We've all heard the news reports: Tuition is skyrocketing and students are leaving college with tens of thousands of dollars in loan debt. Just the thought can be enough to make any high school grad consider flipping burgers for a living instead of earning a degree.
But don't give up hope. There are plenty of generous people out there, funding numerous scholarships, and all you have to do is apply. Before you even think about opening up a Word doc, though, consider these mistakes that could get your essay—and your free money hopes—trashed.
[Learn about the best value colleges that give big scholarships.]
1. Rushed writing: You may work great under pressure, but no one is at his or her best when rushed and stressed. Start your application early and give yourself plenty of time to brainstorm ideas. Use school breaks or write your essays the summer before you start applying, so you're not preoccupied with homework, sports, and school activities.
2. Not knowing your audience: Once you have a stack of scholarship apps in front of you, take some time to get to know the organizations that are sponsoring the scholarships. Check out their websites and pay attention to their vision, history, and programs. Then think about ways you can make your essay appeal to their missions, or at least avoid offending them. And make sure you follow the directions. Don't write a 700-word single-spaced essay if it calls for 500 words, double spaced.
[Read the do's and don'ts for finding scholarships.]
3. Choosing a vanilla topic: Most scholarship applications aren't going to accept your YouTube videos in place of a written essay, but you can still stand out. It starts with picking a topic that's unique and interesting but that still answers the question. "What I learned on my summer vacation" has been done before. (Tip: try doing an online search on "popular scholarship essay topics." Then you'll know which ones to avoid.)
4. Uncreative writing: Use imagery to draw your reader in. Instead of beginning an essay with: "My father inspires me because he puts his life on the line serving as a Chicago police officer," consider an opening like this: "Every day at 5 a.m. sharp, Dad rolls quietly out of bed, polishes his badge until it shines, carefully buckles on his gun belt, and signs on as a police officer for the city of Chicago. My mother starts her day saying a prayer that Dad will come home safely."
5. Using "text speak": While getting to the point is almost always a good thing, that doesn't mean you can shorten words using "text speak." I'm sure most of you know the difference between the proper way to write a text vs. an essay, but believe it or not, text speak has been slipping into college application and scholarship essays. Though you probably won't accidentally write an entire essay in text, if you're constantly working your Blackberry thumbs, you may have to steer away from your instinct to use "thru" instead of "through" or to drop in an "IMO."
6. Unpolished and unproofed: Before you run spell-check or start looking for proper punctuation, make sure your essay shines. Are your phrases eloquent and intelligent, without sounding like you chose all your words from a thesaurus? Does your essay paint a picture for the reader? Will the reader care about—but not pity—you? Read your essay aloud and ensure it makes sense. Most high schools have writing centers where you can get advice for your essay—take advantage of them. To catch spelling errors or misplaced commas, read your essay backward. E-mail your essay to your parents and trusted advisers. A fresh set of eyes can prevent a big mistake.
Michelle Showalter joined Scholarship America in 2007 and is an alumna of Luther College in Decorah, Iowa.