Apply for scholarships the right way to get more money for college

Each year, billions of dollars are available in scholarships and grants for college students. Many older first-time students and those returning to graduate school often think they can’t apply for a scholarship or award, when, in fact, many scholarships don’t have age restrictions.

Whether you’re in high school, looking to attend graduate school, or already enrolled in college, it’s important to research and learn all you can about the grants and scholarships that are available because it could pay off big. I should know—I won more than $250,000 in scholarships for college and grad school. Here is some helpful advice for identifying, applying for, and winning scholarships.


Do make a list

Make a list of all the things that you do inside and outside of the classroom, what’s important to you and what you have done in the past and currently, including your profession, volunteering, etc., and find the common interests to determine which organizations to research for scholarship opportunities. Once you have made your list, research organizations online that embody your interests. Be more focused than broad in your search; casting your net too broadly wastes time and will reduce your ability to find awards you can apply for right now.

Do know what organizations look for in their applicants

When organizations fund scholarships, they are looking for someone who best embodies what the organization is about. Most scholarship applications have some sort of essay component, but it is not usually extensive. It is typically one page long and the topic is broad. It is important to use the essay as an opportunity to market yourself to the organization and show how you align with it. Explain in an authentic way why you are a good match; however, make sure to answer the essay question.

Do invest the time necessary to identify and apply

Work the phone and Internet to see what awards are available. If an organization says they don’t offer scholarships, ask if they know similar organizations that do. Again, be focused in your search—it will help you in the long run. It’s also important to stay organized. Note when scholarship applications are due. Keep a separate file of all the scholarships you’re applying for and work on them little by little leading up to the deadline. A simple spreadsheet—and I mean simple—can make you vastly more efficient in this process.

Do assume you can apply unless told otherwise

Many scholarship and grant programs do not have age restrictions. Older first-time students and those returning to college should conduct a search for scholarships and awards just like younger students. The FastWeb scholarship database, for example, includes more than 1,800 awards with no age restrictions.

Do apply for scholarships year-round

There is often a rush of applications in the spring because students are being accepted to schools and know what their financial packages contain. People often think that this is the best season to apply for scholarships, when, in fact, every month of the year is a good time because scholarship deadlines occur all year long. Fall, winter, and summer are especially ideal times to apply since many students aren’t thinking about applying for awards when they’re on vacation or school is already in session, and there is very little competition. Look at applying for scholarships as a year-round process: Note deadlines of scholarships you find and apply for multiple scholarships at one time.


Do not assume GPA is the most important qualification

Many students think that GPA is the most relevant qualification, but that is a myth. Most scholarships aren’t GPA driven, but instead are awarded to the most well-rounded applicant. Share your volunteer experiences in your application and demonstrate how you align with the organization’s mission and goals; again, organizations often are trying to find the person who best complements their objectives.

Do not think you can’t apply because of income

There are often no income guidelines or restrictions, and many organizations and applications don’t even ask for students’ or families’ income tax returns. Often, for private scholarships, organizations aren’t looking to award money to people who need it the most, but instead to those who embody what the organization is about. They are also looking to award scholarships to people who either in their current or future career will do things in the best interest of the company or organization.

Do not assume scholarships are only for young undergraduates

There is a misconception that scholarships and grants are only for high school students entering college. The reality is that there are many scholarships and grants available for working adults and graduate students. Adult learners are becoming more the norm than the exception. In an application essay, it is important to demonstrate your life and professional experience. This can be more difficult for a young student who doesn’t have a lengthy portfolio or rich life experience like a working adult. Working adults can also identify scholarship opportunities through their employers as well as seek possible tuition reimbursement. Make sure to find out any eligibility requirements or limitations.

Do not just apply for one or two scholarships

Based on your list of interests, volunteer experience, and professional experience, apply for as many relevant scholarships and awards as you can. Assuming you meet the qualifications, the more scholarships you apply for, the more likely you are to win. It’s also important to apply for both large and small awards—several small scholarships can really add up.

Do not forget to have someone review your application

The last thing you would want to prevent you from receiving a scholarship is an application with grammatical and spelling errors. Ask a trusted family member, friend, or colleague to review and proofread your application before you submit it to ensure there aren’t any mistakes that might cost you the award. A compelling application with grammatical or spelling errors will either be tossed out or go to the bottom of the pile.

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Securing funding for your education can be a daunting and anxiety-ridden task. However, investing the time necessary to identify and apply for scholarships and being focused in your search could make all the effort worthwhile.

More expert advice about Financing Education

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Jason K. Lum, J.D., M.P.P.Faculty member in Walden University’s School of Public Policy and Administration

Jason K. Lum, J.D., M.P.P., is a faculty member in Walden University’s School of Public Policy and Administration. Mr. Lum serves as a national advocate for greater awareness among college-bound students and current college students particularly...

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