Applying for College Scholarships? Let’s Chat.

Scholarships can be daunting, overwhelming, exciting and promising.

They can also make you want to disown your teenager applying for them all. Ask me how I know.

As the mom of a teen who applied to nearly 40 scholarship programs, a scholarship committee member and a recipient of scholarships that left me with two degrees and debt-free, I hope what I share here is helpful and informative. I am not a professional, nor do I have all the answers. I’m just a mom who wants to help another family. Let’s get ‘er done, shall we?

First things first, choosing a college is hard and there are a ton of resources that will give you tips on graduating from college debt-free. This is not that post. Rather, I’m here to share about the process, show you how to find scholarship opportunities, provide a few tips and resources and give you tips to be a stand-out applicant.

What should you do before you ever fill out a scholarship application?

  1. Take the SAT or ACT, or both. Our counselor recommended taking them junior year and in retrospect, that was good advice. It gave our son ample time to figure out which test he did better on (SAT, in his case) and chances to re-take it to increase his score.
  2. Fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Student Aid). The key word here being FREE. You should never pay a fee to fill this out. That’s called a scam. Even if you are 100% sure you won’t qualify for federal aid, some scholarships require you have this, so do it anyway. It opens on October 1 of every year and I suggest you do it sometime that month using your previous year’s taxes. The turnaround time is days, versus weeks, the later you go.
  3. Ask your teachers (English teachers write great ones), coaches, extracurricular leaders, school counselors or employers to write letters of recommendation for you. I suggest starting this the spring of your junior year since many college applications open in the summer. Pro tip? If it’s a great letter, ask them to write one for college admissions and a generic one for scholarships. Keep them on file and you’ll always have them handy. Also, get them in hard and electronic copies, if possible. And, please, make sure these people actually know you! Reviewers can tell the difference.
  4. The spring of your junior year, start on those college essays. In Texas, we have three (Essay A, B and C) and some universities require one or more. Have both your English teacher and counselor (in addition to your parents) read them over. This is not the kind of essay you want to cram for and knock out in 15 minutes. These may come in very handy during the essay portion of scholarship applications.

Where do you find scholarship opportunities? First, get to know your high school counselor. He or she is your single best resource for knowing both national, and local, opportunities. Plus, she will likely be writing letters of recommendation, providing transcripts and offering advice on financial resources available. Here are a few ideas of how to search for additional scholarship opportunities:

  1. National websites like Scholly, FastWeb and Scholarships.com. These are decent resources for finding national scholarships. You fill out a brief questionnaire and then you get a slew of emails. Honestly, though? I wouldn’t spent a ton of time on these sites. The return for us was minimal with so many other applicants utilizing them. The same goes for the Big Book of Scholarships.
  2. What organizations, legacy societies, credit unions, electric companies, etc., does your family do business with and do they offer scholarships?
  3. Your employer
  4. Your college or department
  5. Do you have a family member who served in the military?
  6. Extracurriculars you’re involved in (DECA, 4-H, FCCLA, FFA, Boy/Girl Scouts, etc.)
  7. Surrounding school districts and their counselor blogs/websites (I found this one suggestion to be quite lucrative for us as it helped uncover multiple local scholarships!)
  8. Quirky things unique to you (tall, left-handed, religious affiliation, etc.) Some groups want to celebrate your differences and give you money for them!
  9. If you’re a Texan, visit the Comptroller’s website. It’s a treasure trove of ideas.
  10. Did your neighbor or a good friend just receive a scholarship? Bookmark the donor so you can apply next year!

Now, you’re ready to fill out scholarships, but what should you have on hand?

  1. Transcript (both official and unofficial) and in hard and electronic formats
  2. College acceptance letter
  3. Letter/s of recommendation
  4. Essay/s
  5. FAFSA report (know your EFC, Expected Family Contribution)
  6. Official ACT/SAT reports
  7. Resume (at the very least, compile a listing of community service, leadership roles, extracurricular involvement, awards earned, GPA and test scores). I can’t emphasize enough just how much these items will be asked for – over and over – in every single application. Start keeping records your freshman year, if possible. If you’re a 4-H or FFA kid, your record book or SAE should come in super handy here!
  8. A good, clear headshot of you (looking professional!)

If you’re starting to feel like you need an assistant, I feel you. That’s where Google Doc saved the day. Maybe you prefer an old school notebook or some other format, but a shared electronic platform worked for our family. It’s where we tracked applications, requirements, due dates, contact information and if it was awarded or not. For those scholarships received, we created a separate document to track GPA, funding disbursement due dates and thank you’s written. Plus, it was easier to set due dates in the document than nag my kid to death to finish them. We used a color-coding system to show pending (yellow), awarded (green), denied (red) and in-progress (maroon).

  1. Fields for prospective scholarships: scholarship name, amount, how awarded, website, date opens, mom due date (!), due date, notify date, essay, recommendation, contact name, contact email/phone, awarded (yes/no)
  2. Fields for awarded scholarships: scholarship name, amount, number of payments and amounts of each, academic requirements, due dates for requirements, contact name/address/email, web portal (if one) for the scholarship, thank you sent.

If you’ve made it this far, I feel like I should give YOU a scholarship! Here’s my final tips.

  1. Read the application requirements and triple check you did them exactly right. Do they want it electronically, stapled or paperclipped, specific font size, typed or handwritten? When the competition is tight, it all comes down to who followed instructions.
  2. Give yourself time to write/edit/re-write essays. Don’t do them the night before. Trust me when I tell you that reviewers know the amount of effort you put into those. Make them uniquely you and keep a database of past essays. That way you aren’t reinventing the wheel every time!
  3. $500 scholarships are just as worthy of your time and effort as are the $20,000 ones. After all, when was the last time your hourly rate was $500?! They all add up.
  4. Read your letters of recommendation to ensure they are accurate and free of grammatical errors. If they are required to be sealed, perhaps ask your counselor to look them over and ensure that for you. Be sure to give those writing the letter ample time to write it. And, definitely write them a letter of thanks and let them know the outcome of the scholarship, if possible.
  5. Some scholarship committees perform interviews; be prepared. Dress professionally, shake their hand, look them in the eye and consider doing a mock interview before the real one.
  6. Never, ever, include something that isn’t asked for in the application. You’ll likely be disqualified.
  7. Make a hard copy or save an electronic copy in a safe place. Keep track of confirmation the application was received.

I know it’s super exciting to receive a scholarship (yay you!), but don’t be discouraged when you get the thin envelope of denial. There are many kids applying and many of them are worthy applicants. Be grateful for the opportunity to apply, put forth your best effort and let the chips fall where they may.

The only scholarship you don’t get, is the one you don’t apply for, right?!

7 Comments

  1. Nicole on June 20, 2019 at 8:44 am

    Love all these tips. It’s been a loooong time since I applied for aid and scholarships (and that was pre-all of this being online). We are a couple of years away, but I know the time is coming up SO fast. I love that you pointed out that it can come down to who followed directions. Seems so simple, but it can be a deal breaker if you don’t.

    Enjoying the new blog layout!

  2. Karen on June 20, 2019 at 9:26 am

    After the process of applying to the service academies I was D.O.N.E Jack had to decide between the AF full scholarship and the Army 4 year. Chose Army and then A&M gave him more merit based aid and even Bush gave him merit based aid. He didn’t graduate debt free but close. He received his monthly stipend, bonus for studying a critical language and made enough profit off a trip to Morocco to buy a car. The Army estimates what you need and gives you cash, be frugal and you make a profit. So in return for the next 7 years (already served 1) he received his BA and MIA from A&M and a growing skill set he can use in the civilian/government sector,

  3. Colleen Rudolph on June 20, 2019 at 3:26 pm

    Thank you so much for this post, Kathryn. My oldest is a senior next year and we feel so lost. I’m already behind the ball (why didn’t I think of asking for letters of recommendation a couple of months ago??) but this is such a huge help! It will be my bible for the entire process moving forward. You’ve demystified so much of it for me. Thank you!

    And congratulations on Will’s getting into A&M and the Corp and all the scholarships. We are Aggies as well (Class of 2000 Whoop!) and my son is hoping to attend there as well! He is currently a senior at Frassati Catholic High School and Sister Anna Laura told us that you designed the official Frassati seal. So cool! And we absolutely adore Sister Anna Laura!

  4. Beth Koons on June 23, 2019 at 9:47 am

    In light of the comment above and timing of SAT and ACT scores – I would recommend starting the fall of Junior year taking both tests if you can foot the cost. Not all scholarships Super Score, but most do and sometimes it takes 3 or more tries to reach your optimum. In regards to ROTC scholarships programs, keep in mind that the only look at 9 – 11 grade. They do not consider activities from Senior year. In addition, check out Boy’s State / Girl’s State programs sponsored by the American Legion the summer before Senior year. Wonderful program and wonderful leadership experience!

    • Kathryn on June 23, 2019 at 10:25 am

      Beth, thanks for your comment. I’m not sure that super scoring is that big of a thing in Texas (at least not at the schools our son and his friends applied to). So, I think that’s something you need to check out before applying to your specific college. As far as ROTC scholarships at Texas A&M, Will DID share his leadership roles from his upcoming senior year. Yes, Boys and Girls State is awesome as is the Texas Farm Bureau Camp that’s held the summer after sophomore year and the Hugh O’Brien Youth Leadership Seminar that’s held the summer after sophomore year.

  5. Dorian Speed on June 23, 2019 at 10:36 pm

    Kathryn, thank you so much for putting this all together! It helps me to not feel so overwhelmed as I try to function as assistant organizer and primary butt-kicker for this process.

  6. Dixie on July 1, 2019 at 6:55 am

    This is a great resource! But I would add that you should see (the FAFSA can help here) first whether and how much need-based grant aid you are likely to qualify for from the college(s) of your choice. For many colleges, if you receive a scholarship that is less than the grant they will give you, they will just deduct it from your grant — that is, you aren’t actually adding it to your aid package. For example, if a school offers you $20K in need-based grants (which is amazing, of course!), any outside scholarships you earn up to $20K will just replace the grant; they won’t be *added* to the grant. So you don’t actually get any more for all that work. So do your calculations ahead of time to see if you can realistically get scholarships up and above whatever that number is for you, if you qualify for financial aid! I won a really prestigious scholarship for my last 3 years of college, which was great, except that it actually didn’t change the amount of money I had to pay out of pocket to the school at all, sigh. But that was almost 20 years ago, so maybe things have changed since them!

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