4 Holiday To-Do's for Scholarship Seekers

Students should use the winter break to plan out their 2013 scholarship applications.

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A woman makes pottery on a clay wheel
A woman makes pottery on a clay wheel

As the song says, "the most wonderful time of the year" is upon us, and all of us at The Scholarship Coach would like to wish you a very happy holiday season.

For high school and college students, the holiday break is especially welcome. While you're spending a few days with friends, family, and grandma's famous fruitcake, you'll also find that it's a perfect time to think about scholarships. The pressures of school are off, the busy scholarship-application season is just getting started, and you can focus on your own scholarship strategy.

[See how college students can make money over winter break.]

Here are four steps you can take over the holidays to ensure that you make the most of your scholarship applications in 2013.

1. Determine your focus: While big-money, nationwide scholarships such as the Gates Millennium, Rhodes, and Fulbright Scholar programs have the highest name recognition, the bulk of scholarship money is set aside for students who meet specific criteria. Whether it's scholarships for a marketing major, a Spanish club member, a cross-country runner, or a humanities undergraduate, these awards can add up fast.

Spend some time during your break researching any and all of the opportunities available via your current clubs and activities, and through your current or prospective college and department—and if you're home from school for the holidays, check back with local organizations you may have lost touch with.

2. Get your "support group" in order: While they may seem like a solitary pursuit, scholarship applications take input from more than just you as a student. Fortunately, the holiday break is a great time to connect (or reconnect) with the people whose help you might need.

Your parents are a great source for everything from proofreading your essays to providing needed financial info, and if you've got a friend or two who are good with words, they can also provide essay guidance. This season is also a great opportunity to get together with teachers, coaches, or mentors whom you want to ask for letters of recommendation, and to do some volunteer work in your hometown or college community.

[Have these college conversations during the holidays.]

3. Do the math: There may be nothing more painstaking about the financial aid process than filling out the FAFSA and other financial information forms. That said, these forms are also crucial for nearly every kind of financial aid, from federal grants to need-based scholarships.

It may seem like a strange holiday tradition for you to sit down with your parents, their tax returns, and a bunch of forms, but, as a busy high school or college student, you may not find a better time during the year to do so. College Goal Sunday events across the country will be happening after the New Year, and they're also a great place to turn if you run into questions.

[Get more tips on how to pay for college.]

4. Emphasize what makes you unique: This is sound advice anytime you start filling out an application, but the holiday season provides you a little extra time to think about this scholarship-essay standby. Funders of scholarships aren't just looking at your grades, or your list of activities, or the honors you've earned. They want to know, specifically, why you are the best fit for their award.

Before you get into the thick of application season, think about how to tell your story. What obstacles have you overcome? How do you defy stereotypes? What are the skills and interests that set you apart?

You may not use everything you come up with on every application you fill out, but you'll have plenty of ideas about how to stand out from the crowd—just one more way you can turn your holiday free time into scholarship cash.

Matt Konrad has been with Scholarship America since 2005. He is an alumnus of the University of Minnesota and a former scholarship recipient.