Once you've decided you're ready to attend an institution of higher learning, and you've shortened your path to a degree through opportunities at community colleges, AP classes, and CLEP tests, it's time to think strategically about the best ways to win scholarships that will even further reduce your debt load after graduation.
The scholarship application process can be daunting, and the paperwork requirements alone are enough to discourage many otherwise qualified students from even trying. It's important to remember there are lots of graduating seniors who feel the exact same way; as a result, there are a myriad of scholarships that are very winnable by the average student simply because most students don't take the time to track them down and apply.
Another important thing to remember is that no student will be chosen for every scholarship they apply for; they must learn to deal with that. Even that kid that was voted 'Most Likely to Walk in Space' will be turned down for some of the scholarships he applied for. Rejection is inherent in the process, which is a good thing. The more applications that are sent out, the more applicants realize getting turned down isn't the end of the world. That'll be a handy skill three or four years down the road when it comes time to put that Bachelor's degree to work in the job market.
The most important key when beginning the application process is to create an organized system that will help the applicant keep track of when things are due, what needs to be sent where, and how much time they really have left to get the application done.
That can be done any number of ways, but whatever way you choose, embrace that workflow and use it throughout the application process. That will help keep you organized, and greatly speed up the pace at which you can apply.
Building a list
The application process begins with building a list of scholarships for which the applicant is eligible. That's a simple concept, but many applicants fill out applications for which they're simply not qualified, or maybe even overqualified for, depending on the scholarship. Filling out those applications takes time that could have been better spent applying for scholarships for which the applicant was qualified.
Building the list can be done in numerous ways. The most efficient is to use a free scholarship search, of which there are many. Reputable scholarship search engines include Fastweb, the College Board Scholarship Search, and the Princeton Review Scholarship Search, though there are many others. Note the phrase 'reputable scholarship search.' There are a variety of scams applicants have to be wary of, but a good rule of the thumb to remember is that any search you have to pay money for, is most likely a scam. A detailed list of common scholarship scams is available at http://www.finaid.org/scholarships/common.phtml.
Also remember to check with each institution as to what scholarships are available from the school. Individual departments will sometimes award scholarships that are available to students in that particular major. Sometimes, these aren't publicized well. As a result, competition may not be as stiff. Contact the department you're majoring in directly to ask for a list of scholarships that are available.
Don't forget local scholarships. Your high school guidance counselor will be able to point you in the right direction on these, and may even be able to put you into contact with past winners of the same scholarships who may be able to give you a leg up on what the selection committee likes to see. Every little bit helps.
Finally, think of every member or employer based organization you could possibly be eligible for, and contact them directly as to their scholarship programs. Again, many times fraternal, religious, or professional organization scholarships aren't advertised as well as they should be. It pays to do a little legwork and and find scholarships off the beaten path.
Once the list is completed and compiled, make sure you have deadlines for each marked clearly on your calendar and begin the process of completing those that are most urgent. Many scholarships require common elements like official transcripts, standardized test scores, financial aid forms like the FAFSA, parents' tax returns, and one or more essays/letters of recommendation.
Because you can reuse most of those items, including essays and letter of recommendation, over and over again, here's where that organizational system comes in handy. Depending upon the application requirements, students may be able to send out essentially the same packet again and again, making minor changes to the essay and cover letter. This will dramatically cut down on the time it takes to apply for each individual scholarship which will in turn increase the number of applications that can be sent out.
For those applications that require personal interviews, auditions, or performances, this would be the time to work out the kinks, well before you ever have to take the stage. Outline your performance, rehearse it again and again, film it to break down the flaws, and give the presentation to family and friends just as you would to the application committee. This will increase the chances of your interview or audition going just as you want it to, and it will also reduce your stress level further sharpening your performance.
Scholarship applications, by their nature, require you to paint yourself in the best light. Don't embellish, but also don't be afraid to sell yourself. You've worked hard to put yourself in a position to further your education, so be proud of those achievements. A great primer is Guerilla Marketing for Job Hunters 2.0 or 3.0. The books are aimed at job seekers but the principles behind selling yourself and your past accomplishments is the same.
When applications are done and it's time to send them off, proofread everything carefully and don't leave anything blank. An otherwise competitive application can be ruined because of mistakes arising from lack of attention to detail. Sending out sloppy applications won't win you any points with the selection committee.
Make sure you've followed the application instructions implicitly. There are times for creative flourish, but this isn't one of them. Selection committees see hundreds or thousands of applications cross their desk; don't lose out because you decided you were too special to follow instructions.
Make copies of everything. Paper work mix-ups are a fact of life, and even selection committees misplace things. Having a list and copies of everything that was submitted with each scholarship application will mean your turnaround time is much faster if something was lost, and you have to send a replacement.
Doublecheck the application. Reusing materials on multiple applications increases the chance that you'll make a mistake and leave incorrect names on a cover letter or some other detail mistake. Have someone else look over the application to catch things you might miss.
Finally, be sure to get the application in early. No one has ever been penalized because their application arrived on time.
Applying for scholarships doesn't have to be hard. It does require legwork and an eye for organization, but those are skills that will serve you well in college. Start early, and send out as many applications as you can find time for. It's a very valuable time investment.
Part four will include the best ways to work in college to reduce your costs.