College  |  October 13, 2022  |  Arianna Blakely

Scholarships Guide: From Finding Them to Winning Them

What you'll learn
  • Where to find scholarships
  • What scholarship requirements to pay attention to
  • Tips on writing a scholarship essay
  • How to write a thank you letter for a scholarship

“I don’t want free money” …said no one ever. Scholarships should be your #1 choice to pay for college. They’re money you don’t have to pay back—and who doesn’t like the sound of that? Winning a scholarship requires hard work, attention to detail, and a little bit of luck, too. Luck isn’t something you can change, but following these tips can definitely up your chances of winning a scholarship.

Step 1: Look for scholarships and avoid scams

  • Sign up for Nitro by Sallie Mae. With Nitro by Sallie Mae you can get matched to scholarships and track your college funds all in one place.. (By clicking this link, you’ll go to our trusted affiliate, SLM NitroCollege LLC. Any use of the site will be governed by SLM NitroCollege LLC’s terms of use and any information you provide will be governed by the terms of SLM NitroCollege LLC’s privacy policy.) You may be eligible for certain scholarships based on your grade, 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. Nitro is a great starting point to find scholarships that suit you.
  • Research, research, research. When you’re looking for other scholarships to apply for, do a quick search to make sure these 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. Unfortunately, scholarship scams happen. 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 to prevent yourself from getting scammed. If you’re being asked to provide personal information like your banking numbers or your Social Security number before you apply, be very cautious.
    However, be mindful of this: you may be asked to provide personal information like this if you do win a scholarship, so do your research to verify its legitimacy. Don’t apply if you’re asked to send money. If you’ve been told you’re a finalist or that you’ve won a scholarship you didn’t apply for, don’t respond—it’s likely a trap. 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. After you figure out what you have to do, try these tips to stay on top of your scholarship apps:

  • Start your applications ASAP. It never hurts to give yourself as much time as possible to apply for scholarships. This will give you some wiggle room to gather all your submission materials together. This is especially important if you need to request your transcript or get a letter of recommendation. Remember that 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 don’t miss out. Scholarships may or may not offer extensions, so try your best to apply before the last day. You might not be able to submit anything after the deadline has passed. To stay on top of your due dates, put them 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 the most time-consuming part of the application process, so make sure you give yourself plenty of time to write it. Need to know where to start? Look no further.

  • Pre-write—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 & be original. Write as though you’re talking to a friend. Being authentic and original is the key to writing a great scholarship essay. Readers will be able to tell when you’re not being genuine.
  • Be clear. You don’t want to 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. You’ll want your scholarship essay to be top-tier in terms of quality. Make sure your work has been proofread for grammar, punctuation, and clarity. Cut out any unnecessary words or phrases. Pay attention to word and character counts—they may not seem like a big deal, but you should stick to the parameters the scholarship sponsor has asked for. 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. I’m sure you read over your scholarship essay a million times up to this point, but there’s no harm in reading it over one more time. You might catch something that needs a quick fix or edit.
  • 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

When applying for scholarships, it’s important to make sure that you stand out from the other applicants as much as possible. A personal note or thank you letter is a sure way to help. 

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, nor should it be something you would text your best friend. Here are some key tips for writing yours:

  • Determine whether you should write a handwritten letter or send an email. If you’re applying for a scholarship and the 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 with the scholarship sponsor. If they aren’t nearby or don’t have a physical address for you to reach, sending 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)” is a great way to start your letter. 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 an expression of gratitude for the scholarship opportunity. The sponsor will value your appreciation.
  • 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 accomplish your dreams 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. You never know, they may reach out to thank you for thanking them! 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” to name a few.
  • 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 is authentic—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 it’s not nearly as bad as you may think. The potential rewards—free money to help with tuition or even to cover a few textbooks—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 your high school career 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! 

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