When I was a high school student (a long, long time ago), I knew that affording college was going to be a challenge for my family. Because of this, I paid careful attention to our school’s scholarship bulletin—which, at the time, was a paper posted on a bulletin board—and applied for numerous private scholarships, starting in ninth grade. One day, I came across a scholarship essay contest from the American Fire Sprinkler Association (AFSA) with the topic “What do fire sprinklers mean to your community?” I bet not many people will enter this, I thought to myself as I jotted down the information. I did some research on the benefits of residential fire sprinklers, wrote and revised my essay, and sent in my application. A few months later, I received $3,250 towards my college education! Along with the AFSA scholarship, I received numerous other private scholarships, which helped me to not only afford college, but to complete my undergraduate education with only one small loan. As my experience shows, good things come to those who apply.
Today, it’s fast and easy to find private scholarships through websites like Fastweb. Applying still takes time and effort, but the rewards can be immense. Being a student with top grades and test scores increases your chances of earning private scholarships, but even a mid-range student has a chance if you put time and effort into the application. Since many scholarships require essays, honing your writing skills can greatly increase your chances of winning, but there are also many scholarships that don’t require essays.
A key strategy to earning private scholarships is to know your audience. The number one reason organizations—including LA Tutors—offer scholarships is to help students. They also, however, hope to gain publicity for their company or cause. For example, the AFSA, which has an even larger scholarship program today, wants to raise public awareness of residential automatic fire sprinkler systems. You can greatly increase your chances of winning if you research the scholarship’s sponsoring organization and try to include what it is looking for. Of course, you’ll have the best chance of earning scholarships for which you are a natural match, but you don’t have to love an organization to graciously accept its money. You don’t have to be a huge Ayn Rand fan, for example, to write an awesome essay about one of her novels for the Ayn Rand Foundation scholarship contest.
Equally important to knowing your audience is to follow all of the scholarship’s application instructions. Does your essay need a cover sheet, and what should it include? When is the application deadline? What are the minimum and maximum word counts? A surprising number of people don’t carefully read instructions and therefore knock themselves out of contention.
If you’re a student with financial need, private scholarships should never replace filling out the FAFSA for need-based aid and applying for school-specific scholarships at the colleges of your choice, but they can be an important supplement to other forms of aid money. Prospective applicants should consider each college’s method of applying private scholarships to the financial aid package. Some schools use private scholarships to override need-based aid, while others let them replace loans or lower the family’s tuition bill. My alma mater had a more generous policy towards private scholarships, which influenced my decision to attend.
Lastly, be gracious in both victory and defeat. If you win a scholarship, make sure to write a personalized thank-you note to your benefactors. If you don’t, thank the organization anyway for considering your application.
The most important tip for winning scholarship money is simple: Apply!