There are plenty of things that can keep you up at night as you're working on scholarship and financial aid applications, but there might not be anything more nerve-wracking than deadlines. Virtually every scholarship has its own deadline, and it can seem like there's no rhyme or reason to when they fall—all of which makes keeping track of them turn into more work than applying. Fortunately, there are some good tools and useful rules of thumb that can help keep you on track:
1. The bigger the scholarship, the sooner you need to apply. Everyone knows the biggest names in the scholarship game: Coca-Cola Scholars, Best Buy, the Dell Foundation, Gates Millennium Scholarships, and their ilk. These are highly competitive scholarships with huge payoffs—and their deadlines are among the earliest that you'll run into, particularly during your senior year.
[Learn about 7 prestigious undergrad scholarships.]
Because the applicant pool is so large, and the standards so strict, scholarship providers like Coke and the Gates Foundation need applications in as soon as possible. For seniors applying to the Coca-Cola Scholars program, materials are due in October; the Gates and Dell scholarships—often providing five-figure awards—not only have early January deadlines but also require input and recommendations from teachers and other references. It's crucial to start thinking about big-money scholarships even before your senior year starts. (Though you can still win if your application takes you up to the last minute, like Gates Millennium Scholar Cree Robinson did.)
2. Thinking local? Think early. Those national scholarship programs are big news, but smaller local programs in your community can add up to a whole lot of assistance, too. If you're applying for scholarships through your local community foundation, church, or service organizations, now's the time to start looking. These programs are often managed and evaluated solely by volunteers, which means they need plenty of time.
Curt Trygstad, senior director of Scholarship America's Dollars for Scholars® program, has been helping Dollars for Scholars chapters in communities across America manage their programs for many years; he says, "Although application deadlines tend to occur between March and May, your chances are improved by gathering all the necessary recommendations, transcripts, and test results as early as you can."
3. One to count on: The FAFSA deadline. In the midst of deadlines large, small, intermittent, and irregular, it's nice to know that the FAFSA On The Web submission deadline is always the same: the last day of June. The FAFSA provides crucial information for many scholarship applications, especially those with a need-based component; a lot of scholarship applications even require a completed FAFSA before you go any further. Selecting your own firm, early, deadline for completing your FAFSA will ensure that you're ready for every scholarship opportunity you find.
[Read 7 tips to avoid FAFSA errors.]
While the federal form has a firm deadline, state aid forms are a little more variable, and many are due earlier than the FAFSA itself. Fortunately, the FAFSA website has a handy breakdown of all kinds of state deadlines; bookmark this page and refer to it at the start of each scholarship season.
[See 3 ways applying for financial aid will be easier in 2011.]
4. Use your Google! Once you know your big-ticket deadlines, your local timelines, and your state and federal aid drop-dead dates, you're ready to build yourself a scholarship schedule. This tutorial from Student Scholarship Search has some great step-by-step details on using a free Google Calendar to keep track of your deadlines. I guarantee it's a lot more efficient than the stack of day planners and wall calendars I used in the good old days.
In addition, once you've got a way of looking at all your upcoming deadlines, you'll be able to search for scholarships more efficiently. A $200 scholarship due at the same time as three others may not be worth the extra stress, but a $1,000 award that's due a week after you've written similar essays for another application is a golden opportunity.
Last but not least, if you're currently receiving a renewable scholarship, don't lose track of it. Those renewal packets often come earlier than you expect, and getting those deadlines on your calendar along with new opportunities is crucial!
There are few things quite as stressful as an unexpected deadline sneaking up, but with a few rules of thumb and some advanced preparation, it's easy to keep on top of all the dates you need to.
Matt Konrad has been with Scholarship America since 2005. He is an alumnus of the University of Minnesota and a former scholarship recipient.