A guide to finding and winning scholarships

Increase your chances of winning free money for school

“I don’t want free money” …said no one ever. Scholarships should be your first step to pay for college. It’s money you don’t have to pay back—and who doesn’t like the sound of that? Winning a scholarship takes hard work, attention to detail, and a little bit of luck, too. You can’t change your luck, but following these tips can definitely up your chances of winning a scholarship.

Step 1: Look for scholarships and avoid scams

  • Sign up for Scholly by Sallie.* The top college scholarship app has helped students find millions of dollars in scholarships. Best part? It’s free and super easy to use. Simply tell Scholly Search® about your interests, background, and accomplishments and you can get matched with scholarships in just minutes. You may be eligible for certain scholarships based on your grades, belonging to a certain social group, and just for being yourself! Interested in bird calling? There’s a scholarship for that. Writing poetry? There’s a scholarship for that, too. Public speaking? I think you can guess what I’m going to say. There are scholarships out there for almost every little thing under the sun. Scholly by Sallie is a great starting point to find scholarships that suit you.

    *By clicking the Scholly by Sallie link, you’ll go to our trusted affiliate Scholly’s site. Any information you provide will be shared with Sallie Mae and will be covered under the terms of the SLM NitroCollege, LLC privacy policy.
  • Research, research, research. Do a quick search to make sure the scholarships are legit. Look up the organization or donor that is providing the award and look for previous winners of the scholarship. Check with school counselors and teachers, too—they may have some scholarship ideas for you that will have already been vetted and confirmed to be real.
  • Recognize scholarship scams & dodge them. Scammers sometimes try to steal your personal information under the guise of a scholarship opportunity, so be careful and understand some of the warning signs. Be cautious if:
    • You’re asked to give personal info like your banking numbers or Social Security number before you apply
    • You’re asked to send any money
    • You’ve been told you’re a finalist or that you’ve won a scholarship you didn’t apply for

However, be mindful of this: you may be asked to provide information like this if you do win a scholarship. If you accidentally paid a scammer and need help, file a claim with the Federal Trade Commission or reach out to your state attorney general.

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Step 2: Identify your scholarship requirements

Once you’ve found the scholarships you want to apply for, make sure you keep track of all the requirements. Scholarships typically have certain things you need to do to be considered for the award—filling out short answer questions or an essay, getting a letter of recommendation, or submitting test scores are common. Try these tips to keep up with your to-dos.

  • Start your applications ASAP. Giving yourself as much time as possible to apply will give you some wiggle room to get all your submission materials together. This is especially important if you need to request your transcript or get a letter of recommendation. Physical transcripts can take several days to process, and electronic transcripts often take one to two days as well. For letters of recommendation, you need to give your recommender plenty of time to craft the letter for you since they’re taking time out of their schedule to help you.
  • Pay attention to deadlines. Due dates will sneak up on you if you’re not careful, so make sure you stay on top of them. Scholarships might not offer extensions, so try your best to apply before the last day. You also might not be able to submit anything after the deadline has passed. Put the dates in your calendar on your phone or set reminders so you don’t forget.

Step 3: Write a scholarship essay

Many scholarships require applicants to write an essay responding to a specific prompt. This can be the most important and time-consuming part of the process, so make sure you give yourself plenty of time to write it. Here’s how you can start.

  • Start with an outline. Whether you prefer a bulleted list or a mind map, plan out what you’re going to write. Are you trying to share your background, your goals, your personality, or your life experiences with the scholarship committee? Lay your ideas out first before you start writing.
  • Be yourself. Write as though you’re talking to a friend. Being original and true to you is the key to writing a great scholarship essay. Readers will be able to tell when you’re not being genuine.
  • Be clear. Don’t leave your reader guessing—state why you deserve to win the scholarship and give honest reasons to support it.
  • Share your essay with others for feedback. It’s always good to have a second (or third or fourth) pair of eyes on your essay before you submit it. Your friends, family members, and teachers know you best, and they’ll be more honest with you than anyone. Their feedback could help you make your essay even better!
  • Edit more than once. Make sure your work has been proofread for grammar, punctuation, and clarity. Cut out unnecessary words or phrases. Pay attention to word and character counts—some scholarships may have parameters around them. Make sure you’ve fully answered the prompt.

Step 4: Submit your scholarship application 

Once you’ve completed all the requirements, it’s time to turn in your applications! But don’t be too hasty—there are a few things you should do before you click enter.

  • Double-check that you’ve fulfilled all the requirements and have all your materials ready. If you’ve followed these steps, then you probably double- and triple-checked that you crossed every “t” and dotted every “i.” But you want to be 100% certain before you turn in your application. 
  • Read over your work again. There’s no harm in reading over your work just one more time. You might catch something that needs a quick fix.
  • Turn it in! Once you turn in your application, make sure that you receive confirmation that it has been submitted for peace of mind. This may mean checking your email or contacting the scholarship sponsor directly.

Step 5: Write a personal note or thank you letter

You thought you were done after clicking submit? There’s one more thing you can do to stand out—write a personal note or thank you letter.

There are a few different reasons why you might want to write a letter—you may have interviewed for the scholarship and want to thank the interviewer, you may have won it, or you may want to write one just because.

Your letter shouldn’t be a five-page essay, but it shouldn’t be something you would text your best friend either. Here are some key tips for writing yours:

  • Determine whether you should write a handwritten letter or send an email. If the scholarship sponsor is within a reasonable distance (i.e., in your community, at your school, etc.), consider writing a handwritten letter and sending it to the appropriate address or dropping it off directly. If they aren’t close or don’t have a physical address for you to reach, an email is totally fine.
  • Greet the person or organization you’re writing to. When you write any letter, it’s important to say hello in a kind, professional manner. “Dear” or “Hello (name of person or organization)” are great ways to start. Avoid cold openings like “To Whom It May Concern” and casual, familiar openings like “Hi” or “Hey.”
  • Thank them. Make sure the first statement you make in the body of your letter is you thanking them for the scholarship opportunity. A thank you can go a long way.
  • Explain how winning the scholarship would affect you and help you achieve your goals. This is something you should touch on in your scholarship questions or essay if they were required, but keep it brief in the thank you letter. One to two sentences about how winning the scholarship would help you is enough.
  • Provide your contact information. It’s always a good idea to repeat your contact information, like a phone number and/or email address, just in case they need to reach you for any purpose. If you provide an email address, make sure it’s professional and does not contain anything inappropriate or embarrassing.
  • End your letter professionally. Make sure that when you’re ready to end the letter, you use words like “Sincerely,” “Regards,” or “Thank you,” before signing off with your name. Avoid using casual words like “Thanks,” “Always,” and “Cheers.”
  • Edit your letter. When you’re done writing, make sure you read it over several times and edit for clarity and conciseness. Proofread for grammar and punctuation errors. Ensure that your tone of voice screams “you”—being genuine in a thank you letter is so important. Like with a scholarship essay, don’t be afraid to have someone else read it over to make sure it sounds good.

 

Applying for scholarships can seem like a long and tedious process, but the potential rewards—free money to help with school costs—can make a big difference in paying for college. And scholarships aren’t just for high school seniors, you know. You should apply early in high school and throughout college, too! Give yourself plenty of time and follow these tips and tricks to make your scholarship application process as simple as possible. Good luck! 

footnote Sallie Mae does not provide, and these materials are not meant to convey, financial, tax, or legal advice. Consult your own financial advisor, tax advisor, or attorney about your specific circumstances.

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