How to Increase Your Chances of Winning a Scholarship

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By Mark Kantrowitz

Nobody can guarantee that you will win a scholarship, but there are some strategies that will increase your odds of winning a scholarship.

Start searching for scholarships immediately. Families often wait until the spring in the senior year in high school to figure out how to pay for college. By then, half of the scholarship application deadlines have already passed. There are also scholarships that students can win in younger grades. You can't win money if you've missed the deadline.

Continue searching for scholarships even after you've been admitted. There are some scholarships that are open only to students who are already in college. A nice feature of the free scholarship matching service is that it updates the year in school and automatically sends email about new scholarships that match the student's background. Still, it is important to update the scholarship search profile at least once a year.

Answer all of the optional questions on the scholarship search profile. All scholarship matching services have required questions and optional questions. Students who answer the optional questions tend to match about twice as many scholarships as students who answer just the required questions. The optional questions are there to trigger the inclusion of specific scholarships. These scholarships are shown only to students for whom they are relevant. It takes only about half an hour to complete the scholarship search profile, so it is worthwhile to take the time to do a thorough job.

You can also find local scholarship on bulletin boards near the guidance counselor's office (or the college's financial aid office). There may also be a bulletin board near the public library's jobs and careers section, which is where most libraries keep the scholarship listing books. (Before using any scholarship book, check the copyright date. If the book is more than a year or two old, it is too old to be useful, as about 10 percent of scholarship programs change in some significant way every year.) Also look in the coupon section of the Sunday newspaper, which is where national scholarships sometimes advertise their scholarship programs.

Apply to every scholarship for which you are eligible and only the scholarships for which you are eligible. Winning a scholarship depends as much on luck as on skill. It is difficult for selection committees to distinguish among top finalists, so even among the most talented students winning is a bit of a numbers game. If you apply to more scholarships, you will increase your chances of winning a scholarship.

Often students dislike smaller scholarships and essay competitions. But these scholarships are less competitive, so they are easier to win. Small scholarships do add up and may make it easier to win bigger awards. Every dollar you win is about a dollar less you'll have to borrow. Applying for scholarships gets easier after your first half-dozen applications, since the essays can be reused and tailored to each new application.

Write about a topic of interest to you. This will yield a more personal and passionate essay, which will be more interesting to the reader. Try to make your application stand out, so that readers will refer to you as "the student who ___________." Talk about your impact on other people and how this affected you.

Support statements in your essays with specific examples. For example, in an essay about leadership, don't just say that you're a leader. Give examples where you demonstrated leadership. Often each member of the selection committee will champion one or more students for the award. Giving them examples helps them argue why you should win the scholarship.

If you have difficulty writing essays, try answering the question out loud while recording the answer. Afterward you can transcribe the recording and create an outline to add structure and organize your thoughts. Most people write or type at about 30 to 60 words per minute, but speak at about 200 words per minute. The act of writing interferes with the flow of though. It takes only a minute or two to write a 300 word essay using this technique.

The same technique can help you proofread your essays. Read the finished essay out loud. Any disfluencies are signs of problems with the essay, such as spelling and grammar errors, weak structure or a failure for ideas to flow one into the next. Continue to correct problems until you no longer stumble when reading the essay.

Next, print out a copy of the essay before doing a final proofreading. Essays look differently on the screen and on paper. This will help you catch errors that are missed by the computer's spelling and grammar correction software. Be especially careful about valid word spelling errors, such as principle/principal, its/it's, and though/through, which are often missed by modern spelling correction software.

Keep a photocopy of your application before mailing it. This will make it easier to reproduce the application if it gets lost. Send each application by certified mail, return receipt requested, or with delivery confirmation. This will give you proof that the application was received by the deadline.

Finally, Google your name to ensure that you have a professional online appearance. Scholarship providers are increasingly checking out the finalists to look for red flags, such as inappropriate or illegal behavior. They want to know whether the finalist will reflect well on the organization. Some will require all finalists to 'friend' them on Facebook. So review your Facebook account, removing inappropriate and immature material. Also use a clean email address, such as, instead of a suggestive or offensive address.


Mark Kantrowitz is an alumnus of the first year of the Research Science Institute in 1984 and a member of the board of trustees of the Center for Excellence in Education. Professionally, he is publisher of and, the leading web sites about planning and paying for college. He is also the author of two bestsellers, the most recent of which is Secrets to Winning a Scholarship.


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