Are you left-handed? There’s a college scholarship for you. If you’re tall, or redheaded, there are scholarships for you. There’s even a college scholarship you can get simply by showing you’ve applied for other scholarships.1
Finding opportunities is easy. Actually winning money for college is harder. If you want to know how to get scholarships for college, begin by avoiding these five common mistakes.
Mistake No. 1: Not Developing a Plan for your College Scholarship Search
Want to know how to get scholarships for college? Treat the scholarship search like a job. The money is real, even if it’s not cash in your pocket. ” I thought of it this way,” says Yelena Bosovik, who applied for 100 college scholarships, “if I spent an hour filling out an application and got the funding, it would mean I’d made $250, $1,000 or even $10,000 an hour of free money.”2
How did Bosovik do it? She created a huge list of scholarships with requirements and deadlines. She wrote a few basic essays and tweaked them to match each application. She asked her guidance counselor to send out her transcript in batches each month. “I was a scholarship application machine!” she writes.
Mistake No. 2: Passing Up the Small College Scholarships
Let’s say your church offers a college scholarship for $1,500. That may sound like chump change when you look at a total college tuition bill of $40,000 or more.
But it’s not. If you don’t get that $1,500 college scholarship, you’ll probably be forced to borrow it as part of a student loan package. Borrow $11,500 at 6.8 percent (the standard rate for a Federal Stafford Loan), and you’ll pay $2,098 in interest over five years. However, if you do get that small college scholarship you can borrow $10,000 instead, and you’ll pay $274 less in interest.3 That means your $1,500 scholarship saves you $1,774 in the long run.
Apply for as many small scholarships as you can. Even $500 is still money for college. Look for these smaller scholarships from religious and community organizations, local businesses, state government and your high school.
Related article: How to Teach Your College Student Money Management Skills
Mistake No. 3: Only Applying for Easy Scholarships
Every month, people Google “easy scholarships” more than 8,000 times. They Google “no essay scholarship” 1,900 times. What does this mean for you? If you apply for the easy college scholarships — those which require little more than registering your name or writing a few sentences — you’re competing with many thousands of other college-bound students. If, instead, you seek out scholarships that require a little bit of effort, the pool will be smaller, and you’ll have a better chance of standing out.
Do, however, weigh the time invested against the possible payout. Some scholarships require you to submit very specific, creative projects, like a prom outfit made from duct tape. The 2015 winning couple of Stuck at Prom each received a $10,000 scholarship. However, the runners-up only got $500 each — and that was after putting in as much as 234 hours on the project.4
Mistake No. 4: Failing to Develop a Strategy for Essay Scholarships
Writing essays is hard — and that’s probably why so many students apply for only a handful of essay scholarships and then give up. But if you look closer, many college scholarships use similar prompts, such as “Talk about a time you overcame adversity” or “Why do you deserve this scholarship?” Write a few strong essays on these topics and use them as many times as you can. Also:
- Tell a story. On the other side of the submission form are actual people reading your scholarship essay. These readers are desperately bored. So entertain them . Tell a story about something interesting that happened in your life. Use anecdotes to illustrate a point instead of platitudes.
- But don’t tell a tired story. “And when I scored the winning goal, I realized…” “And as I looked into the homeless woman’s eyes, I realized…” Certain anecdotes appear over and over in scholarship essays, and that means you should avoid them.
- Avoid gimmicks. These include using dictionary definitions, famous quotes, song lyrics, and “creative” formats. With very few exceptions, these tactics will not help you win an essay scholarship.
- Get double duty out of specific essay topics. Say you find a scholarship that asks you to write about “your political hero.” You may be able to use your essay again if you apply to other politics- or government-related scholarships.
Mistake No. 5: Falling for College Scholarship Scams
Some unscrupulous companies promise to help you get college scholarships if you pay them a fee. Others host free seminars that pressure you to pay right away so you don’t miss the opportunity to win scholarships. These companies will take your money and give you nothing in return. The Federal Trade Commission lists a few common sales pitches these scholarship scammers use, such as:
- “The scholarship is guaranteed or your money back.”
- “You can’t get this information anywhere else.”
- “I just need your credit card or bank account number to hold this scholarship.”
- “We’ll do all the work. You just pay a processing fee.”5
Be a cautious consumer when you’re applying for scholarships. And remember that once you receive money for college, it’s important to protect it with tuition insurance. Tuition insurance reimburses some or all college costs, after the college has issued any refunds, if a student withdraws for an unforeseen covered reason. Scholarship and financial aid money is protected too. Good luck!