There’s no doubt, paying for college can be hard. College tuition rates have been on the rise for quite a while now, and according to the College Board, it’s actually happened faster than the rate of inflation for a good decade. There are many reasons for the increase: less state support for public colleges and universities, increased expenses for schools vying to attract students (new gyms and dorms cost money, after all), and what some commentators have called “administrative bloat” – increases in the number and pay of administrators and managers.
That’s put everyone going to college at a disadvantage, except for the very wealthy or very fortunate, but it’s hit working adults, low-income students, and first-generation students hardest. A more expensive college degree means more in student loan debt, which has already cast a shadow over the financial future of Millennials, and more difficulty accessing education for those who start out at an economic disadvantage, whether because of their family background, work, or other financial challenges.
The Scholarship Boogie
The only upside to this scenario is that it has prompted many organizations, agencies, and individual philanthropists to create scholarships to bridge the gap. From private corporations like Coca-Cola, Microsoft, and Google, to community organizations like the Knights of Columbus or the Rotary Club, there is no shortage of scholarships for deserving students.
There are many different kinds of scholarships out there waiting to be won. Some are tied to specific causes, such as environmentalism, social justice, or religious freedom, and they are awarded to students who are planning to go into related fields. Others are specifically for underrepresented or marginalized groups, such as women in STEM, first-generation immigrants, or LGBT students. Still others are determined by educational performance (such as scholarships for students who earn a perfect SAT score) or community service. There are even numerous scholarships specifically made for working adults and non-traditional students.
The way to apply for these scholarships varies tremendously, but the most common application requirements include:
- Recommendation letters
- Test scores
All of these are typical pieces of evidence to show your academic success and character. However, some scholarships may be more creatively-oriented or eccentric. Duck Brand duct tape, for instance, sponsors a scholarship contest in which high school students make their prom clothes out of – yep, duct tape. Scholarships for artistic students may want to see a portfolio of photographs or paintings, while creative writing scholarships may require poems, short stories, or evidence of publishing.
For scholarships that are for specific groups, like minority students, first-generation students, women, and so forth, you may also be required to provide some proof of your identity. Proof could include birth certificate, driver’s license, passport, visa, or some other official document.
Where Do I Find Scholarships?
It would be nice if there were some sort of national clearinghouse for scholarships, but at this time, there is none. There are, frankly, too many to keep account. Some are annual, appearing regularly year after year, while others may be one-time-only offerings, making them harder to track. While some groups that give out scholarships, like the United Negro College Fund or the Gates Foundation, are well-known, even household names, others may be very obscure.
Frankly, Google is your best friend when it comes to scholarships. There are numerous websites that list scholarships, but none are really able to list every available scholarship in the nation. However, they can give you a good start.
It’s helpful to strategize. If you’re searching for scholarships as a current high school or college student, treat scholarship applications like another class on your schedule:
- Set time aside for searching (just like you would research for a paper)
- Schedule your application writing and sending (just like you would schedule study time)
- Plan for surprises (so the deadline doesn’t sneak up on you at a busy time)
It’s also helpful to strategize which scholarships to apply to. First of all, target scholarships that are targeting you. Your best option is to seek out scholarships for students who fit your demographics. Search for categories that pertain to you: “scholarships for STEM;” “scholarships for first-generation students;” “scholarships for veterans.” If you don’t fit the criteria, don’t bother – they’re not going to change their rules just because you impress them with your essay.
Secondly, apply to a lot of scholarships. Most of them are free to apply, so the only cost will be time and maybe postage (though most scholarships are completely online these days). Many scholarships are small, from a few hundred dollars to a thousand or two, but every little bit helps. Don’t ignore small scholarships just because they don’t cover your whole tuition; they may be easier to win.
Thirdly, go for the lesser-known scholarships. Famous or well-marketed scholarships will have thousands of applicants, but some funds fly under the radar, and you have a much better chance of winning if the applicant pool is a few dozen – or even just you alone.
Finally, always be sure you’re applying to a legitimate scholarship. There are a lot of scholarship scams out there. Most legit scholarships are free to apply; beware of any scholarship that requires an entry fee, or claims that you have won but wants you to pay something up front to disburse the funds. It’s almost certainly a scam.
Tips for Scholarships Essays
Ironically, applying for scholarships isn’t something they teach in school (though these days, they probably should). Scholarship essays, by far, give students the most trouble. Students often don’t know how to go about making their case. They’re at a loss when it comes to how to describe themselves, or what scholarship sponsors are looking for in applicants.
So a few recommendations may be in order. Many of these seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how often people make these mistakes. Or maybe you wouldn’t.
Follow Directions: In many cases – especially national, well-known scholarships – the group or agency awarding scholarships is going to be overwhelmed by the number of applications, and will be looking for any excuse to save their labor and reject applicants out of hand. The quickest and most efficient way to do that is to throw out the applications that are incomplete, incorrectly completed, or unprofessional.
We can’t stress enough how important it is to follow directions when applying for a scholarship. Take your time with any forms to make sure you have filled them out completely and accurately. Follow word limits precisely – if a scholarship essay prompt says no more than 500 words, do not write more than 500 words. And, obviously, deadlines are hard deadlines. Unless the scholarship awarders explicitly make an extension, turning in an application after the deadline is a waste of time.
Respond to the Prompt: Every scholarship essay question is encoding what the scholarship sponsor wants in an applicant. Sometimes it’s not totally obvious, but the key to success in applying to scholarships is being able to crack the code of what the sponsors are looking for. You may think words like “leadership,” “service,” “self-motivated,” or “dream” are just words, but they’re not – the sponsors know what they mean, and they’re looking for people to match.
If, for example, the prompt asks you about how your loved ones inspired you to go back to school and finish the college degree you never completed, a story about how you pulled yourself up by your bootstraps and did it all yourself isn’t what they’re looking for. That doesn’t mean they’re wrong – that means you’re not who they’re looking for. Which leads straight into the third tip –
Keep it Positive: When a sponsoring company, group, or agency is choosing someone to win their scholarship, they are implicitly looking for someone who will represent them. After all, if you read the fine print, you’ll find that most sponsors are going to use you and your application in their marketing and promotion. They may have a sincere mission to provide educational opportunity to those who need it, but they also need someone who represents their corporate or organizational values.
That means that they essentially need you to be a spokesperson, and in almost every case, that means positivity. Scholarship sponsors want inspiring stories, not excuses, complaints, or political rants. A story in your scholarship essay about how you decided to go back to school because your last boss was an idiot and you could do his job ten times as well if you just had a degree to get in the door may be real, but it’s not inspiring.
Positivity applies in almost any case. Write about struggles you overcame, not struggles that defeated you. Learn the art of spin; maybe you once imagined you would become a doctor, but other pressures prevented you from going to medical school or finishing college, and now you are going back to school to become a nurse. You didn’t give up your dream to become a doctor; you took control of your life to become a nurse.
Make a Compelling Argument: In any case, remember: your application essay is a piece of persuasive writing. You are writing to convince the sponsors that you deserve their scholarship. Think back to your English classes: thesis, evidence, and conclusion apply in scholarship essays just like in any other instance. It’s just that for scholarship essays, you are your own evidence.
Value Colleges is doing our part to meet the financial needs of deserving first-generation and non-traditional students with the Me First! and Finish It! scholarships.