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Putting Private Scholarships In Perspective

Most college scholarships are available through the colleges themselves in the form of merit aid or tuition discounting. You can also access free money through the federal and state governments, but this tends to be need-based and may not make as much of a dent in your total college cost.

There is also free money from outside sources–about $2 million–available in private scholarships. With increased awareness and competition plus the bane that is scholarship displacement, going for outside scholarships has become a frustrating and fruitless maneuver for many families. A few families and experts out there still tote the power of the private scholarship and argue that you can fund a substantial amount of your costs by attaining these.

As always, the real answer is somewhere in the middle. Private scholarships can be another viable funding source to add to your college funding arsenal, but you need to know how to play the game right.

Even the smaller private scholarships are very competitive, and scholarship judges may spend just a few precious minutes or even seconds reviewing the scholarship application.

With such a finite amount of time to make a lasting impression on these important decision-makers, it’s crucial that the student make the most of this opportunity. If not, the application may be on the fast track to the circular file.

Here’s a list of 10 Scholarship Do’s & Don’ts that you must know to increase your chances of winning a private scholarship:

The Do’s

1. Search in your own community first.

The tendency for many parents and students when they start the scholarship search is to use online search engines like Fastweb or; ipso facto, these scholarships are going to be extremely competitive. Instead, once you get a sense of scholarships available and what these organizations are looking for, narrow your search.

Your community is one of the biggest sources of scholarships that you can realistically obtain. Use Google advanced search to explore scholarships in your area based on topic or interest.

Some of these scholarships may not even be online! Find out about these kinds of awards by talking to your school counselors and contacting your local chamber of commerce, community center, local rotary club, church, and other communal organizations.

These scholarships may be harder to find, but they are easier to obtain than your typical “one-in-a-million-odds” national scholarship.

2. Choose quality over quantity.

You’ll need to prioritize which scholarships to apply for. Instead of trying to apply to as many scholarships as possible, try to apply to the scholarships that best fit your strengths, interests, and qualifications.

What are your hobbies? What are your talents? What are you interested in or passionate about? Find scholarships that fit these molds and tailor your applications to them.

Note: Consider how you can be efficient with your time and energy. After focusing on quality, you may find that you’ve exhausted your “scholarship fit list” and need to start applying to some tangential scholarships. Can you tailor one essay toward several scholarships?

3. Understand the purpose of the scholarship.

Scholarships may be designed to encourage students to enter a specific career field, to reward students who contribute to their communities, or to help underserved students enter higher education.

Use this information to guide how you write your scholarship application.

4. Follow the directions.

Read the guidelines again and again. Make sure you take the time to ensure every “i” is dotted and “t” is crossed. Include all the information and forms requested, and answer every question.

This is going to sound super obvious, but make sure to answer the prompt. Many scholarship applications are never given a second chance because they do not follow directions and/or do not answer the prompt.

5. Write an essay or create a piece that demonstrates why you should win.

The scholarship application gives the scholarship judges a sense of who you are and what’s important to you. Think about what skills and qualities the scholarship judges seek and then describe how you match them.

Here are some basic guidelines for creating a quality essay:
– Hook your reader immediately
– Depth and specificity are always better than breadth
– Always come back to a common theme

6. Proofread and get feedback from editors.

No matter how strong of an applicant you are, it will be difficult for a scholarship judge to overlook spelling or grammatical errors. Proofread your application and essays carefully, and have your editors do the same.

You can’t write a strong scholarship essay in a vacuum, and editors are the best people to help. Teachers and parents can make great editors.

Remember, parents, your student is writing the essay. NOT YOU.

7. Practice for interviews (if necessary).

Most scholarships do not require interviews, but a handful still do. Plus, this is a good thing to practice anyway. Ask a friend or parent to do a mock interview with you to prepare for the real thing.

8. Ask your parents for help.

Parents should track, encourage, and incentivize their student’s scholarship search.

Mom and Dad are capable of doing more than writing the tuition check. They can help their student find scholarships, keep track of deadlines and give feedback on applications and essays. If kids win scholarships, their parents save money. Parents are deeply incentivized to help out!

9. Brag a little about yourself.

You need to let your best self shine through in your scholarship applications – don’t be bashful about discussing your accomplishments.

Telling a story of growth and depth where you accomplish something and connect with the reader is self-advocacy, not self-absorption.

10. Start early, make a plan, and stick to it.

Don’t wait until senior year to begin looking at outside scholarships. Start tracking scholarships in early high school, even if it just involves making a basic list. Eventually, you’ll want to create a spreadsheet with scholarship criteria, deadlines, status, unique requirements, and other important info. This will give you a huge leg up as you near junior and senior year.

The Don’ts

1. Don’t overlook your high school guidance counselor.

While the level of assistance and knowledge can vary heavily from school to school, your counselor can be extremely helpful.

Helping students pay for college is not their job, but you can take advantage of the knowledge they’ve accumulated over the years. At the very least, they often know of specific scholarships or resources you should investigate.

2. Don’t ignore the Internet.

Use the free scholarship databases available and make Google your best friend.

Our favorite scholarship databases right now are Scholarship Owl and Going Merry. They are intuitive, sleek, and a little less “spammy” than other databases.

You can find more scholarship engines on our resources page.

3. But don’t become overly reliant on online scholarship databases.

By all means, use the many free scholarship searches available on the Internet to find suitable scholarships. This is a fine starting point, but realize that the majority of people are using these databases as well. You’re also going to get a ton of promotional emails from these companies. It’s a good idea to create an email address just for this purpose.

4. Don’t ignore small awards.

When there are scholarships worth tens of thousands of dollars, you might think you shouldn’t bother with the “small potato” awards. The truth is that a $1,000 scholarship is generally $1,000 less that you will need to come up with for college.

Smaller scholarships are often overlooked or avoided. Take advantage of this.

5. Don’t think that you have to be an academic or athletic superstar to win.

There are scholarships based on leadership, art, music, theatre, community service, and more.

Think of a random topic or interest. There is likely a scholarship for it. Video games, candy-making, duck-hunting, growing asparagus, being tall, zombie apocalypses–there’s something for everyone.

6. Don’t be a victim of a scholarship scam.

Never pay to apply for a scholarship and never pay for an online private scholarship search. You can find private scholarships on your own, and applying for these private scholarships should always be free. Other red flags to look out for:
– The organization requires personal financial info (such as a social security number)
– The organization reaches out to you with a guaranteed offer

Note: There are legitimate scholarship consultants out there who charge money for their services. If this is a road you want to go down, be very cautious and do your research. One of the better companies we’ve worked with is The Scholarship System.

There are also paid premium versions offered by some of the scholarship engines to help you save time.  These are legitimate, but the point still stands: with very few exceptions, you should not HAVE to pay money to apply for a scholarship.

Try Scholarship Owl Premium for free.

7. Don’t use the shotgun approach.

Remember that all organizations that award scholarships have different selection criteria. This means that the same application won’t work for all of them.

A targeted search is key. Don’t waste time or energy on scholarships that just aren’t good fits. And make sure to tailor each application to the topic at hand. Don’t just create generic essays and send them off. Create FRAMEWORKS, and then use them to answer each essay in different ways.

8. Don’t forget to answer the question in your essay.

There’s a reason why scholarship organizations provide essay questions. They want to know your answer. But, there’s some sort of universal quality in us humans to dodge straight answers. Be conscious of this.

An essay can be very well written, but if it doesn’t answer the question asked, then it’s not going to win.

9. Don’t wait until the last minute.

You may think that you do your best work on the day before the deadline at 3 a.m., but if you review your work, you’ll probably see that you don’t. Take the pressure off, and allow yourself more time to complete an application.

Leave ample time for editing and getting other eyes on the essay. There is often nothing more helpful than taking a day or two off and looking at your writing with a fresh perspective.

As mentioned before, the best way to avoid last-minute chaos is to create a process or system that will keep you honest, structured, and motivated.

10. Don’t turn in an application that is incomplete.

Scholarship organizations receive far more applicants than they can support. Don’t give them a reason to take you out of the running for not having a complete application.

Final Thoughts on Applying for Scholarships

Roll with confidence. An important part of this process is believing in yourself and selling yourself.

Once you get one scholarship, no matter how small, use that momentum to keep going.

Of course, you must also be realistic and pragmatic. Odds are you’re not going to win a full ride. But there is a good chance you can put a substantial dent in your total cost by using scholarships.

This post was updated on March 28, 2023. It was originally published on May 4, 2016.

Brock Jolly, Founder and CFP










Scholarship Resources

Related Reading:

And the Award Goes to Students That Apply for Scholarships!

My Kid Is a Decent Student but We Will Not Qualify for Need-Based Financial Aid

When Should You Apply for Scholarships?

How Out-Of-State Students Can Get In-State Tuition

How to Help Your Student Create Their College List

Strategies for Sending Your Children to Private Colleges Despite the Higher Costs

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