How to Find & Apply for Private Scholarships You Could Potentially Win

find scholarshipsScholarships are essential resources for many college students. Recipients can earn hundreds or thousands of dollars, often by simply completing a few forms and providing the required materials. Better still, scholarships aren’t just for valedictorians anymore. These days there’s a scholarship to match nearly every type of student – from high school seniors to senior citizens; from restaurant workers to working parents; from paralegals to petroleum engineers.

Not surprisingly, some scholarships are more popular than others. Big name sponsors and big award amounts usually attract a lot of attention.So it’s safe to say you won’t be the only person applying for the Gates Millennium Scholarship. If you meet the criteria for a major scholarship, you should absolutely apply. Just remember to put your odds of winning in perspective, and to apply for a few local options as well.

Once you’ve found some attainable scholarships, you need the right tools and strategies to produce a winning application. The following tips will help you identify more scholarships within your reach, and compete against the savviest scholarship seekers.

Tip #1: Search locally.

The Internet is a great place to start your scholarship search. But remember that Internet searches are designed to display the most popular results. As a scholarship seeker, you don’t necessarily want what’s most popular.  In addition to what you find online, look for scholarship lists that are available at your local high school, at the financial aid office of your local community college, or at your town’s chamber of commerce.  nquire at local civic organizations – like the Rotary Club, the Elks Lodge, or the American Legion. Local awards are likely offered in smaller denominations, but they attract far fewer applications, which improves your chances of being selected.

Jennifer Becker, P.E. and Scholarship Coordinator for the Permian Basin Chapter of the Texas Society of Professional Engineers (TSPE), underscores the potential for local applicants. “We receive between eight to twelve [applications] per year,” she says. With several thousand dollars in scholarship funds on the table, this small applicant pool provides good odds for students from nearby communities.

How can you weigh your odds? Scholarship websites will sometimes publish the average number of students who apply. If you can’t find this information listed on the website, you can call the organization and ask how many applications it received last year. Again, this is not to say that you shouldn’t apply for national or popular awards. It just means you’ll want to be extra confident that your student profile is competitive enough and consistent with all the requirements listed. If you’re running short on time, you may want to put national awards at the end of your list.

Tip #2: Search before you commit to any college.

As soon as you commit to attend a single college, you begin to limit your scholarship options. That’s because many scholarships – whether they’re sponsored by private groups, state agencies, or colleges themselves – are bound to specific states, to programs with specialized types of accreditation, to nonprofit institutions, or other college-based factors. While you probably shouldn’t choose your college solely on the basis of scholarship eligibility, knowing about potential awards (and where they can be used) might help you narrow your list of prospective schools, or break a tie between your top choices.

In the case of  the TSPE awards noted above, acceptance to an ABET-accredited college is a scholarship requirement. ABET stands for Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology. “I believe that the ABET requirement affects quite a few students, and prevents them from applying,” Jennifer Becker acknowledges. 

When it comes to career-specific scholarships, requirements like these aren’t added arbitrarily. If you’re not sure why they exist, call and ask. The committee is sometimes cluing students in to where they can find the most competitive, industry-recognized college programs. So in searching for scholarships, you may learn more about the professional standards for your chosen major.

Tip #3: Note the judging criteria.

At first glance, scholarship descriptions can be deceiving. You might see an award offered to high school graduates who enjoy golf, and decide that you’re perfectly suited… until you read the judging criteria. If it turns out that high school grade point average counts for 50 percent of your application, your well-developed backswing may not have much pull. Conversely, if that same award weighs the required essay very heavily, good writers – including those who can barely putt – will be ahead of the game. Here too, this advice is not to dissuade you from pursuing potential scholarships, just to help you assess and prioritize your best prospects.

Tip #4: Don’t just proofread; be consistently neat.

Every student knows to use spell-check on essays; it’s less common for applicants to be conscientious spellers and writers on required forms – especially if the data can be entered online. But committees notice your fill-in responses, too. They’ll be less than thrilled if your errors create more work for them.

“We have short-answer questions that some students complete very sloppily,” reports Sarah Katherine Drury, Director of Scholarships and Alumni Relations for the Watson-Brown Foundation, which awards nearly 200 scholarships per year to students from select counties in Georgia and South Carolina. “The students type these answers using incomplete sentences, terrible grammar, misspellings, etc; yet, their uploaded essays are flawless. This discrepancy in writing brings up a red flag.”

Besides alerting committees that you may have had some help with your essay, careless typos on fill-in forms can tank your application. “I will mark an applicant down if I find misspelled words or simple grammatical errors,” confirms Jennifer Becker, who views attention to detail as an important professional lesson. “If I am writing something that will either bring clients or money into our doors, I have someone else proofread before sending it out. Nothing makes us look as incompetent as these mistakes do.”

Tip #5: Don’t ignore the small scholarships.

It’s tempting to scan a scholarship list, circling only the four-digit awards. After all, most semester tuition bills run into the thousands. A measly $250, or even $500, seems like a drop in the bucket. But little scholarships can add up quickly – especially if you’re actually winning them. Devote careful attention to local awards that match your profile. A truly unique essay or impressive letters of recommendation are much more memorable among an applicant pool of 20 than a pool of 2,000.

Tip #6: Make the most of your financial need statement.

Many scholarship applications ask you to describe your financial situation in a “financial need statement.” A financial need statement is a detailed outline of what your household earns and what it spends. If you’re applying for a scholarship that asks for FAFSA results or tax forms, you might want to contact the committee and ask if you can supply a financial need statement too – especially if your financial situation has changed in recent months.

When writing a  financial need statement, be specific about your expenses – childcare, rent, car loans, commuting costs, etc. Lots of applicants assume these are standard figures, or else they’re too lazy to map out their entire monthly budget. If you’re willing to take a few minutes, to show exactly what’s left over for college costs, you may persuade the committee. At worst, they’ll decide your level of need isn’t as great as another applicant’s. At best, your financial picture will prove that you’re a good candidate for financial assistance.

Sarah Katherine Drury can’t over-emphasize the importance of a thorough financial need statement. “I tell students that this is the place to let us know anything about their family’s situation. Some students think their situation is ‘normal’ when in fact, they have great financial need (and vice versa). Single parent households, foster care, medical expenses, multiple siblings (or parents) in college, loss of job, reduced hours, or anything else that paints a clearer picture of the financial situation should be noted.”

Tip #7: Get involved.

Plenty of awards ask you to outline your community involvement or examples of your leadership potential.  Now that you’ve got scholarship applications strewn across your dining room table, you might think it’s too late to start racking up accomplishments. But that’s not necessarily true. You can start this weekend! Sign up to volunteer at a local shelter, join a professional league, ask to chair a PTA committee at your child’s school.  It’s okay to note that you’ve recently joined, and to emphasize what your role will include, going forward.

On the other hand, don’t join six clubs at the eleventh hour, just to make yourself look impressive. You should only get involved with projects that genuinely interest you, and that you intend to continue regardless of the scholarship outcome. Similarly, don’t list things without providing some context. “A pet peeve of mine is students who list everything that they’ve ever done with absolutely no explanation of their involvement,” says Drury.

According to Drury work experience also counts as involvement. “Some students do not realize that their part-time jobs are considered activities. We encounter many students who must work to help support their families (not just for ‘play’ money). Students should explain this.”

Tip #8: Ace the GED.

If you never finished high school, you might skip over the scholarships that require high scores on standardized exams like the SAT or ACT. But you shouldn’t discard these without reading the fine print. You may still be in the running for some merit-based awards. Several states offer merit scholarships to qualifying students who perform exceptionally well on the GED. Other states offer grants to students who meet minimum SAT/ACT or GED score requirements. And even some private organizations will let you substitute GED scores for SAT scores, as evidence of your academic potential. Bottom line: don’t take the GED just to pass it. Try to earn the very best score possible, since it may be worth scholarship cash.

Tip #9: Polish your resume – even if it’s limited.

As a prospective student, you might think you’re not supposed to have an impressive resume. That’s why you’re going to college, right? Nevertheless, lots of scholarship applications ask for a copy of your resume or “student resume.” You’ll be ruled out pretty quickly if yours is entirely yet to be determined.

At its core, a resume is just a neat outline of your achievements and experiences – whatever they may be.  Don’t get bogged down by formatting rules or the sample resumes you see online, with fancy job titles and professional awards. If you’re just now graduating from high school, or you’re returning to college after completing a handful of credits, you probably don’t have many of the standard bullet points that are recommended on professional resumes.

In that case, make up your own resume format and categories. If you’re applying for an art scholarship, but you’ve never worked in a gallery or won any art contests, create a category called “relevant coursework.”  List the different art courses you’ve taken as a high school/college student, and chart the projects or art techniques you’ve mastered. Include a lengthier objective, which allows you to explain your goals rather than focus on limited areas of recognition. Overall, find ways to insert your strong suits. Most judging committees would rather learn more about you than scrutinize your tabs and headings.

Tip #10: Create a professional email account.

Many of today’s scholarship committees communicate with applicants via email. Yet many of today’s students have strange, or even obscene, email addresses. “When a student has an inappropriate email address (I won’t get into the worst examples – they would make you blush), it doesn’t reflect well on them,” says Drury.  She advises students to create a separate, professional-sounding email account for all college-related communications. New accounts can provide PG-rated addresses and they can help you find scholarship emails quickly, without having to sift through dozens of personal emails.

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