How to Win a College Scholarship

How to Win a College Scholarship

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With college tuition higher than ever and some student loan debt at the crisis level, scholarships are one of the ideal ways to help pay for college. The best part is that scholarships provide FREE money towards your education; you don’t have to pay them back.

Below is a rundown off some key steps to follow on How to Win a College Scholarship.

1. Create a List of Your Unique Traits

Did you know that there’s a scholarship out there for practically everything? There are scholarships offered based on nationality, personal interests, GPA, languages are spoken, extracurricular activities, and so on! There are scholarships for swimmers, pianists, fantasy football players, students who grew up with certain hardships, first-generation college students, LGBTQ individuals, etc. 

It is also quite important to note that when looking to win a scholarship you don’t take a shotgun approach to applying for scholarships, find the ones that fit you.

You can start with this list of traits about yourself, including: 

  • Personal interests and passions
  • Extracurricular activities
  • Hardships you or your family have endured (e.g. cancer, loss of a parent, a natural disaster, etc.)
  • Career interests or goals
  • Academic accomplishments
  • Heritage
  • Sex/gender
  • Personality traits (e.g. strong sense of leadership, great sense of humor)
  • University you currently attend or the universities you’re applying to

2. Search for Scholarships Based On These Traits:

Once you’ve got your list of unique traits handy, you can start searching! There are quite a good number of scholarships out there. Many are easy to find, such as popular, high-competition scholarships like the Gates Millennium Scholars Program and the Ronald McDonald House Charities Scholarship. These are big names offering big rewards!

But many thousands of others can be hard to find, especially specialized ones and those with less competition (when they are hard to find, they have less competition!), so you’ll want to be extremely diligent in your research. Don’t be afraid to ask teachers and counselors for advice, they can be great resources.

3. Develop a Prioritized List of Scholarship Opportunities:

As you’re searching for scholarships, keep a list that prioritizes opportunities based on several factors: due date, unique fit, and scholarship amount. Obviously, the closest approaching deadlines should be a top priority, followed by the type of scholarship (how uniquely it matches you), and then the dollar amount.

Everyone’s list will look a little different, but the goal is to apply for all of the best scholarships in a timely manner.

4. Implement a Scholarship Schedule:

It may sound obvious but apply for as many scholarships as possible! Searching and applying for scholarships should be a regular part of your college preparation routine, much like standardized test prep. 

Carve out time to dedicate solely to scholarship applications, and even consider making a scholarship schedule. For example, every Monday, spend an hour searching and saving scholarship opportunities, and every Wednesday, spend an hour applying to them. Choose what works best for you and stick to it. We’re all busy, but if you make the time for scholarships, you’ll be thankful later! 

5. Build a Scholarship “Toolbox” (And Save Time Later)

What, you might ask, is a scholarship toolbox? Basically, it’s just all of the resources and knowledge you’ll need to slay the scholarship application process!

These items include:

  • Letters of recommendation
  • Scholarship essays you’ve written in the past
  • All of your necessary school’s information 
  • Most recent transcripts (high school and/or college)
  • Personal information (name, address, email address, your parents’/guardians’ information and employers, etc.)
  • Your student loan lender information (if you’ve already taken out student loans)
  • A recent, non-blurry photo of just you

Will you need ALL of this information for every scholarship? Not likely. But the idea is to gather all of these resources and documents ahead of time so that if you do need them, you won’t lose time searching for them.

6. Don’t Rush Your Scholarship Applications:

Make sure you’re giving each application the necessary time and consideration to be a strong contender. You want your application to stand out, to reflect your ability to be thoughtful and hard-working. 

  • Taking the appropriate time to apply for scholarships involves:
  • Reading all directions (including fine print) thoroughly
  • Familiarizing yourself with the organization offering the scholarship
  • Reflecting thoughtfully on any questions or essays
  • Writing and proofing a strong scholarship essay, if applicable (more on this shortly)
  • In a nutshell: don’t phone it in and you’ll increase your odds of winning that free money for college.

7. Follow the Directions to a Tee:

It sounds obvious, but it’s so important to make sure you submit everything necessary in order to avoid being disqualified. Triple check the requirements and that you’re submitting them correctly.

9. Always Do the “Optional” Work:

Okay, listen, no one really wants MORE work to do, we get it. But if a scholarship has any “optional” requirements (e.g. an essay, a letter of recommendation, a joke—yep, that’s something that’s actually come up before on an application) we urge you to consider it “mandatory” and do it. 

Here’s why: completing the additional work shows your initiative and drive, and will make your application stand out from other candidates who perhaps didn’t provide the extra materials. Go above and beyond!

10. Write a Killer Scholarship Essay:

Ah, the scholarship essay. Not every scholarship requires one, but many do, and this is really your chance to shine. Your essay allows you to show the more dimensional aspects of yourself—things that can’t be reflected in just your GPA or test scores. 

11. Beware of Scholarship Scams:

Scholarships exist to GIVE you free money, not to take your money! So if you see a scholarship with an alleged “submission fee” look elsewhere!

12. Clean Up Your Public Social Media: 

Okay, this is a biggie. Just like prospective employers, scholarship committee members will often vet their candidates, so make sure your social media is exuding professionalism.

In fact, many scholarships actually ask for a link to a social media profile (sometimes of your choice, sometimes not), so make sure you provide a working, accessible link.

13. Check Your Spam Folder:

You’ll likely be notified by email if you win a scholarship, so be on the lookout for updates. We all know that important mail can get stuck in the good ol’ spam folder though, so make sure to check that regularly too.

14. Don’t Give Up! Scholarships Are Life-Changing and Worth the Effort:

This is perhaps the most important of all the scholarship winning tips. Realistically, you’ll face some rejection. That’s okay! College is expensive and some scholarships are competitive, but just keep applying! That scholarship money is bound to rack up eventually.

Scholarships Are Not a One-Time Deal. Many students don’t know this but you can keep applying for scholarships even once you’re in college. That’s right… you can apply for scholarships for years and keep getting more free money for college.


Winning a scholarship depends as much on luck as on skill. Increase your chances of winning by applying for as many as possible. (But don’t apply if you aren’t eligible.) Smaller scholarships and essay contests are easier to win because they are less popular. Reuse essays to save time, customizing them for each new application.

Answer the essay question out loud and transcribe a recording of the answer to avoid writer’s block. Proofread the essay carefully before submitting the application. In fact, the students who win the most scholarship money typically apply every semester. Obviously, it’s important to get a jump start on applications before the school year starts (especially if you’re in high school), but huge sums of money are available throughout the year.

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