions they want answered, while others leave the topic up to you. They also have different formats and lengths.

      Here are some standard guidelines you’ll want to keep in mind:

  1. Follow the instructions: Any time an essay comes with specific instructions, such as word limits or special formatting, be sure to follow them. They usually have a two-fold purpose. First, they are designed to make the essays easier to read. Second, they are a test to see who can follow directions, which is crucial to college success. Not doing so is a quick way to have your essay removed from consideration.
  2. Address the prompt: If the essay asks you to discuss a certain topic or answer a question, make sure that you do so in a clear, concise way. Usually, the prompt is related to the mission of the scholarship sponsor, so it’s especially important to stay on topic to show them that you are a student with goals in line with theirs.
  3. Develop a theme: If the essay doesn’t have a prompt, you should develop your own theme that fits the scholarship. Do some research so that you fully understand the sponsor’s mission and tailor your essay to their expectations. Adhering to a theme will also help keep your essay clear and concise.
  4. Get specific: You already defined yourself in the broadest possible terms in order to find all of the scholarships available to you, but now you need to tailor yourself – through your essay – to the organization sponsoring the award. Use your writing to tell them about the specific qualities you possess that fit into their overall mission.
  5. Be Unique: The easiest way to make your essay stand out is to make it unique. Use your personal experiences to write an essay that only you can. If you do, you’re more likely to write one that a scholarship judge has never read before, which will give you an advantage.

If an essay doesn’t have a prompt, we have some suggestions for topics:

  • Personal achievements: An essay is one of your best opportunities to sell yourself to a scholarship judge. Your application already listed your personal achievements, but now you have a chance to elaborate on them. You’ll especially want to include any community service or volunteer work.
  • Academic plans: Describe your educational goals. Tell the sponsor exactly what you plan on doing with the scholarship should you win it. Give them an idea of the impact their money will have on the world if they invest it in you.
  • Social issues/current events: Discussing social issues and current events in an essay is a great way to illustrate your intelligence, character, and personality all at once. Just be sure to tailor the subject to the scholarship. Give your opinion or insight on an issue related to the mission of the sponsor.
  • Mentors and influences: Give the judges an idea of who you are by describing mentors and role models. Describe learning experiences and specific instances where their example influenced your life. If possible, choose an influence from your academic major or intended career, or choose someone in the same field as the scholarship sponsor.

Interview tips

Your first step in preparing for an interview should be thoroughly researching the sponsor organization. You need to have a solid understanding of their history and ideology so you’re prepared to discuss how you fit into their mission.

There’s no way to know what questions the interviewer will ask, but you should prepare answers for some of the most common ones, including:

  1. Tell us about yourself.
  2. Why did you apply for this scholarship?
  3. Why do you think you’re the best candidate for this scholarship?
  4. What makes you stand out from other candidates?
  5. What is the most important thing you’ve learned in high school?
  6. What are your greatest strengths?
  7. What are your weaknesses?
  8. Tell us about a time when you displayed leadership qualities.
  9. How do you contribute to your community?
  10. Tell us about a specific event that greatly influenced you.
  11. What are your academic goals?
  12. What are your career goals?
  13. Where do you see yourself in five years?
  14. How do you spend your free time?
  15. What is a skill or experience you hope to leave college with?
  16. What personal achievements are you most proud of?
  17. What’s one of the biggest mistakes you’ve made and what did you learn from it?
  18. Tell us about a person that has influenced your life and how.
  19. Talk about a significant challenge you have encountered.
  20. If you could do high school over again, what would you do differently?

The interviewer may also ask you to elaborate on details from your application, ask questions about your recommendation letter and its author, or ask you to discuss current events.

Take care to answer every question thoroughly and remember to be as specific about yourself as possible and relate your answers to the sponsor’s mission where applicable.

Once you’ve prepared all of your answers, you just need to remember some basic interview tips:

  • Dress professionally. First impressions count for a lot in an interview. Do your best to look like someone worth investing money in.
  • Be honest. If you’re in an interview, you’ve already proven your qualifications and are in serious contention for the award. There is no need to lie at this point.
  • Study your application. The interviewer will have a copy of your application and supporting documentation. It’s important to remember everything you originally wrote so you don’t contradict yourself.
  • Be yourself. The interview is your chance to show the scholarship sponsor that you’re more than a GPA and a list of accomplishments. Be respectful, but also relaxed. Your unique personality is what is going to set you apart from other candidates.
  • Be grateful. Make sure you convey your appreciation for the opportunity the sponsor has provided and your excitement at the possibility of winning. Follow up with an email (or letter) the day after the interview to reiterate your gratitude.

Recommendation letter tips

The first step is decided who to ask for a recommendation. Here are the most important things to keep in mind:

  • Don’t ask family or friends: Your family and friends have no credibility when it comes to official recommendations. Your letters need to come from objective, professional sources.
  • Choose someone who knows you well: Ask for a letter from someone who is familiar with your work and achievements, as well as someone who understands your educational goals and the goals of the scholarship sponsor.
  • Know your audience: It’s important to tailor your letters to the scholarship. For example, if the scholarship is sponsored by a religious organization, you should consider asking a trusted clergy member for a letter rather than your football coach.
  • Make a list of potential writers: Group everyone on your list by their area of expertise so you have a pool of writers to approach as each unique scholarship opportunity arises.

Once you’ve compiled a list of writers, you need to solicit them for the letters. To make the easier for them, and to ensure that you get the letter you need, follow these tips:

  • Give them plenty of time: The timeframe needs to be large enough that they can complete the letter without inconveniencing their schedule. You also need to give yourself extra time between your request and the application deadline just in case the letter isn’t completed in that window.
  • Make a formal request: Where possible, arrange a meeting where you can ask for a recommendation letter in person.
  • Be prepared for rejection and have a backup plan: Some people don’t feel comfortable writing recommendation letters for a variety of reasons. If your first choice denies your request, ask if there is someone else they could recommend. If not, have a second choice lined up from your list.
  • Give your writer all the information they’ll need:

    Make sure they have:

    • Your complete contact information
    • Any forms they needs to fill out as a part of the recommendation
    • The sponsor, title, and description of the scholarship
    • The contact information and address of the recipient
    • Scholarship deadline information
    • A copy of your completed scholarship application for reference
    • A full list of your academic achievements and a transcript
    • Your resume or CV
    • A brief letter of your own reminding the writer of your past work together (If a teacher: a description of outstanding coursework in their class, a past essay, etc.)

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