How to Stand Out and Win More Scholarships

In Paying for College on May 17, 2016

Millions of students each year compete for billions of dollars in scholarships. You can increase your chances of winning scholarships by standing out from the crowd of other applicants.

According to the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS), undergraduate students received more than $6 billion in private scholarships for college in 2011-2012. Among students who were enrolled in Bachelor’s degree programs, about 1 in 8 students (12 percent) used one or more scholarships to pay for school, averaging almost $4,000 per student.

But most scholarship providers don’t hand out scholarships randomly. They each are seeking the students who best match their selection criteria. Doing a little research on the scholarship provider and reading the instructions carefully can provide insights into the scholarship provider’s goals. These insights can help you tailor your application to their goals and get noticed by the selection committee.

Students like going for the gold. They tend to apply mainly to the most prestigious and generous scholarship programs, even though the odds of winning are lower. Most of these scholarship programs receive more than 100,000 applications and award scholarships to fewer than 1 percent of qualified candidates. The only way you can win is if your application is noteworthy in a way that distinguishes it from the other applications.  If there’s nothing distinctive about your application, you won’t win. If your essay is similar to the essays of other applicants, you won’t win.

On the other hand, essay competitions and scholarships with small top prizes are less competitive because students don’t like applying for these awards. It is easier to stand out and to win when there are fewer applications.

Frankly, you should apply for every scholarship for which you are eligible, not just a particular type of scholarship, as who wins is often a matter of luck, not just skill. The more scholarship competitions you enter, the greater your chances of winning one. You will get a lot of rejections, but you may also win some money. Answer the optional questions on a free online scholarship search site to increase the number of matching scholarships.

Picking a winner from among a large field of finalists can be very challenging for the selection committee. In a way, there is no wrong choice. But, even small details may make a difference in who comes in first and who is a runner-up. Typically, a member of the selection committee will champion your application, arguing why you should be the winner. He or she will use specific details from your application as evidence of why you are the best candidate.

Often, the selection committee will use shorthand to refer to you as “the student who \_\_\_\_\_\_\_”, filling in the blank with a pithy description that expresses what is unique about you. Ideally, this distinctive description should also express the primary reason why you should win the award. Think about how you would fill in the blank before you start preparing your scholarship applications. This is your 15-second elevator speech about why they should pick you to win the scholarship instead of someone else. Have you done something significant and extraordinary?

Of course, you want to be memorable in a positive way. If you are “the student who got caught cheating” or “the student who was arrested for drunk driving”, you probably won’t win the scholarship.

When choosing an essay topic, avoid controversial topics, like politics, religion, abortion, capital punishment, gun control, animal experimentation, evolution/creationism, global warming and illegal immigration.  These topics will prime the reader to think negatively about your application, even if you present both sides of the argument in a balanced manner. People tend to have strong opinions about these topics, strong enough to influence their perception of your application essay. Also avoid humor, as topics that are funny to you might not be funny to others.

An unprofessional appearance can give a bad impression. When participating in an in-person scholarship interview, dress to impress. Clean up your online presence by deleting immature and inappropriate tweets and Facebook posts and by using a clean, professional email address. About a quarter of scholarship providers requires finalists to friend them on Facebook.

Finally, say thank you to everybody who helped you. Very few students write thank you notes and letters these days. A genuine thank you will impress the recipient because they are so rare.

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