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Scholarships & Grants

How to Get Scholarships for College

11 min readโ€ขaugust 9, 2021

jed

Jed Q


The Importance of Scholarships

At some point in your high school life, you'll hear the word "scholarship." In some cases, guidance and college counselors may be adamantly posting scholarship opportunities on school web pages and social media accounts. In other cases, you might hear teachers tell their students to write essays and submit original content to scholarship contests. If you're looking at the financial aid policies of colleges you're thinking of applying to, you'll see that you can use scholarships to cover some of their expenses like tuition, work-study (if applicable), and housing. If you want to learn more about financial aid make sure to check out this guide with everything you need to know about financial aid.
If you've never heard of scholarships before, that's completely fine! Here's the deal: scholarships bring you one step closer to affording your college experience because they can save you hundreds, and even thousands, of dollars! Sounds amazing, right?

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Scholarships in a Nutshell ๐Ÿค”

Before I tell you how to win scholarships one after another, we need to make sure we're all on the same page on what a scholarship is and how they can help you in both the short and long term!
Let's look at how popular websites define SCHOLARSHIPS:
  • "Scholarships are financial aid awards designed to help students pay for an undergraduate degree" (Cappex).
  • "A scholarship is financial support awarded to a student, based on academic achievement or other criteria that may include financial need, for the purpose of schooling" (University of South Alabama).
  • "Most scholarships are [...] awarded to students with certain qualities, such as proven academic or athletic ability. Many scholarships have rules that you have to follow to continue receiving aid" (College Board).
What do these three descriptions have in common? Scholarships are helpful in terms of supporting you financially and lessening the amount of money that you'll pay out-of-pocket when you go to college.ย 
The catch? You have to earn them. Depending on what the sponsors of the scholarship are looking for, you'll have to not only fit in their criteria but also stand out for them to select you out of X number of applicants. Don't worryโ€”it may sound intimidating at first, but if you work smart (not hard!) in finding the right scholarships for you, then you'll be bound to win lots and lots of $$$! ๐Ÿค‘
ย 

Types of Scholarships โญ

One of the key strategies to win scholarships is to know how the game works. That might be too metaphoricalโ€ฆ Let's try again: know which types of scholarships are worth investing hours of work into.ย 
Here's an example: Scholarship X chooses 10 winners of $500 in your school based on an essay component, while Scholarship Y chooses 3 winners of $10k in the whole nation based on a raffle. If you only have time to apply for one scholarship, would you apply to X or Y? Some might argue X because they would theoretically have higher chances if they write killer essays rather than relying on luck with Y, while others (most likely the minority) may argue Y because it is hassle-free in terms of completing application components (no essay needed). With scholarships, there are no right or wrong choices. What matters, though, is that you're maximizing your chances by applying to your best-fit scholarships!
There are multiple ways to categorize scholarships. In this post, I'll go through each of the different approaches in sorting 'em out by location, eligibility, length and type of aid, and application requirements! There will be a lot of overlaps. When looking at each approach, think of the type of scholarship that will be the most efficient to apply to (less time needed + greater chances of winning)!
Quick note: not all scholarship examples might cover your area (especially the local ones), but it won't hurt to see why a given scholarship linked below is an example of, say, a local or a need-based scholarship.ย 

Let's Discuss GEOGRAPHY! ๐ŸŒŽ

Think back to your math class when you learned statistics and probability. In a sample of 1,000 highly qualified scholarship applicants, what is the probability that you will be among the top ten winners? That would be 10/1000 (or 1%). What about a sample of 100 applicants? A slightly higher 10/100 (or 10%). What about a sample of 50 applicants? A better chance of 10/50 (or 20%)! The quest to get scholarships is, in essence, a numbers game: the fewer applicants there are, the more chances you have of winning! Learn more about local vs. national scholarships with this article. Some of the biggest national scholarships can be found in this top 40 list of scholarships for high schoolers.
Here's how I categorize scholarships by geography*:
TypeDescriptionExamples
Merit-BasedANYONE can apply, regardless of income; typically more competitive due to higher volume of applicants if on a national scaleSan Diego Foundation Scholarships; Coca Cola Scholarship
Need-BasedTypically targeted towards first-generation / low-income students; frequently asks for proof of financial need (i.e. FAFSA, tax returns)QuestBridge National College Match; Gates Scholarship
Neither type is necessarily more or less competitive than the other as it also depends on the geographical scope. However, need-based scholarships offer a more balanced playing field for students whose incomes indicate a significant need for financial aid.
This is one of the least underrated sections whenever people talk about scholarships. There is a huge difference between scholarships that pay YOU and scholarships that go directly to the school's financial aid office.
In fact, we can even go further! Here are some examples of eligibility classifications you should be on the lookout for:
  • Grade level-specific scholarships: Is it for high school seniors only or is it for 9th to 12th graders? You'll definitely have higher chances of winning contests with only high school seniors vs. those with all high school levels!
  • Major-specific scholarships: Only accepts applications from aspiring college students of specific majors/industries (i.e marine biology, chemistry, agriculture, healthcare, etc.)

Resources:

Let's Discuss TYPE of AID and LONGEVITY! ๐Ÿ’ฐ

Where does the $ go?What's the deal?
To your pockets!Organization/sponsor mails/deposits check to your address; More autonomy on what you'll spend money on; Pocket money -- no "strings attached" (no requirement on what to purchase using money); Typically applicable for smaller $ amounts (i.e. $100, $300, $500)
Directly to the school!Organization/sponsor mails check and are processed by the school's financial aid office; No need to worry about the logistics of sending the scholarship to the school; Less autonomy on what you want to spend money on; Frequently used to reduce the cost of attendance (tuition, housing expenses, etc.); Typically applicable for larger $ amounts (i.e. $1,000, $2,500, $10k
Longevity refers to how long your aid will help you in college! Some scholarships pay one-time, while others spread out your winnings throughout your four (or more) years of undergraduate life.
If the scholarship will be used in college: Some organizations/sponsors require proof of enrollment and/or a class schedule, while others are more lenient and just send you or the school the scholarship money. Be sure to check the individual scholarship's guidelines (usually on the website) to avoid any unexpected surprises!

Let's Discuss APPLICATION CRITERIA! ๐Ÿ“Š

Some scholarships only take five minutes to fill out, while others take WEEKS when factoring in supplementary materials like letters of recommendation. When you hear the word holistic, it means that the scholarship sponsors are looking for a combination of academic excellence, awesome community service background, and exemplary personal qualities based on feedback by recommenders and/or how one responds to essay prompts.ย 
Here are some criteria scholarships may use to judge your application. Note that some scholarships use a combination of two or more of the items below while others only focus on one specific characteristic:
CriteriaDescription
Academic AchievementGPA (e.g. 4.0), SAT scores, number of AP/IB exams taken, AP/IB scores, class grades per year; Objective -- your statistics! Typically harder to change unless retaken (i.e. exams)
Written Supplements/EssaysTypically one or more paragraph-long responses (~50 to 500 words depending on scholarship) to a predetermined prompt (โ€œWhy should you win the X scholarship?โ€ โ€œDescribe a challenge you once encountered. How did you overcome it?โ€); Subjective -- your voice! More time before the deadline = easier to make revisions
Advocacy by Teacher/Mentor/OthersLetters of recommendation; may either be uploaded/sent directly to the sponsor or you get a chance to see them! Quality depends on how close you are to recommender; more memorable interactions = more things they could say about you!
Make sure to keep track of all your applications, a scholarship application tracker is great for this!
Red Flags! ๐Ÿšฉ
Feeling hyped to apply to your first scholarship now? Hold your horses! There will bound to be bad apples in the abundance of scholarships you'll see in the World Wide Web.ย 
Do NOTโ€ฆ
  1. Apply for scholarships that ask for monetary payment! Think about it: you're applying to earn money for college, not spend it even before you get the award!
  2. Rely on luck with the raffle scholarships! It's easy to fall down the rabbit hole of applying to raffle scholarships. After all, they only take three to five minutes of your time! The thing is: raffles typically occur once a month and you could've spent your time refining your application to snag more scholarships using your phenomenal talent instead of idly waiting to win the lottery.
  3. Give away your personal information to shady texters/emailers! In my three years of scholarship application experience, I've never had a "sponsor" email me about my credit card information or social security number. Needless to say, don't do it!
  4. Hesitate to ask questions to your guidance counselor. If you think a scholarship is "sketchy" or if you have other questions that the scholarship organization does not explicitly elaborate on their website, ask for help! Your guidance counselors have seen a lot of both authentic and suspicious scholarships throughout their career. It surely doesn't hurt to ask for a second (or third) opinion!ย 

Resources:

Tips and Tricks on Snagging that Next Scholarship ๐ŸŽ

Now that we know the twists and turns of scholarships, how do you actually get them? Well, you're at the right place because here are some ways to save time and energy once you're on that application grind!
  1. Document your statistics on a piece of paper or word document. Take note of your top activities, extracurricular activities, job experience, awards, test scores, GPA, and other statistics somewhere so that you have a convenient place to go when inputting them in the first few parts of your scholarship application! That way, you don't have to rethink your list and worry that you'll miss an activity/statistic or two for each scholarship you apply to.
  2. Look at the scholarship rubric! If the scholarship you're applying to is part of an essay contest, look at how they weigh individual components of your work. Do they care more about grammar and spelling? Clarity? Length? Another scholarship might value your volunteer experience more than work experience. Be sure to check out their organizationโ€™s mission/values!
  3. Make a list of scholarships you can apply to in the future. Found a scholarship for 12th graders as a 9th grader? Saw another one that opens applications in October on an August evening? Lucky for you, we have a guide detailing how to create the optimal scholarship list. Check it out!
  4. Read profiles and/or essays of previous scholarship winners! Sometimes, sponsors are so impressed with someone's application that they publish it on their main webpage! Don't miss out on them and take advantage of the access you are given. What's their writing style like? What clubs are they part of? How did they respond to the given prompt? These are excellent points to consider when slightly catering your application to the sponsors while retaining your personal voice.
  5. Ask recommenders AHEAD of time. Two to four weeks before the scholarship deadline? โœ”๏ธ. A night before the scholarship deadline? โŒ. Recommenders are humans, too! Similar to how you tend to produce crummy work when you procrastinate on an assignment or paper, the quality of your recommendations depends on the amount of thought the recommenders put on them.
  6. Write drafts on word documents and/or sheets of paper first. You'd be surprised how many high schoolers nationwide cry inside when the page with the essay they typed directly on the scholarship application accidentally refreshes or closes. Don't be in that situation! (Trust me, I've been there.)
  7. Reuse scholarship essays. Oftentimes, scholarships have similar prompts but with different wordings. For example, you might have a similar answer to both "what is your greatest achievement?" and "what are you most proud of?" Save yourself a lot of time and brainpower by reusing essays from other scholarships. There's virtually nothing holding you back!
  8. Build a relationship with your mentor figures! This isn't limited to just for scholarship reasons, but having a really close relationship with your mentors will definitely pay off when they write you a recommendation. They'll surely have a lot of cool things to say about you! Plus, you're enhancing your social skills in preparation for college and the real world when you interact with a loooooot more people.
  9. Consider to what extent your scholarship will help you. This usually applies to students who receive a full ride based on need-based aid. Should you earn scholarships outside of the school that gave you that full ride, the school will deduct the grant they provide using the scholarship money sent directly to them. Not that it'll hurt, but it won't help you either as you won't get to put the money in your pocketsโ€ฆ unless the scholarship goes directly to your pockets.
  10. BE YOURSELF! The most genuine scholarship applications shine brilliantly in the pile ofโ€ฆ well, other scholarship applications. That's because they ooze with passion and authenticity, both being very desirable qualities! Just because the scholarship is about community service DOES NOT mean you should fabricate stories of your "contributions" to a fictional service event. Be honest and reflective when finding the moments and experiences in your life that you'll share to the scholarship/judging committee!

Wrapping Up ๐Ÿ™Œ

Let me read this aloud. *cough* "I, Jed Quiaoit, am certifying [insert your name here] as a seasoned expert in scholarships." Now, head out and chase that bag! Be sure to bookmark this post for future reference; you might want to come back here every now and then to clarify a point or two about scholarships. You got this! ๐ŸŽ‰
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