Applying for college scholarships may feel a bit like playing the lottery. You fill out your application, send it off, and cross your fingers in hopes of a congratulatory letter and a check (the regular kind, not the oversized novelty version). But there are more differences than just the size of the check: On one hand, applying for scholarships is a lot more work than buying a lottery ticket. On the other, that extra work means plenty of opportunity to boost your chances of winning. If you're prepared to answer these six types of questions, you'll be ready to quickly and thoroughly fill out almost any scholarship application.
1. Academic performance/grade point average: While it's true that grades aren't everything , there's still a whole lot of scholarship money out there designated for high achievers in the classroom. To make sure you don't miss out, be prepared to list your GPA on a four-point scale (if your school uses a different scale or weights AP or IB classes, your counselor can help you recalculate everything), and have your ACT or SAT scores handy. Even if you don't think your academic numbers are eye popping, don't hesitate to call out excellent performance in your chosen fields—a prospective engineering major should make a big deal out of straight A's in high school math!
[Learn about scholarships in STEM fields.]
2. High school activities: As important as your scholastic performance may be, scholarship providers also want to see what you do outside the classroom. Listing a wide array of extracurricular activities will help your general applications stand out, and some of them may also give you an edge when it comes to specific athletic- or activity-based scholarships from your community or your college. Whether you dabbled in a club, sport, or after-school activity for a semester or you lettered in it for four years, make your extracurricular achievements known.
3. Community activities: Just like your school activities, community service can also make a difference on scholarship applications. Plenty of local scholarship providers—such as the Elks, Rotary International, and Dollars for Scholars—actually require a certain amount of volunteer work, and there are scholarships across the country specifically for students who volunteer with churches, community centers, or on their own. Even if community service isn't a necessity on an application, it's a great way to let scholarship providers know that you care about your world—and you're willing to work to make it better.
4. Financial need: We often divide the world of scholarships into two types: need-based and merit-based. This division isn't always black and white, though, and it's crucial for students of all ages and income levels to know their financial need information. Fortunately, it's simple to keep this info current: As long as you fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) each year you plan to apply for scholarships, you'll have everything you need at your fingertips. In addition, you'll learn about any federal loans, grants, and work-study opportunities for which you qualify.(For good resources on this topic, check out the new StudentAid.gov website).
[Get more information on how to pay for college.]
5. Personal letter/essay: Grades and activities can make your application stand out, but a personal letter or essay is your best chance to tell scholarship providers exactly who you are, how you see the world, and why they should help you pay for college. This post has plenty of advice on avoiding scholarship essay errors; I'd also recommend starting work on your essay about twice as early as you think you need to, and finding a friend, teacher, or mentor to read it and give you feedback before you submit it. (Try reading it out loud to yourself, too; that's one of my favorite ways of making sure my writing sounds natural.) You don't need to be the next Kurt Vonnegut to write a great application essay, either—as long as you write from your heart, take your time, and find a trusted editor, you'll be in good shape.
6. Letters of recommendation: Last but not least, don't forget about letters of recommendation . Just like with essays, the most important thing to remember is to start this process early, because the coaches, teachers, mentors, and employers that you'll be asking for recommendations are busy, and you want to make sure they've got time on their calendar to write you a quality, thoughtful recommendation. As good as your application may be, a great recommendation adds another trusted voice to your own, so don't leave this step until the last minute.
Once you're prepared in these six areas, you'll be ready to take on most applications, and you won't even need luck to play the scholarship lottery.
Matt Konrad has been with Scholarship America since 2005. He is an alumnus of the University of Minnesota and a former scholarship recipient.