How to Earn Scholarships for College: One Student’s Experience

Paying for College / Wednesday, September 25th, 2013

Warning: Parental Bragging Ahead

Early last  month I went online up to pull up the bill from my daughter’s university. She’s a senior, so I’ve done this twice a year for each of the last three years.

This time I was confused. We didn’t owe anything. In fact we had a small credit. I dug a little deeper to find out why. The answer?

The scholarships Lindsey earned for this semester exceed the cost of her tuition and fees.

I was surprised, but I shouldn’t have been. I knew Lindsey had been applying for lots of scholarships during the last semester. A couple of those helped cover her study abroad costs, but the others were applied to the fall semester.

The total of three scholarships – one from the University, one from her sorority, and one from an journalism organization – covered her tuition and fees with exactly $169.25 to spare. (I assumed they would hold the credit for next semester, but got another surprise when the school deposited the amount in our checking account a couple of weeks later.

That’s when it hit me that Lindsey was being paid to go to school this semester.

We still had the costs of her books and living expenses to pay for, but we owed nothing to the university itself.

I tell you this not to brag (well, maybe a little :)) but to explain to you why I asked Lindsey to write this guest post for The Family CEO.

With all the work she had done seeking out and applying for scholarships, I knew her experience might be helpful to others. So I asked her to write a post on the lessons she learned while winning (and even while losing some) scholarships.

mayfield2 071Here’s Lindsey:

I am so excited my mom asked me to write this post for The Family CEO. I’ve watched her share our lives with readers for the last seven (?) years, and I’m thrilled to be a part of it in a new way.

To preface, I am a senior at the University of Kansas studying journalism, political science and leadership studies. Over the past four years I have applied for dozens of scholarships, and have learned quite a bit along the way about how to be successful in earning scholarship money.

To date, I have earned $24,650 in scholarships for college. That amount is made up of awards from the University, the Honors Program, my sorority, the Office of Study abroad, the School of Journalism and external organizations.

There are some tried-and-true strategies I employ each time I dive into a scholarship application. Here are some of the strategies I swear by when it comes to making yourself the best possible applicant.

Focus on what’s most unique about you.

This is something I wish I had known when I was first applying for scholarships while in high school. Back then, my essays and answers to prompts tended to be broad and generic, and didn’t give any indication of who I really am as a person.

Selection committees often have hundreds of applications to get through, so you need to bring something to the table that only you have to offer. Here are some examples of answers to scholarship prompts, and their better versions. I’ve chosen the typical, “Why did you select your current major?”

Okay answer: You’ve chosen pre-med because you like science and you want to help people.
Better answer: As a child you had a condition that required you to work with a team of doctors who were crucial to helping you get better and having a normal life. You appreciate what they did for you so much that you now want to do the same for others.

Okay answer: You want to be a teacher because you like kids and they are the future.
Better answer: You went on a mission trip to an underprivileged school and saw the desperate need for good teachers and educational resources in many parts of our country. You had excellent teachers growing up who helped you get where you are, and think every student should have the benefit of a motivated teacher who cares about them.

Okay answer: You chose architecture because you like to work with your hands.
Better answer: You took a trip to Europe with your parents and were incredibly inspired by all the amazing architecture in the countries you visited. You love the idea of designing structures that are both functional and bring beauty and happiness to everyone who sees them.

See how the second versions hone in on a narrative that is specific to the person, rather than a broad generalization that could apply to lots of people? You need to be honest, but try to find the best possible parts of yourself to highlight, not just the ones that come to mind first.

Go deeper and find a central theme.

Sometimes you’ll get a broad essay prompt like “How will you use your college education to contribute to your community?” Or “What do you hope to get out of your college experience?” These are often accompanied with a 500-or-more word limit, which can make deciding which direction to go a little tricky.

Less is more in these situations. It can be tempting to choose five or six ways you will contribute to the community, or list off every single thing you want to do while in school. But a more effective strategy is often to go deeper into the one or two things that you are most passionate about.

As I tried to convey above, your responses are much more powerful when you include a story, anecdote or narrative about yourself, and this is much easier to do if you focus on one or two things instead of covering your entire laundry list of ideas.

In addition, choose a central thread to weave throughout your entire essay, and to come back to at the end. With longer essays, it’s good to have something that ties together the beginning, middle and end. This can be hard to do because there’s no particular road map for how to do this. Your thread can be a quote, a phrase, an object, or something else entirely.

A simpler rule is to always include something in your introduction that you return back to in your closing paragraph. For instance, I wrote an essay in high school based on a quote about one candle being able to light the world. I referred to the concept of light in my introduction by referencing all the people who have made my life brighter, returned to it in each of my examples of how I’ve been a light to others, and finished up by sharing my hope to learn how to make my candle brighter in college.

That’s a very simple, clichéd example, but having any kind of central theme really helps to focus your responses, and to connect parts of your essays that don’t seem connected otherwise. It also leaves your reader feeling like they read a cohesive story, rather than just a list of your accomplishments.

Seek scholarships throughout college.

It’s a common misconception that the most important year for earning scholarships is senior year of high school, when most of the University-sponsored scholarship applications are due.

While senior year is an excellent time to start thinking about scholarships, the truth is that students should be applying for scholarships continuously throughout their college careers, not just at the beginning.

I am proud of the fact that I am funding my entire senior year’s tuition through scholarships. My senior year of college is actually the year that I have earned the most scholarship money.

There are two reasons that being upperclassman applicant can be an advantage to you:

  1. For whatever reason, students often stop applying for scholarships as they get older. This means that if you find a scholarship specifically for current college students, the pool will likely be much smaller scholarships for incoming freshmen.
  2. As you get farther and farther in your college career, you’ll have more content to add to your resume, more close relationships with teachers who can write you recommendations, and more relevant experiences to draw upon for scholarship essays.

The older and more experienced you are, the better you’ll be able to employ the examples above – and to find some of your own.

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