Getting college scholarships is a process that involves much more than filling out applications and writing essays. There are both practical and creative steps that must be taken that can help you win as many scholarships as possible. As a current or future community college student, you’re already one step ahead by choosing a school that is far less expensive than four-year or private school options. With a little work, you can make your community college expenses even less.
It’s never too early to start searching for scholarships. As surprising as it may sound, there are many college scholarship programs available for students in their freshman, sophomore, or junior years of high school, as well as for students in elementary and middle school! That being the case, waiting until your senior year to locate and apply for scholarships puts you at risk because you could be missing out on all kinds of scholarship opportunities.
It’s also vital to start your scholarship search early because it’s a time-consuming process and one that requires a healthy commitment of time and energy. Each application will have its own unique requirements, and the time it takes to gather transcripts, letters or recommendation, and other required materials can be up to several weeks. And while there are thousands of students who receive scholarships each year, not everyone will get something in return for all their hard work on their application materials. Although it can be discouraging to not receive any award letters in the mail, you definitely won’t get any if you give up. Committing yourself to the process of applying will only increase your chances of getting a scholarship.
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Another key element of getting off to an early start is to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Schools and organizations will often use the FAFSA to determine if you are eligible for their award programs. The FAFSA comes online each January and must be filled out each year. If you’re heading to community college in the fall, be sure to fill out the FAFSA the prior spring. Many scholarships (and other financial aid awards, such as grants) also work on a first-come, first served basis, so the sooner you get your FAFSA completed and submitted, the better the chances you have of getting the scholarships you need.
Boost Your College Resume
Scholarship committees receive dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of applications to review. With such stiff competition, you need to stand out from the crowd. To do that, boost your college resume by getting involved in activities such as:
- Challenging classes – While your GPA is certainly important in determining your eligibility for merit-based scholarships, committees will look further than your GPA and examine the courses you took in high school. Having a high GPA is impressive, but is much more impressive if you’ve taken upper-level classes, such as honors, AP, or IB courses. Also, be sure you have a variety of courses on your transcript to show that you can be successful in a number of academic areas.
- Extracurricular activities – Participating in extracurricular activities shows that you are a well-rounded student capable of success both in and out of the classroom. Being involved in clubs or sports is also a great way to open up additional scholarship opportunities for particular organizations or sports.
- Volunteer work – Scholarship committees (and admissions officers) love to see students that devote time to helping others. Where you volunteer doesn’t necessarily matter, but demonstrating a desire to improve your community or help others will leave a lasting impression on the individuals reviewing your application.
Be Smart When Applying
When applying for scholarships you’ll need to play to your strengths. Conduct a scholarship search for areas related to your intended major. There are a number of excellent free search tools and resources at your disposal:
- State higher education agencies
- Federal agencies
- U.S. Department of Labor’s Scholarship Search Tool
- Your high school guidance office
- Your local library
- The financial aid office at your school of choice
- Your employer or your parents’ employers
- Professional organizations related to your intended major
Also think about personal qualities that might qualify you for scholarships, such as religion, ethnicity, or disability. If you’re a first-generation college student or come from a family that has experienced financial distress, additional scholarship opportunities will be available. Additionally, if you’ve got an outstanding GPA and a history of success in rigorous courses, you can apply for merit-based scholarships.
It’s beneficial to apply for every scholarship for which you are eligible as well. Casting a wide net will increase your chances of getting more awards. Look for scholarships that typically don’t get a lot of applications to further boost your chances. Scholarships that award small amounts of money (say, less than $500) or those that require applicants to write a lengthy essay are often less competitive because students tend to focus on big awards or those that don’t require extra work.
Many community colleges also offer guaranteed scholarships for students from local high schools or those that live within the state. The Wyoming Community College System, including Casper College, offers various awards as part of their merit-based Hathaway Scholarship program. With various levels of eligibility, most students are eligible to receive some level of award upon their graduation from high school. Other states, such as Ohio and California, offer similar programs to in-state students as a means to boost the number of students that pursue post-secondary education.
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Pay Attention to Details and Deadlines
Far and away, the most common reason why students do not get scholarships and other forms of financial aid is because they don’t adhere to the directions. A section of the application left unfilled, an essay that doesn’t meet the requirements, or sending your application materials to the wrong person or address can mean the difference between getting a scholarship and having to take out a student loan instead.
Some scholarships have highly specific requirements for eligibility. Reading the application instructions thoroughly will help you ensure that you meet all the application criteria and avoid wasting time applying for a scholarship for which you are not eligible. Additionally, many scholarships have requirements that may seem silly or arbitrary. But no matter what is required of each application, be sure you read the instructions very carefully and follow the requirements to the letter. If there is confusion about the scholarship requirements, don’t hesitate to ask for help. Scholarship sponsors can provide guidance with regard to their specific requirements.
In addition to varying eligibility requirements, every scholarship seemingly has a different application deadline as well. Many deadlines occur in the springtime, while some scholarships have open application periods with no deadline at all. To stay on track, mark important dates in a calendar, keeping in mind that the process of gathering all the materials for each scholarship application can take you a few weeks. You’ll need to give yourself plenty of time to write an essay (if required), get letters of recommendation, transcripts, and other documents required in the scholarship application.
With thousands and thousands of applications that scholarship committees receive each year, something is bound to get lost in the fold. Before sending any application materials off, make copies of everything and put them in a file. If part of your application comes up missing, you can easily mail or fax the missing page. Keeping an eye on the details and staying organized can mean the difference in whether you get a scholarship or not.
Choose References Wisely
When choosing references or people to provide a letter of recommendation, look for people who can provide specific details about your academic performance, work ethic, drive to succeed, and other positive traits. Your references will need to be people who have worked with you in some capacity, whether it’s a teacher, school administrator, a supervisor at work, a volunteer coordinator, or a club sponsor or coach. Whomever you choose should be able to speak about your strengths and provide insight into why you are the best applicant for the scholarship.
When asking people serve as a reference, be sure to explain the purpose for which what you need the reference. If applying for a specific scholarship, such as a science-related award, asking a science teacher to provide specific details about your abilities is a good idea. If applying for a merit-based award, ask a teacher or administrator who knows first-hand your academic abilities. Also, be sure to give your references plenty of time to write you a letter of recommendation. A good rule of thumb is to provide at least two weeks notice before you need the letter returned to you.
Clean Up Your Online Reputation
In today’s technology-driven world, scholarship committees may well Google your name to see if what you say and do on Facebook and Twitter is reflective of what you talk about in your application materials. Before sending off your first scholarship application, give your social media accounts a quick review and delete anything that may reflect poorly on you. Remove anything that might be seen by others as being inappropriate or immature. You can also set your accounts to private to ensure only your friends can see what you post online. Be sure that you have an appropriate email address as well. If you need to, sign up for a new account that follows the firstname.lastname@example.org format.
Write an Amazing Essay
The importance and weight that a scholarship essay carries cannot be understated. Reviewers will often rely on the essay as the single most important aspect of their decision-making process. To put your best foot forward, consider the following:
- Learn about your audience – Tailoring your essay to each specific scholarship is incredibly important. Investigate the scholarship sponsor to determine the organization’s goals. Aligning your essay to their mission will make your essay stand out.
- Make it personal – Your essay should be a window into to who you are as a person. The best way to do this is to make the essay personal. If you are allowed to select your own topic, it should be of interest to you and demonstrate your passion for the subject. If the topic is chosen for you, incorporate your personal experiences as they relate to the topic. If possible, discuss challenges or obstacles in your life that you’ve overcome. Scholarship committees want to help students make the most of their lives, and making these personal connections will make your application more attractive.
- Be enthusiastic – Your essay shouldn’t read like it was a chore for you to write it. By writing with enthusiasm, you demonstrate your love of learning and your dedication to improving yourself. Remember that the scholarship committee represents an organization with specific goals and you should demonstrate an understanding and excitement for those same goals.
- Demonstrate your impact – Talking about the positive impacts you have on the people around you or on your community is highly impressive to scholarship committees. Discuss any volunteer projects you’ve undertaken, outreach programs that you’re involved in, or church programs you’ve been a part of. Also highlight positive things you’ve done at school, such as tutoring younger students or raising money for a good cause.
- Avoid common mistakes – Your scholarship essay should be perfectly written and free of any grammatical or spelling errors. Be sure you haven’t used any colloquial terms like “awesome” or any words or phrases that could be taken offensively. If the nature of the essay is academic and requires research, be sure to correctly cite your sources as well. If possible, have family, friends, or a teacher evaluate your essay before you submit it.
Your choice to attend community college was likely influenced by a variety of factors, not the least of which is affordability. While community college is the most affordable option, applying for scholarships gives you the potential to reduce your costs even further. Although the process of applying for scholarships can be a long and tedious one, if you persevere and follow these guidelines you will have much-improved chances of getting the scholarships you need.
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