Show Me the Money: How to Find, Apply, and Write Your Way to a Winning College Scholarship

Show Me the Money: How to Find, Apply, and Write Your Way to a Winning College Scholarship

Posted on June 26, 2014

STOP. I know what you're thinking. Why waste time writing and applying for a college scholarship when you know you won't win?

I've heard this response from students countless times, year after year. It's almost as though everyone has been brainwashed to think they can't be a winner. And who can blame them?

Get Money for College

If Jerry Maguire can say it, so can you!

I was one of those students too. However, after years of prepping high school students for the ACT/SAT, working with kids in and outside of the classroom, and spending more hours than I really wanted scoring state achievement writing exams, I can honestly tell you that it's much easier than you think. And while it helps to be a star student, you don't need to be a brainiac or top athlete to get a scholarship. Some scholarships simply require you to be a particular ethnicity, gender, and even height (Short and tall people please stand up!).

So what are you waiting for? Give me your hand and I'll help you walk through this!

Finding College Scholarships

Where to look for scholarships

Flickr / Chase Elliott Clark

This is the first step to winning a college scholarship, yet it's also one that usually leaves some students with that deer in the headlights look. Scholarships are everywhere; you just need to know where to begin.

Ask educators, friends, and family. School counselors and teachers have years of experience helping students apply for scholarships. All it takes is a quick appointment or question to find out where the latest scholarships are or which ones past students have successfully applied to.

Some companies offer scholarships for students who have parents working at their company. Look into that and also ask relatives about their company as well. You might be automatically disqualified because you're a blood relative for some applications, but that doesn't mean all of them have this requirement. Your peers and your parents friends are also good sources for information.

Ask your workplace. If you're a working student, ask your employer if they offer any perks to employees to help fund schooling costs.

Ask organizations you're involved in. If you're in a club, ethnicity-based organization, do volunteer work, or attend a church, find out if they offer scholarships.

Go to your school's website. Whether you are using your high school or college website, there is usually a page (most likely in the financial aid or counseling section) listing links to places you can apply for scholarships in your area and other legitimate well-known sites. Don't forget to check your school's bulletin boards, as those sometimes get updated faster than internet postings.

Apply at your college. All colleges offer some form of scholarship from a few thousand dollars to full-ride scholarships (tuition, room, and board) and more for free. What some people may not know is that smaller private schools tend to give scholarships more easily because their tuition is higher.  Sometimes all you may need in order to qualify is a decent GPA, slightly higher than average ACT/SAT score, or be an athlete who's willing to participate in college sports.

Getting money for college

Flickr /

Think local. Just about every town has at least one scholarship for students to apply to. Some even have multiple ones to choose from so you can apply to all of them if you qualify. Check your local town website or drop by in person for an application form. These scholarships tend to give out a few hundred to a couple thousand dollars.

Don't forget to inquire about scholarships offered by local businesses in your area, whether in your town or neighboring ones. Places like a dentist office can give away a hundred dollars or more for a short essay or letter about who your hero is.

Think national. This isn't really for everyone, but if you want the big bucks, this is where you need to hunt. Large corporate or private scholarships from the Gates Millennium Scholars Program to the Coca-Cola Scholars Program Scholarship are some good choices that give away $10,000 or more a year.Here at Brad's Deals, we award five finalists every year with a $2000 scholarship for our Brad's Deals Scholarship (although the application deadline for this year has just passed. Keep an eye out in early 2015!)

Use a search engine. Usually Google is the first source students look to for scholarships, which I find sometimes to be the most frustrating choice. Plus, you also have to be weary of scholarship scams. To those who are organized and driven, having a variety of options is great, but to those who get overwhelmed really easily, clicking through and searching up random scholarships can be quite frustrating. Know what you want and stick to the few sites you like. You can even ask a school or local librarian for help. They're trained in searching up key words or information efficiently, and they sometimes work with school counselors to stay in tune with the relevant things you need.

Well-known college scholarship sites.

Cappex- A college admission site where you can set up a free profile to let colleges know more about you and your accomplishments. With this user profile, you can then apply for scholarships that fit your background. Cappex also sponsors their own scholarships, such as the $1,000 Cappex Easy College Money Scholarship, My College Review, and Cappex #1 Fan. Each scholarship awards students $1000. These scholarships are given out to students who have the most diverse and well-rounded Cappex profile.

FastWeb - Matches students with relevant scholarships based on a personal profile they set up. Membership is free. You'll also get notices when new scholarships come in and reminders when scholarship deadlines are approaching.

Peterson's Scholarship Search - A database for scholarships, fellowships, grants, prizes, and forgivable loans for undergraduate and graduate students. Membership is free.

WiredScholar - This site allows you to search up scholarships, grants, and financial aid. When you register for a free account, you'll be entered in a monthly drawing for a chance to win $1000. With registration, you'll get access to the scholarship search engine, college planning calculator, and award letter analyzer. - A college admission website that helps colleges and students connect. Zinch has a scholarship section that matches users to scholarships they qualify for. Registration is free. Plus, be the first to submit a scholarship that is not found on their database and you'll win a $5 gift card for each scholarship you send in.

Zinch also awards scholarships. Their popular Weekly 'Three Sentence Essay' Scholarship requires high school students to fill out basic information about themselves and answer a short essay. Winners are selected each week and are awarded $1000. There's also the One Year Tuition Free Scholarship, which awards students with a full year's tuition (up to $20,000). 100 students are chosen each year based on their Zinch user profile. Among these students, each person is grouped into one of ten categories, and the winner of each category receives a $250 Chegg Textbook Scholarship. One grand prize winner is then chosen from the ten category winners to receive a full year's tuition for free.

Applying for Scholarships

Now that you know where to look, here's how you go about preparing your application.

Winning Scholarship Essay Tips

Applying for scholarships shouldn't be so stressful!

Begin the search early. You can start applying for college scholarships as early as your junior year of high school. Even if you're not ready to apply, looking at scholarships ahead of time helps give you an idea of what is expected. Jot down ones you find interesting and note their deadlines for future reference.

Think quality rather than quantity. There are millions of scholarships out there ready for the picking, so it's best to break them down into a manageable load. You can't apply to everything. What's the point in having 20 essay submissions that do not reflect your best work?

Choose scholarships you have a higher chance of winning. Think in terms of the number of applicants you're competing against rather than the amount of money you're receiving. The less competition you have, the more likely you can win. The key here is to ask the right people and to go local and small. This doesn't mean you shouldn't apply to bigger scholarships. Try to have a mix of both, say 5 smaller scholarships and 1-2 competitively larger well-known ones.

Be realistic about the amount of time you have available to apply for scholarships. Whether it's AP classes, sports, or work, finding the time to apply for scholarships can be difficult. You have to learn to find a balance. Set a realistic goal for the number of scholarships you will apply to. I've had a student win 3 out of the 9 scholarships she applied to, while another won 2 out of the 2 scholarships he applied to. Find out what works for you.

Top Winning Scholarship Tips

Flickr / GlobalPartnership for Education

Ask questions. If you are unsure about something, email or call the contact provided. It pays to ask questions. I knew a student once who was confused with one of her college applications. The scholarship she was applying to requested that she submit three references with her essay. To her, references meant three contacts – similar to a job application, where the person provides a name, job title, and phone number. However, when she emailed them about this, they told her they wanted three recommendation letters. She ended up getting the scholarship, but had she not inquired about, she wouldn't have won.

Eligibility requirements. Before you apply to a scholarship, make sure you meet their requirements (age, GPA, area of study, among other things). The last thing you want to do is write an essay that will not be read.

Follow instructions. Do everything that is required and don't send or include unnecessary information.

Be organized and retain copies. Most scholarships tend to require the same basic items, from high school or college transcripts, test scores, copy of your FAFSA, proof of residency or photo ID, and recommendation letters. Make sure you order extra transcripts (if necessary) and have additional copies of anything that you'll use over and over again. You'll have them readily on hand if something comes up missing and is requested from you. Place these things in a folder for safekeeping. Most importantly, create a checklist of what is expected of you and mark it off as you complete each task.

Choose recommendation writers that really know you. Getting quality recommendations letters can improve your chances of winning. Choose people that know you and your work, whether it's your teacher, coach, or counselor. A more personalized recommendation letter will help you stand out. Don't forget to ask for these letters early. A well thought out referral is better than a rushed one any day.

Deadlines. Since scholarships are a yearly ongoing occurrence, end dates vary. Some end as early as January, with many bigger scholarships ending during the the winter and fall months. There are also plenty of scholarships that have deadlines in the spring, such as ones for small towns or local businesses, since they tend to want to award students at around the time of their graduation. Make sure you know your scholarship deadline, and try whenever possible to turn it in prior to the due date. Sometimes the mail delivery is slow or a technical glitch can occur when submitting information online. You want to avoid these problems.

Mail scholarship applications via certified (signature confirmation) or USPS tracking. Make sure your hard work doesn't go to waste by tracking and ensuring it goes where it should.

Writing a Winning Scholarship Essay

This is the most difficult part of the scholarship process, but it doesn't need to be hard if you keep the pointers below in mind.

How to Win Scholarships

Flickr / Antara

Answer the question. This is the most common problem with scholarship essays. Some applicants either answer the prompt incorrectly or go off on tangents about an unrelated topic. Keep in mind that scholarship committees won't give you extra points for a well-written essay that does not address their question or an essay about your rough childhood. Stick to what is asked. This isn't creative writing time.

In addition, have someone else take a look at the essay prompt. Your interpretation of what is being asked may differ from what the scholarship committee is expecting from you. It's always better to have a second opinion. Sometimes the problem may even be with how the question is worded. Not all scholarships have educators or those with writing backgrounds in charge of creating the application and the questions.

Write about at topic you like or feel comfortable writing about. How can you convince someone to give you money when you don't even like what you're writing about? There's no point in wasting time trying to talk about a tragic incident that helped shaped your education when you've never had this experience. Stick to what you know and it will show in your writing. Plus, it makes writing the essay a lot easier.

Make your essay unique. Don't write about something that everyone else is writing. If that's what every applicant did, there would be no winners. Instead, think of how you can give a different take on something.

Brainstorm writing ideas with people who know you. Sometimes the question being asked is as simple as, "Why do you want to go to college?" Yet, for some students this question can be hard to answer. It's just something they have to do to make mom or dad happy and to get a job. But using this as a response probably won't make you a winner. If you have a case of writer's block, ask family and friends for help. They might be able to recall an incident or experience you forgot about or one you didn't even know had an impact on your life.

Stick to the word limit. There's a reason why it's there. Scholarship committees don't want to read a full-blown English essay. They want you to stay on topic and answer the question. Having a word limit should not hinder your ability to express yourself, rather it pushes you to write only the necessary information.

Always proofread your scholarship essayCheck your spelling and grammar. Spelling and grammar errors are one of the first things that will eliminate your essay from the competition. Reread your essay several times before submitting it. It's best to read it aloud at a slow pace so you can hear what you are writing. If your ears don't like it, you know there's something wrong. You can also take a break from your essay for a few days before coming back to it. This allows you to clear your mind and see the essay from a new light. Also, don't trust spell check programs in Microsoft Word to be your editor. It won't know the difference between your or you're.

Know your audience. What type of scholarship are you applying for? What does the group or organization providing the scholarship do or believe? Who most likely will be reading your essay? Knowing your audience is key to understanding how you should write.

Be honest. Liars don't always get caught, but why live in fear of being found out? Don't plagiarize and make up stories that are not true.

But how honest is too honest? I always tell students that complete honesty can kind of be tricky when writing a scholarship essay. To me, it's like going on a job interview. You want the job (everyone has bills to pay and a resume to build) and you are honest when answering questions about your experience and work abilities. However, it's not your dream job. Are you going to say this during the interview? If you want to get hired, you most likely won't. Scholarships can be like this as well. That's why you should know your audience, as we mentioned previously and cater your experience to what they are looking for.

Have someone proofread your writing. Your first draft should never be your final draft. Rewriting or editing your essay shows that you're improving it for the better. Ask family, friends, teachers, or librarians to look at your essay and provide you with feedback. If your school has an after school tutoring program or a writing center, those are good places to go as well.

Also, check out our Buzzfeed piece, 12 Reasons Why the Scholarship Committee Hated Your Essay to find out what you should avoid doing when writing scholarship essays.

Still Don't Think Scholarships are Right for You?

Not all scholarships obligate you to write an essay. Some require you to do other things, such as creating an invention or submitting a drawing. Dr. Pepper's Tuition Giveaway in December for example, required applicants to send in a video explaining how they will change the world. 20 awards between the amounts of $2,500-$100,000 were handed out.

There's no excuse for not applying for scholarships. After all, it's free money.  Everyone is capable of winning scholarships. You just need to make time for it and put in a little effort. You can do it!