This article was originally published on May 6, 2015. It was updated on February 12, 2020.

No Time for Modesty

The Hollywood awards season ended with the Oscars ceremony this past Sunday. Millions tuned in to celebrate—or criticize—the achievements of actors, directors, screenwriters, and musicians. Personally, The Academy Awards always serve as a reminder that many families are immersed in picking the right college and figuring out how to pay for it. Now is the time that both parents and students are weighing their acceptance letters, completing the FAFSA (if they haven’t already), and applying for scholarships!

What the heck do the Oscars have to do with college funding? Very good question.

For students, the private scholarship search is like the Oscars. It’s a chance for students to be recognized and appreciated for their accomplishments or “body of work” with various associations, organizations, corporations, and the colleges and universities themselves. This is the time for students to not be afraid to brag about their accomplishments!  Our children need to celebrate their own accomplishments and learn how to really advocate for themselves for the first time.

Figuring Out Where to Start

As a student, you’re probably wondering when and more importantly, where do I start my scholarship search?

There is a prevailing myth that students should apply for scholarships in their senior year in a sort of “combined assault” with their college application process and then maybe put in a few scholarship applications in the early spring and summer. Many college experts, however, will advise that students start applying or at least looking at scholarships in between their freshman and junior year when the student is not overburdened with the college application process.

Realistically speaking, this is a decent schedule for most people. After all, the majority of big scholarships are offered to seniors during the school year. The problem with this? Much, much more competition! And much less time!

The truth is that you can apply to scholarships as early as KINDERGARTEN. Yes, there are much fewer scholarships available for kids who are not juniors or seniors, BUT paradoxically there is less competition. The vast majority of families are unaware that they can apply for scholarships well before senior year, or they just have more pressing things to take care of.

Ok. This is all well and true, but what if you are a senior in high school right now?

While it’s true that many big scholarship deadlines have already passed, do not despair. Many other scholarships have deadlines from March until May, and some even stretch into the summer months.

As with most accomplishments in life, you need to first form a plan. This goes for everyone intending to go to college, not just high school seniors. Make a list of steps you’ve taken to reach your goals throughout your life. Some tips for you:

  • Create a portfolio of “how awesome you are”: Be sure to include challenging classes you’ve taken, extracurricular activities, jobs, volunteer efforts, books you’ve read, compilations of art or written work that you are proud of, videos of your athletics, organizations and professional groups that you are a part of, and major or job interests. This will save you a ton of time in the application process because you can keep referring back to this master sheet.
  • Ask for letters of recommendation from people that have gotten to know you over the years. Good recommendations can be game-changers with regard to college and scholarship applications. Furthermore, an insightful teacher can often clearly highlight or reveal talents and strengths of yours before you even realize them. When asking for letters of recommendation, be sure to include your resume so that the person writing the letter is reminded of your strengths. Be mindful of the time and effort it takes to write a letter of recommendation, so please be sure to also THANK them for writing a letter on your behalf.   A good old-fashioned “Thank You” note will go a long way.
    • Bonus tip: If you are not a senior yet, I cannot stress the importance of cultivating good relationships with your teachers and coaches. It will change your life for the better.
  • There are no rules that state you can’t recycle your essays!
    • Depending on the essay prompt, you may be able to reuse all or some of your personal statement/supplement essays.
    • They still need to be tailored to each specific prompt and adjusted accordingly
  • Apply to as many scholarships as you can without compromising the quality of your work.
    • Remember any successful scholarship search should include ALL scholarships that you may qualify for, even if the award is small!

Where to Find Scholarships

Once your plan is made, begin your search. The easiest way to start is to use online resources. Below you can find several great online scholarship databases. The beauty of these scholarship finders is that you can search opportunities by category, such as your interests, major, or state:

For high school seniors right now (Feb 2020), is probably your best bet to start with since you can save time and search by application deadline.

You should not stop here though. Not all scholarships are posted online! Here are several more places to look:

  • Utilize counselors and teachers who know which scholarships might be a good fit
  • Check with your parents’/grandparents’ employers and other local businesses
  • Contact your town’s chamber of commerce
  • Reach out to church or religious organizations, service organizations, and professional organizations

 These local scholarships are often much less competitive. The same goes for smaller scholarships.

What Scholarships Suit You Best?

There are scholarships for writing, athletics, academics,  learning disabilities, volunteering, ethnicity, art, and the list goes on and on!

For instance, if your student has aspirations of joining the directors, actors, actresses, and screenwriters in Hollywood, look no further than the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences at The future filmmakers and writers can apply for the Student Academy Awards or The Academy Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting.

Not interested in the limelight? Is community service your passion?  The Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes (ages 8-18) awards those who have accomplished exceptional service work with $10,000 to use for college.

Don’t think you’ll ever qualify for a reward? Think you won’t get anything because you’re not one of the “best” students? Think again. There are so many unique scholarships out there it boggles the mind. There’s a scholarship for being TALL. There are bowling scholarships, real estate scholarships, drone pilot scholarships; even scholarships on candy and ice carving. Candy

Scholarship Sweepstakes – No Essay Required

If you feel lucky, there’s free money available based on random drawings. These drawings often require little to no effort on your part.

The SuperCollege Scholarship awards a $1,000 scholarship through a random drawing; all students have to do is register to win.  Sallie Mae has a $1,000 Monthly Sweepstakes, and Discover offers a random drawing of 12 students to receive $5,000 each as long as they sign up for a newsletter.

These sweepstakes obviously have very poor odds, but hey, if you feel lucky, they don’t take that much time to fill out. You can find a good list of them here.

Final Thoughts on How to Be a Strong Candidate

On writing your essays
  • Follow the prompt
  • Stay within the word limit
  • Avoid repeating the essay prompt/question in your writing
  • Read over and over for proper grammar, spelling, and organization. Get a second pair of eyes to confirm everything is correct.
  • Be sure to use your OWN voice Most importantly, this is a demonstration of YOUR work and contributions.
    • It’s extremely challenging for some kids to write about themselves, especially if they are particularly shy or modest. It’s important for not only college, but the rest of your life to be your own advocate, demonstrate confidence, and hold to your convictions. This will especially help you if you need to interview for a scholarship.
  • You want to stand out while still staying within the confines of the prompt. It can be challenging. As one colleague told me: How do you think outside the box when you are told to stay in the box? Here are a few ideas:
    • Focus on what makes you stand out and make your essays revolve around that.
    • Hook your reader immediately. The first couple of sentences have a huge impact on how the rest of the essay is perceived.
    • Everyone loves a good story.
    • Try and connect with your audience on a personal level.
For the interview process (if there is one at all)
  • You need to PREPARE, PRACTICE, and RELAX.
    • Prepare by learning about the scholarship sponsor and its mission.
    • Practice by reviewing potential questions and answers. Have a friend, parent or mentor practice the interview with you.
    • Then you can finally, RELAX. The more comfortable and conversational you are, the more likely the interviewer or panel will connect with you.

Your time and effort will be rewarded with other people’s money paying for your higher education! Definitely an awesome way to pay for college, right?

Good luck in your search and to quote the most influential movie of all time (in my humble opinion), “MAY THE FORCE BE WITH YOU!”


Theresa White






Related Reading:

When Should You Apply For Scholarships?

How to Research Scholarships

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