Scholarship SOS – Part 1

Developing Your Strategy

I recently attended a webinar where supposed experts in the area of student scholarships dished out advice to those advising students on how to win scholarships. One morsel of advice that made me shudder was this, “your students should apply for any and every scholarship they can find.” One member of the panel went on to describe a student his organization had worked with who applied to over 80 scholarships. There was no mention of the yield from this broad stroke method of seeking funding or what percentage of these 80+ applications were actually funded. My guess is that this student jeopardized having thoughtful, winning applications at the places where she was most qualified as she privileged quantity over quality. She probably also wasted a lot of time applying for scholarships that she was very unlikely of winning. I am sure that these scholarship panelists meant well with their advice, but I hope that none of you fall into the “spray and pray” method of scholarship seeking. Sending out applications to every scholarship you ever heard of without checking for your fit with the scholarship program is a waste of your very precious time. Instead, you should have an organized strategy in your approach to gaining scholarship dollars to help fund your college education.

Your first step is to set a scholarship floor for scholarships you want to pursue. Believe me, in my years of work as a professional grant writer and working with students on scholarships, I know that not all funding opportunities and applications are created equal. Some smaller scholarship applications can ask for 3 or 4 times more work than a larger scholarship application and can have a lot more strings attached. Some of these smaller scholarships might require you speak to a club about your experience at college, attend annual luncheons, or complete lengthy reports of your college experience. So set a bottom or floor for the minimum amount of scholarship money that is worth applying for and analyze each scholarship to determine what strings are attached and your willingness to do that extra work. This is a personal decision. Some students may think it is worth it to apply to scholarships as low as $200 that require a speaking engagement at a local club while others want to spend their time seeking larger amounts and might set a floor at $1,000. Consider the financial aid gap (the difference between your college aid package and the amount your family can afford to pay) and your time when determining your floor.

Next, consider if the scholarship is renewable and how many years it is renewable. If you string together 15-20 scholarships that are non-renewable to cover your financial aid gap for your freshman year of college, what are you going to do about the next 3-5 years of your education? Are you going to have time as a college student to send out 80+ more scholarship applications during the spring of your freshman, sophomore and junior years? What if you need an extra semester or year to complete your degree? How will you fund that? Your scholarship plan should be a long-term plan that holistically considers funding for your entire duration in college, not just your freshman year.

Perhaps the most important part of a successful scholarship search is understanding fit. Just like you want to apply to colleges where you are a good fit, you also want to apply for scholarships where you are a strong candidate. Otherwise, you are just spinning your wheels and wasting your time. Take, for instance, a very talented and driven student that I worked with recently. He is an amazing performer and plans to study theater in college. His friend had just told him about the GE-Reagan Foundation Scholarship 3 days ahead of the deadline, and with dollar signs in his eyes, he was ready to attempt to pull together an application. It is a substantial scholarship – $10,000 renewable for 4 years – so, I understood the motivation behind his desire to drop everything and apply.

However, I advised him to skip this application. I was concerned about fit. The scholarship website says they fund, “diverse student leaders.” The idea of student leadership is woven throughout the website indicating the importance of having demonstrated leadership through school government, nonprofit work, and extracurricular activities. The application even requires a letter of recommendation from a school principal, non-profit executive director or politician that can speak to your performance as a leader. While my student is a talented actor, he did not have that type of leadership work on his resume. I would also say that three days (over a weekend!) was not enough time to secure a thoughtful and impactful letter of support for the application from a community member or to thoughtfully complete the essays necessary to apply.

I was also concerned about him using his time chasing a unicorn, when there are plenty of scholarships out there where he is a strong candidate with his high grades, strong test scores, and unique talents. For him, scholarships that fund students studying the arts or students from a particular geographic region would be better fits. When you apply to dozens of scholarships and chase scholarships that are not good fits, you deplete the time you can spend fine-tuning an application where you are a terrific candidate with a strong chance of winning the award. Closely reading the scholarship website and carefully considering how you fit are keys to having a strong scholarship strategy that will best use your time and yield good results. At Bell & Arch Consulting, I am here to help you navigate the maze of scholarships by assisting you in developing a scholarship strategy and helping you identify and apply to good-fit funding opportunities for you.

Be Scholarship Savvy!