How to Write an Outstanding Scholarship Application

 December 6, 2020
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Applying for scholarships is a lot like applying to college. In most cases, you need to fill out an application, gather letters of recommendation and write one or more essays.

But since your goal is winning a scholarship, rather than getting accepted to college, your approach should be a little different.

To help you win funding for college, we’ve put together scholarship essay tips and other advice on how to write an application with better odds for success:

1. Write a unique scholarship essay
2. Gather impressive letters of recommendation
3. Be careful filling out the application form
4. Request your school transcript early
5. Put together a strong resume
6. Collect your financial aid info ahead of time
Plus: Be sure to apply early and often to scholarships

1. Write a unique scholarship essay

Most scholarship organizations ask you to write an essay about yourself and your future plans. Your essay is your chance to speak directly to the scholarship committee, as well as to share your unique story.

“The essay is the heart of the scholarship application, so students need to focus on learning how to write an essay that moves the judges,” said Monica Matthews, scholarship specialist and founder of How to Win Scholarships.

A key scholarship essay tip from fellow expert and founder of The Scholarship System Jocelyn Paonita Pearson is to open your essay with a “hook.”

“A great way to capture attention is by starting with a story or painting a picture for the reader,” said Pearson. “Start at the most intense moment in the story or the main plot and then rewind if you need to give some backstory.”

Pearson also recommends tying in core values so your reader understands who you are and what’s important to you.

“Students should identify values that are important to them and relate to those in these essays,” she said. “This naturally leads to a more passionate, memorable essay, which can increase the odds of winning.”

And Matthews says not to forget about the core values of the scholarship organization, as tying them into your responses could show you’ve done your homework.

“Take a little time to learn the background and mission statement of the organization offering the scholarship,” suggested Matthews. “This information can be weaved into the essay when it corresponds with the prompt and values of the student.”

By following these scholarship essay tips, as well as customizing your essay for each application, you can boost your chances of winning a scholarship for college. For more advice on the essay part of the application, check out our in-depth essay guide and some mistakes to avoid.

2. Gather impressive letters of recommendation

As with a college application, you’ll likely need to secure one or more letters of recommendation. These typically come from a teacher, but might also be from an advisor, principal, coach, supervisor or other adult you’ve worked with in a meaningful way.

Matthews recommends thinking carefully about who to ask.

“Students need to strategically choose who they would like to write their letters of recommendation and have them tailor each letter to fit the focus of the scholarship,” Matthews said.

“For example, a student entering the engineering field and applying for a STEM scholarship should ask their higher-level math teacher to write a letter of recommendation and mention the student’s strong math skills,” she said.

Along with asking the right person, you can also help your recommender write a strong letter by giving them your resume or an activity list.

“Handing the letter writer a scholarship or activity resume is another smart move that will help students get more detailed and personal letters,” said Matthews. “This also makes the letter writer’s job much easier, and their appreciation for the student requesting it will shine through in their writing.”

The best letters don’t just repeat your resume, but also give insight into who you are and what makes you tick. By taking the above steps, you could help your recommender put together a powerful endorsement for your scholarship application.

3. Be careful filling out the application form

Most scholarships request that you fill out forms with your personal information. While this part of the application is fairly straightforward, it’s important to look it over closely.

Make certain all your information is accurate and up to date, and read all the instructions closely to ensure you’ve fulfilled all the requirements. The last thing you want is to have your application rejected on a technicality.

Finally, reread everything — maybe a couple of times — before sending it off to check for any spelling or grammar mistakes.

Pearson also recommends having a friend, family member or teacher look it over.

“Always have a second set of eyes to proofread the application,” said Pearson. “Silly mistakes can lead to the application landing in the trash.”

4. Request your school transcript early

If you’re applying for a scholarship that takes academic merit into account, you’ll need to send off your transcript. Some organizations will let you upload your own transcript, while others might ask your school counselor to upload it or send it directly in a sealed envelope.

Whether or not the organization requires this kind of confidentiality, it’s important to make your transcript request early. Your school counselor might be helping hundreds of students, all of whom are juggling their own scholarship and college admissions deadlines.

Let your counselor know about your deadlines at least a few weeks in advance, and follow up with them to ensure everything gets there in time. Using a planner or online calendar to track your deadlines will also help you stay organized.

5. Put together a strong resume

Whether or not the scholarship application requires it, it might be helpful to create a resume. Your resume could highlight any internships, jobs, leadership positions, awards or other experiences and accomplishments that you want to draw attention to.

“Students should put together a resume, even if it isn’t required,” said Pearson. “A student resume can be a great piece of supplemental information if the committee allows additional materials of their choice.”

Check out Google Docs templates or Zety for sample resumes you can use, and aim to keep it to a single page. Although a resume typically isn’t required, this extra step might impress a scholarship committee and show that you’re committed to going the extra mile.

6. Collect your financial aid information ahead of time

Finally, many organizations take financial need into account when awarding scholarship money. As a result, you may need to collect your family’s financial information or submit a copy of your Estimated Family Contribution (EFC), a calculation that’s made after you submit the FAFSA.

Collecting all this information and submitting the FAFSA can take some time, so read over the requirements and start planning early. Also, consider filing a CSS as well (see our CSS guide for why this can be useful).

And if the scholarship is primarily awarded based on need, remember to highlight how this award money would help ease the financial pressure and help you achieve your goals in your application.

Apply early and often to scholarships

While scholarship applications can be time-consuming, the effort could be well worth it if it leads to more funding for college. So seek out scholarship opportunities on the local and national level, and apply early and often.

You have many options out there. By applying to scholarships before (and during) college, you can hopefully make school more affordable and reduce the amount you borrow in student loans.