Scholarships are, undoubtedly, the best form of financial aid. They’re free money to pay for college! But you’re not alone if you’re discouraged from applying. Many scholarship competitions are really competitive since, often, only one or very few applicants can win…

But who says you can’t be one of those winners? We definitely think you can! Plus, there are things you can do to increase your odds of winning. And we’re going to show you how in this post on how to apply for scholarships!

Specifically, we’ll be sharing 15 expert tips on things you should do before and during the scholarship application season! But, before we get to those tips, we’ll first cover two common questions about scholarships.

When Is the Best Time to Start Applying for Scholarships?

Now. Yesterday. Tomorrow. Those are all good times to start. Seriously! And we say that because there are scholarship deadlines all throughout the year.

So, really the best time to begin applying for scholarships is as soon as you have time and before the deadlines of the scholarships you hope to win.

For some students, that will mean applying before the start of their senior year of high school. For others, that will mean after they’ve finished submitting college applications. And for everyone else, it will mean while they’re in college.

Our point? It’s never too late!

Who Is Eligible for College Scholarships?

You and most (if not all) of your classmates are eligible to apply for scholarships! And that’s because scholarships are available for pretty much every type of student.

We’ll be sharing more on that later on. For now, we just want to make sure you know that you don’t have to be a straight A student, the captain of your high school football team, or anything other than what you are now to win scholarships.

But you do need to know how to find the right scholarships for you. And you need to know how to put together an application that gives you a real shot at winning. So, let’s now turn to our expert tips!

15 Expert Tips on How to Win College Scholarships

Now that we’ve got those common questions out of the way, let’s dive into our top tips on how to apply for scholarships!

1. Create a List of Your Unique Traits

Did you know that there’s a scholarship out there for practically everything?

Scholarships are available for students based on nationality, personal interests, GPA, languages spoken, extra curricular activities, and so on! There are scholarships for swimmers, pianists, fantasy football players, students who grew up with certain hardships, first-generation college students, LGBTQ individuals… you get the picture!

And here’s the key. The students who get the most money don’t apply to all of those scholarships. They find ones that fit them so that they can submit an application that makes them look like the perfect applicant!

That’s why we recommend that you start by making a list of all of your unique traits. You might be really surprised by the number of scholarships out there that fit your individual skills and qualities, so don’t leave anything off!

(If you’re not sure where to begin, sign up for Scholly and answer our scholarship-matching questions. We’ll help identify your unique traits and find scholarships that match!)

You can start with this list of traits about who you are, including:

  • Personal interests and passions
  • Extracurricular activities
  • Hardships you or your family have endured (e.g. cancer, loss of a parent, a natural disaster, etc.)
  • Career interests or goals
  • Academic accomplishments
  • Heritage and community
  • Sex/gender
  • Personality traits (e.g. strong sense of leadership, great sense of humor)
  • University you currently attend or the universities you’re applying to

2. Search for Scholarships Based On These Traits

Once you’ve got your list of unique traits handy, you can start your scholarship search! There are literally tens of thousands of scholarships for college out there. Many are easy to find, such as popular, high-competition scholarships like the Gates Millennium Scholars Program and the Ronald McDonald House Charities Scholarship.

Specialized scholarships and those with less competition are usually harder to find. So, you’ll want to be extremely diligent in your research. Don’t be afraid to ask teachers, counselors, and current college students for advice.

But, also, do yourself a favor and use a scholarship search tool like Scholly! As we mentioned, it can help you find all of the scholarships you’re eligible for, including those with less competition.

3. Develop a Prioritized List of Scholarship Opportunities

As you’re searching for scholarships, keep a list that prioritizes opportunities based on several factors:

  • The scholarship deadlines
  • What makes you a unique fit for the scholarship
  • The amount of money you can win

Everyone’s list will look a little different. But the goal is to apply for all of the best scholarships in a timely manner.

When it comes to prioritizing scholarships, don’t discount what seems like a huge, too-good-to-be-true scholarship, assuming you’ll never win it. Go big or go home, right?

For example, at Scholly, we frequently offer HUGE scholarship and student loan payoff opportunities that are extremely easy to apply for! High dollar scholarships, like the Coca-Cola scholarship, are often competitive. But it can’t hurt to try for them because there are always winners.

On the other hand, don’t dismiss smaller college scholarships either! There are tons of scholarships out there in the $500-$2,000 range. This may not seem like a lot, but every dollar counts and these scholarships add up!

4. Implement a Scholarship Schedule

It may sound obvious, but you should apply for as many scholarships as possible! Don’t skimp.

Searching and applying for scholarships should be a regular part of your college preparation routine, much like standardized test prep. Carve out time to dedicate solely to scholarship applications. You can even consider making a scholarship schedule.

For example, every Monday, dedicate an hour to search for scholarships and make a list of the best ones. Then, every Wednesday, dedicate an hour to apply for a scholarship on your list. Choose what works best for you and stick to it. We’re all busy, but if you make time to apply for scholarships, you’ll be thankful later! 

We highly recommend that you apply to 10 scholarships per month to drastically increase your chances of winning. If this sounds overwhelming, think of it this way: that’s only 2-3 scholarship applications a week. The more you apply for, the greater your chances of winning.

And, by the way, there are plenty of college scholarships out there that are easy to apply for. Some scholarship applications take as little as 15 minutes! In your schedule, try to stagger shorter and longer applications.

5. Build a Scholarship “Toolbox” (And Save Time Later)

What, you might ask, is a scholarship toolbox? Basically, it’s just all of the resources and knowledge you’ll need to slay the scholarship application process!

By gathering all of the (potentially) necessary items and information you’ll need for scholarship applications ahead of time, you’ll be able to crank them out in less time.

The items you’ll need for your toolbox include:

  • Personal information (name, address, email address, your parents’/guardians’ information and employers, etc.)
  • All of your school’s information (name, address, your graduation year, the 6-digit high school code, etc.)
  • Most recent transcripts (high school and/or college)
  • Letters of recommendation from 1-2 teachers
  • Scholarship essays you’ve written in the past
  • Parents’ most recent federal tax return
  • Completed FAFSA and SAR report (which is generated after you complete the FAFSA)
  • Your student loan lender information (if you’ve already taken out student loans)
  • A recent, non-blurry photo of just you (think “headshot” style from shoulders up and without your friends in the frame)

Will you need ALL of this information for every scholarship? Not likely. But the idea is to gather all of these resources and documents ahead of time so that if you do need them, you won’t lose time searching for them.

6. Don’t Rush Your Scholarship Applications!

Make sure you’re giving each application the necessary time and consideration. You want your application to reflect your ability to be thoughtful and hard-working. 

Taking the appropriate time to apply for scholarships involves:

  • Reading all directions (including fine print) thoroughly
  • Familiarizing yourself with the organizations offering the scholarships
  • Reflecting thoughtfully on any essay questions
  • Writing a strong scholarship essay, if applicable (more on this shortly)

7. Track Your Scholarship Applications 

The more organized you are, the better. And if you’re applying for a lot of scholarships (as we recommend) then organization is key.

Scholly Search allows you to save upcoming scholarships, stay on top of due dates, and keep track of the scholarships you’ve applied for (including your wins!). But a spreadsheet also works well.

Whatever your preferred method, keeping a master list of scholarships and tracking them ensures that you won’t miss out on any great opportunities. It also helps with college budgeting, since you can see how much you’ve earned and how much you’ll still have to cover.

8. Follow The Directions to a Tee

Are you required to provide your GPA? Letters of recommendation? A photo of just your face? A 250-word essay on your involvement with community organizations? Then do precisely that! Don’t deviate from the scholarship’s guidelines and risk being disqualified for a silly reason.

It sounds obvious. But it’s so important to make sure you submit everything necessary and show that you meet the eligibility requirements. Before submitting each scholarship application, triple check the requirements!

9. Always Do The “Optional” Work

Okay, listen, no one really wants MORE work to do, we get it. But if a scholarship has any “optional” requirements (e.g. an essay, a letter of recommendation, a joke—yep, that’s something that’s actually come up before on an application) we urge you to consider it “mandatory” and do it. 

Here’s why: completing the additional work shows your initiative and drive. It will also make your application stand out from other students who perhaps didn’t provide the extra materials. Go above and beyond!

10. Write a Killer Scholarship Essay

Ah, the scholarship essay. Not all scholarships require one. But many do. And this is really your chance to shine! Your essay allows you to show the more dimensional aspects of yourself—things that can’t be reflected in just your GPA or test scores. 

This is our complete checklist for how to write a scholarship essay. It’s full of pretty much everything you need to know about writing the best scholarship essay possible!

Here are some highlights…

Stick to the prompt

Answer the specific prompt at hand as clearly and concisely as possible. If the prompt asks about a time you achieved something despite a setback, don’t write about what you’ll do with the scholarship money if you win. If you’re asked to discuss what you want to study in college and why, don’t write about the day your baby sister was born (unless that directly pertains to your college and career goals!).

You don’t have to repeat the prompt or question in your essay. But you do need to stick to the subject at hand, stay focused, and follow the character or word count.

Tell a story with your essay

Your essay can have a traditional introduction-body-conclusion format like many of the essays you’ve probably written in school. But it doesn’t have to be quite as academic.

Keep it professional, of course. No cursing, “text speak,” or highly controversial stances is usually a good rule of thumb. But also make sure to paint a vivid picture for the reader by showing not telling.

For example, if you’re describing how the scholarship could change your future for the better (a fairly common scholarship prompt), avoid cliches and platitudes like, “it would mean the world to me to win” or “winning would be a real game-changer.” The essay readers know this!

Instead, try to describe what life would look like for you with the financial assistance, being as specific as possible. For instance, you could say something like:

“This scholarship will allow me to take an unpaid internship at a community veterinary clinic where I can help care for sick and wounded animals. This would be an important step in preparing me to reach my goal of becoming a veterinarian.”

In other words, try to be precise, providing the readers a clear picture of your passions and aspirations.

Don’t just repeat your resume

Instead of just listing your academic accomplishments (boring) show the readers something new about you! The idea is to provide another layer of who you are as a candidate. This is particularly important if you’re also including your resume with your application.

Proofread and polish your essay!

Listen, it’s ALWAYS a good idea to get another set of eyes on your written work to help you catch any content or style errors. So share your essays with a trusted friend, parent, or teacher for feedback before submitting the application.

No matter what, even when you think your essay is ready for submission, proofread it one last time before sending it off. It would be a huge bummer to miss out on some free money because of a typo!

“Recycle” your essays

While every essay prompt will be a little different, many of the same themes and topics will repeat. For example, essay prompts will often ask you to discuss an accomplishment of which you are proud or to discuss your academic and career goals.

Because of this, it’s good to have a “template” essay that you can essentially re-use for more than one prompt. You’ll likely have to make small tweaks to it each time. But if it’s strong to begin with, you can likely “recycle” it for multiple scholarship applications.

11. Don’t Wait Until The Last Minute

We recommend that both high school students and college students start applying as early as possible for scholarships. Why? For one, some scholarships do prioritize early applications.

For example, the foundation that awards the Burger King Scholarship only accepts 50,000 applications per year — even if that means they receive all of those applications before the deadline.

And even if you don’t get bonus points for applying early, you’ll give yourself enough time to make sure there are no glitches with your scholarship application. We’ve all waited until the last minute to submit something online only to find out the website is down or there are other “technological difficulties.”

Plus, if you apply early you won’t be rushed and you’ll deliver your best work. And you’ll free up more time to apply for more scholarships!

12. Beware of Scholarship Scams

Scholarships exist to GIVE you free money to help pay for college, not to take your money! So, if you see an application asking for a “submission fee,” look elsewhere!

Additionally, bold claims like “you’ve been pre-selected” or “it’s guaranteed or your money back” are evidence of shady business.

Here’s an article with more information on how to avoid scholarship scams. But the gist is that any REAL application will not ask you to pay money.

13. Clean Up Your Public Social Media 

Okay, this is a biggie. Just like prospective employers, scholarship committee members will often vet their candidates. So, make sure your social media doesn’t give them any doubts.

In fact, many scholarships for college actually ask for a link to a social media profile (sometimes of your choice, sometimes not). So, make sure you also provide a working, accessible link.

14. Check Your Spam Folder

You’ll likely be notified by email if you win scholarships. So, be on the lookout for updates. We all know that important mail can get stuck in the good ol’ spam folder though, so make sure to check that regularly too.

15. Don’t Give Up! Scholarships Are Life-Changing and Worth the Effort

This is perhaps the most important of all the scholarship winning tips. Realistically, you’ll face some rejection. That’s okay! College is expensive and some scholarships are competitive. But just keep applying! That scholarship award money is bound to rack up eventually.

BONUS Tip: Scholarships Are Not a One-Time Deal

Many students don’t know this but you can keep applying for scholarships even once you’re in college. That’s right… you can apply for scholarships for years and keep getting more free financial aid to pay for college.

In fact, the students who win the most scholarships typically apply every semester. Obviously, it’s ideal to get a jump start on applications before the school year starts (especially if it’s your senior year of high school), but huge sums of money are available throughout the year.

Final Thoughts

When it comes to paying for college, there is no better form of financial aid than scholarships. It’s basically free money! Plus, pretty much everyone is eligible for at least one scholarship! But you need to know how to find the right ones for you, the ones you have a real shot at winning.

To easily find them, download Scholly Search, the #1 scholarship app in the world that instantly matches you with hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarships based on your interests, accomplishments, and traits! 

You can also check out the rest of our blog where we share tips on topics related to college financial aid, like how to apply for FAFSA, how to get a student loan, and how to win other scholarships like the National Merit Scholarship.

Good luck!