The Art of Applying For (and Winning) Outside College Scholarships

The Art of Applying For (and Winning) Outside College Scholarships

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For many current high school seniors, choosing which college to go to may not be the biggest question looming overhead. Figuring out how to actually pay for it is an even bigger concern, and to a lot of people, the stakes are high. Getting outside college scholarships might mean the difference between going to your expensive dream school and your local state school, or even having to forego college entirely.

In my senior year of high school, I won approximately $25,000 from 10 different outside college scholarships. This, in combination with a scholarship I received from my university, means I am covering the cost of tuition, fees, room, and board for my first year at an out-of-state university entirely from scholarships.

The Art of Betting on Yourself

So how did I do it? It all began with learning to gamble.

Of course, this wasn’t the exact same thing as betting. I was never at risk of losing money. But I was at risk of losing time. Of losing out on hundreds of hours that could be spent researching which college to commit to, hanging out with friends, and watching the next episode of Silicon Valley.

Instead, I was spending my time filling out repetitive scholarship forms, rewriting dozens of essays to fit different word limits, and politely pestering my teachers to mail letters of recommendation to a different destination every other week. At some points, when filling out online applications for scholarships that receive thousands of submissions, I felt like I was basically buying a lottery ticket.

But my betting paid off. And now I want to share some of the lessons I learned along the way to help you understand how you too can apply for outside college scholarships.

How to Apply for Outside College Scholarships

To clarify, outside college scholarships are money you can win from nonprofits, companies, and community organizations. Though the easiest way to get scholarships is from colleges themselves, using outside enterprises can certainly expand your chances of winning scholarship money.

In the case of applying for a direct college scholarship, their decisions are generally based on your initial application and meeting some priority application deadline (so apply early!), though there are some cases where colleges require additional essays for scholarships.

Applying for outside college scholarships definitely requires a lot more work, but they put you in the driver’s seat. If you care enough about being able to finance your college education, it can be done.

Tips for Successfully Finding and Winning Outside College Scholarships

1. Think ahead as much as possible

Full disclosure – I was a good student in high school. My academic track record certainly contributed to my scholarship success, though it didn’t define it. So to give yourself a head start in the application process, put the effort in early.

Focus on getting the best grades you can. Get involved in extracurricular activities. Volunteer. I believe my ability to submit an essay with a convincing, interesting story – whether that be about my community service efforts or career aspirations – is what truly scored me points.

2. You have to be willing to work for it

In the second semester of my senior year of high school, applying for scholarships became my part-time job. I funneled all the free time I gained from not having to write any more college applications and my relatively light ‘senior slide’ course load into combing the internet for college scholarships, crafting essays, and filling out forms.

It was boring to list out a description of my extracurriculars for the 20th time. It was mentally taxing to write essay after essay and hone each one to perfection. It was stressful to have to organize all my applications to ensure I met deadlines and asked for letters of recommendation far enough in advance. But to truly make scholarship searching less of a lottery and more into a legitimate paying-for-college plan, you need to be willing to invest time and effort.

3. Stories matter

Don’t apply for scholarships that you can’t create a story for. Trust me, I tried submitting applications with essays on things like app design ideas, the importance of vehicle safety, and the health benefits of standing. I won none of them because I didn’t have a good story in the essay – there was no personal experience, no compelling anecdotes, and no wealth of facts on the topic from a previous class research project.

The best essays are ones where you can take one look at the prompt and know what, in general, you will write about. For me, I focused on scholarships with essays on career aspirations and leadership-oriented community service, because these are two topics I know I can tell a clear, compelling personal story about.

4. Think small

The most well-known scholarships – the Coca Cola, Burger King, and Gates Millennium scholarships come to mind – are crazy difficult to win. In many respects, I view popular competitions like this as a crapshoot.

A big part of the reason my scholarship searching was so time-intensive is that I went into the recesses of the internet searching for scholarships that weren’t even listed on popular scholarship-searching websites like Cappex and Unigo. One of the scholarships I applied to ended up giving a scholarship to everyone who applied. These less-known scholarships may not be worth a lot of money, but they are much easier to win and can add up.

5. Shop local

The best scholarships to apply for are those where you have a high statistical chance of winning – which means a small applicant pool. The scholarships with the smallest applicant pools are those you want to target, and local scholarships typically have the smallest number of applicants. Of the 10 scholarships I won, 7 of them were exclusively open to students within my state, county, or high school.

6. Note financial need

I do not qualify for financial need, so I don’t have much wisdom to share about searching for financial need-based scholarships. However, I was perpetually annoyed by finding a great
scholarship to apply for and then realizing it takes financial need into account, so there are plenty of additional scholarship opportunities (with smaller applicant pools!) that exist if your family can demonstrate financial need.

7. Don’t be crushed if you don’t win

I didn’t win the majority of scholarships I applied for. I applied to around 40 and only won 10. And I didn’t win enough to make going to my dream school a wise financial decision.

It was difficult to deal with not hearing back from a lot of the scholarships I applied to and to not win ones that I thought I had submitted a particularly stellar application for. But I refused to let setbacks discourage me from continuing to apply, and you shouldn’t either.

8. Don’t make scholarships a ‘one and done’ activity

Most outside scholarships aren’t renewable, meaning you will only get the money once, not every year you are in college. This winter break, I am restarting my scholarship search for next year. It’s a lot of work. It’s boring. It feels like deja vu. But I have decided that the trade-off is worth it.

See the Beauty in the Hard Work

I’ve come to believe there is a hidden beauty behind all the hard work that applying for outside college scholarships requires. They won’t just fall in your lap, which means those people that win them will be those who truly need them and have invested the time and effort.

Throughout it all, I have learned that sometimes, taking a big gamble can result in a win. An educated risk is worth the potential payoff, and working hard to achieve something you really want, and need, is ultimately a deeply rewarding life experience. It will also stand you in good stead for the future as you head out into the wider world post-college, and have careers to research and apply for, and need to take full financial responsibility for yourself.

There are so many amazing opportunities to be had at all stages of life. We just have to be willing to take the chance, and give it all we’ve got.

Good luck, and happy scholarship searching!

– Anna
Georgia Tech Class of 2023

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Tanya Nichols, CFP®
Tanya Nichols is a fee-based CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ professional located in Duluth, MN and serving clients across the country. Align Financial takes a simple but deeply impactful approach to wealth management, connecting your money to your life in a way that feels right to you.

Because Align Financial is independent of Raymond James, the expressed written opinions above are our own and not necessarily reflective of Raymond James’ opinions. Read our full disclosure here.

Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards Inc. owns the certification marks CFP®, CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ and CFP® in the U.S.