5 Tips to Win Scholarships for College, Grad School

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The competition for scholarships can be fierce, so having effective strategies to make your application stand out is crucial for winning them.

Here are five tips that will help you set your application apart from the crowd.

1. Understand the scholarship's requirements

Most scholarships you can apply for lay out a list of requirements for you to follow before you're even eligible to win. These requirements may seem simple at first sight, but it can be easy to become overwhelmed, especially when you're applying to multiple scholarships all at the same time.

Luckily, many scholarships share similarities in what's asked of you. Carefully look over the requirements of each award you're planning to apply for to compare similarities in their requirements. You can save a lot of time and energy by compiling required documents and information all at once.

Scholarships may require copies of your transcript (or, for graduate students, a copy of an earned degree or certificate), your resume, letters of recommendation, a motivation letter and an essay. Some applications could require more or less information depending on the sponsoring organization. For example, a local business could ask you to provide proof of time spent serving the community.

Knowing exactly how many copies and what documentation your applications ask for saves time that you can otherwise devote to individual requirements  essays with specific prompts, for instance.

2. Follow the directions for writing a scholarship essay

One of the most frequent requirements to win a scholarship is to write an essay. Some essays might be fairly general and ask why you want to attend college. Others may include a slightly more involved prompt, such as explaining the most difficult time in your life or defining who your personal hero is and why. Not sticking to the prompt can have your essay, and hopes of winning that particular scholarship, rejected entirely.

Almost as important as sticking to the prompt is writing within the stated word count. Essay reviewers want to see you respond to the prompt concisely, so be wary of straying over the maximum word count.

The key with following an essay's word count is to get as near to the maximum word count as possible, without abusing filler words or writing nonsense. If the essay calls for 1,000 words and you write 982, chances are you're in the clear. If you turn in something that falls short and is closer to 700 words, you run the very real risk of having your essay rejected the same risk as if you had written 1,200 words.

What's most important, however, is telling a story that resonates. Doing that could make up for the length of the story.

3. Tell your personal story to the organization awarding your scholarship

When it comes to writing your essay or motivation letter, the organization awarding your scholarship wants to see a glimpse of your personality shine through. They want to get to know you, even if it's just one side or part of you. What's important is that you show why you deserve the award.

The essay or motivation letter is a chance for you to connect with the scholarship organization. It's an opportunity for you to share your unique journey that led you to wanting to attend a particular college or graduate program or what you attend to achieve after graduation. You want to focus on the essay prompt, of course, but also reveal a bit about who you are.

While sharing some of your personal insight, you want to focus on remaining positive. If your story has to do with something negative that happened in your life, what positive lesson did you learn from it? Focus on the skills you've developed throughout your journey, no matter the difficulties, and how those skills translate to your ideal career.

Like a resume, you also want to highlight your accomplishments and achievements without sounding too arrogant or boastful. Explaining how you overcame obstacles and worked hard to earn accolades and awards demonstrates the same sort of effort you'll be applying throughout your continuing education.

4. Merit matters to a scholarship organization

Your recent grades serve as a representation of the effort and hard work you've dedicated to your schooling. Your grades, then, are valued as part of the worthiness of you winning an award. A scholarship organization wants to invest funds in students who will make the best use of their scholarship by excelling in school to the best of their ability.

Whether you're still in high school or applying to graduate school or for an MBA, your grades go a long way toward helping you win a scholarship. Many scholarships are merit-based and may require you to maintain a certain GPA to continue qualifying for the award.

As was briefly touched upon earlier, you may be required to submit letters of recommendation with your scholarship application. Recommendations should come from teachers, professors and tutors — people who are familiar with your academics and can attest to your performance. For some scholarships, such as those that require community service hours, the organizer or supervisor of community events may also be a great person to ask for a letter of recommendation.

5. Proofread and edit your scholarship essay

Not everyone considers themselves the best writer, but you don't need to be when writing an essay for a scholarship application. What is important, in conjunction to following the requirements and responding to the prompt, is presenting an essay that's professional, proofread and edited.

Teachers love to hammer it into their students' heads, but the advice remains true: You can't rely solely on spell-check. It's easy to transpose the wrong form of to, too and two when you're engaged in the actual act of writing, and your writing app probably isn't going to pick up the difference. Once you've written your essay, self-edit  don't just send it out and hope for the best.

One great tip for editing your essay is to print it out, grab a pen and start marking it up. You'll need to read it over a few times to catch all the little mistakes, but the effort will pay off in making your essay more presentable and professional. Another set of eyes can't hurt, either. If you know a friend or have a writing tutor, ask them if they could proofread your essay for you.

If your school has a writing center, take advantage of it!. There's a wealth of information and advice there that can help you polish your essay and make it shine, which will reflect positively when a reviewer gives it a read and sees the result of your efforts.

How scholarships affect your financial aid package

The total amount of financial aid you receive cannot be more than the full cost of your tuition.

To that end, you will be required to report any outside scholarships you receive to your college's financial aid office.

The amount you've been awarded will be subtracted from any need-based financial aid (such as a Pell Grant or Perkins Loan) you are eligible for. The effect is usually insignificant as some colleges may only subtract outside scholarships from your self-help aid, which are loans and work-study. The chance of reducing the amount of money you'll have to repay through loans is a great way to limit the financial burden of attending college.

Not reporting outside scholarships you've been awarded can lead to a situation where you are overpaid and will have to refund the overpayment to one of your lenders.

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