Applying for Scholarships: The Ultimate Guide To Help You In Your Education

Applying for Scholarships: The Ultimate Guide


If you’ve made the decision to attend college or university, one thing is for sure – you’re not alone in worrying about how to pay for it. Tuition rates are notoriously expensive no matter where you decide to study or what your program of choice is. Between paying rent, textbooks, transportation, and living expenses, the costs really add up quickly. 


Luckily, winning scholarships can help relieve the burden of sky-high tuition costs. But like anything, the key to being successful in winning scholarships is to start early and put in the effort. After being rewarded thousands of dollars through various scholarships during my own undergraduate studies, I’ve learned firsthand what it takes for your application to rise above the competition – and not be buried in the inevitable pile or applications.


With a new scholarship application season approaching, I wanted to write this detailed guide sharing 8 proven tips, as well as my step-by-step process to effectively find and apply to scholarships. Let’s get started!

Start Searching for Scholarship Options Early


The number one tip I have for people looking to win scholarship money is to start early! We are talking at least 12 months before the academic period the scholarship would fund. This might seem excessive but getting an early start is key for multiple reasons:


More Time to Find the Right Fit – Finding quality scholarship options that match your background, field of study, skills, and demographic profile takes a significant amount of time and research – especially the extremely competitive awards or full-ride scholarships. Starting early gives you a chance to comb through what is available, identify options, talk to those overseeing the scholarships about requirements, and determine which you’d be a good fit for before crafting top-notch applications. 


Earlier Deadlines – Many scholarship application deadlines fall surprisingly early, some happening 6 to 8 months before the academic period they fund actually starts. This catches a lot of scholarship seekers off guard if they haven’t looked into timelines yet. Do your future self a favor by discovering relevant due dates ASAP!


Chance for Repeat Applications – Sometimes it takes applying more than once before being granted a scholarship you have your sights set on. Having the option to apply again the following application cycle is only possible if you start pursuing a scholarship an entire year prior to when you’ll need it.

Diversify Your Scholarship Application List  


There is an understandable temptation to apply solely to high-value, full-tuition scholarships because they fundamentally solve your financial woes in one go. But while I definitely advise applying to those golden ticket-style scholarships, it’s also smart to apply to mid-range and lower-level ones as well to give yourself the best odds of maximizing how much scholarship money you can win overall. 


Going all-in on a couple ultra-competitive massive scholarships that only select 2-3 winners nationally each year is very high risk with potentially zero financial aid reward for all your effort. Throwing in applications to local or niche scholarships, awards for a few thousand dollars, essay contests, talent competitions and more means you have more irons in the fire funding your education through different avenues in the end. 


My rule of thumb has always been to apply to at least 10 scholarships per academic year – mixing high value national awards with mid-range opportunities and easier, lower dollar ones as well. This diversified strategy helped me rack up over $20,000 in total scholarship awards by my senior year!

Know What Makes You Stand Out  


Scholarships judges have to make difficult decisions, selecting only a handful of recipients from hundreds, sometimes thousands of applicants. This means that standing out from the crowd and catching their eye as a candidate who brings something unique to the table is crucial. 


Before you start seeking out individual scholarship opportunities, I recommend first creating an organized profile that you can reference. List all details about yourself – academic performance, athletic or artistic talents, club memberships, volunteer work, travel experiences, academic field of study/future career plans, cultural background, any disadvantages or marginalization you’ve faced,languages spoken, unique hobbies or skills…literally anything and everything that describes what you bring to the table. 


Having this self inventory makes tailoring components of your profile and application details towards certain scholarships much easier later on. It also helps you, your parents, teachers, counselors or other mentors think of specific scholarship options that would be a great fit for your background and strengths when they come across opportunities.

Ask Around About Opportunities Others Don’t Know About 


Leveraging personal and community connections is a valuable way to find potential scholarships beyond just searching online databases and listings. Make sure to ask family, friends, neighbors, teachers, school counselors, youth program leaders, cultural center contacts and anyone else in your circle about scholarships they may have heard of but aren’t widely published. 


Sometimes scholarships are granted every year to members of a local community group, children of employees at certain companies, students who attended specific high schools, or those belonging to niche organizations – but there isn’t broad awareness of these options outside those circles. Asking personal contacts from various areas of your life about any scholarship opportunities they know of can help surface some hidden gems well-suited for you.

Get Organized From The Start


Applying to multiple scholarships means keeping track of a lot of moving pieces during the process. Specific due dates, needed application materials, eligibility particulars, question prompts, online portals for each, and more. I highly advise setting up an organized system to monitor all these details as soon as you decide to start pursuing scholarships. 

I put together a spreadsheet with different columns including:


  • Scholarship name 
  • Application deadline
  • Award amount 
  • Eligibility specifics 
  • Required materials checklist
  • Status of my application  


This kept all the key info for each scholarship opportunity in one place so I could check on upcoming deadlines and what I still needed to complete easily in one spot. I could also share access to the evolving document with parents, counselors etc. leveraging their help as well.


Whatever your exact organization system, having one in place from the very beginning will make managing high volumes of scholarship applications much less chaotic!

Ask for Help From Those Familiar With You


Scholarship applications often require personal statements, essays about challenges you’ve overcome, academic or professional recommendation letters from mentors, and affirmations demonstrating how you match the award criteria through experiences and achievements. 


These application components are much easier to excel at if you enlist support from people familiar with your journey, strengths, talents, and personality – both to provide letters of recommendation and also help review your writing. Ask former teachers, school counselors, community program coordinators, bosses, mentors and anyone else who has seen you grow over the years if they are willing to either write you recommendation letters or review drafts of your self-written scholarship application pieces and give feedback.


Most people are happy to help students they know pursue scholarship opportunities. Taking them up on the offer can give your application an advantage! Having a second set of eyes before you submit scholarship application materials also never hurts.

Give Yourself Enough Time With Each Application  


It may be tempting to whip together scholarship applications at the last possible minute before deadlines hit but I strongly advise giving yourself adequate time on each one you pursue. Rushing through questions and essay prompts almost always backfires, leading to foolish mistakes, weak writing that fails to showcase your talents and background effectively, and missed opportunities. 


After finding a promising scholarship opportunity, I immediately added all its application requirements and components into my tracking spreadsheet along with realistic timeline targets of when I planned to draft and finalize each piece leading up to the deadline. Things like:  


Application Draft 1 – 3 weeks before deadline

Teacher Review – 2.5 weeks before 

Application Draft 2 – 2 weeks before

Parent Review – 1.5 weeks before

Final Edits & Full Review – 4 days before

Submit – at least 48 hours before deadline


Building in buffer time and leaving room for multiple drafts and reliable reviewers prevented me from ever having to throw together sloppy, last-minute applications. I knew going in what timeline I needed to follow for each scholarship to set myself up for success. Establishing your own runway process that fits your schedule is hugely helpful!

Follow Instructions Carefully From Start to Finish  


Last but certainly not least, it is absolutely critical to very carefully read and follow all provided scholarship application instructions from start to finish. This includes things like:


  • Closely adhering to word counts or page limits for application essays and personal statements 
  • Answering additional short answer or multiple choice questions if included  
  • Submitting all required supplementary materials along with your application form such as transcripts, letters of recommendation, academic papers or portfolios, verification of tribal membership, citizenship verification or other things outlined in eligibility requirements 
  • Following exact guidelines around file formats, acceptable document types, submission portals or mailing address details


Scholarship committees want to understand how detail-oriented, responsible and capable you are of following precise instructions. Giving them any reason to doubt that with sloppy disregard for the rules is one of the fastest ways to get your scholarship application tossed without serious consideration. 


Stay focused from your initial review of eligibility criteria all the way through to hitting submit on the application portal or dropping that envelope in the mail!

Putting It All Together


Getting started early, casting a wide net with scholarship options tailored to you, asking personal contacts about potential leads, carefully tracking all moving pieces in organized systems, soliciting help reviewing drafts or writing letters, giving yourself adequate individualized time with each application, and closely following all provided instructions throughout the process—these are the keys to scholarship application success!


It may seem intimidating but breaking down the steps and putting in consistent work over 12+ months makes winning those crucial dollars to fund your education very doable. If I can rack up over $20,000 in scholarships through this process, I have no doubt you can absolutely achieve similar outstanding results!


Stay motivated knowing that with focus and effort over time, significant scholarship dollars are within reach to make achieving your academic dreams affordable. Now get going – future you will thank you! Wishing everyone the best of luck maximizing financial aid through scholarship awards.


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