Crafting a winning scholarship application requires a strategic approach. Scholarships are awards by organizations with a specific goal in mind. Perhaps they want to encourage study in a certain field or encourage participation in a particular hobby. This means that for each scholarship you apply for you need to present yourself as the perfect applicant for the award by displaying how you meet the criteria. In each application you may in fact present different aspects of you.

For a sports scholarship you may focus on your abilities on the court and get your coach to write your recommendations. For a science award you might focus on your winning science project on earthworms and submit your results.

Whatever the scholarship, the key is to determine what values and qualities the scholarship committee is looking for in the winner and construct every facet of your application (essay, recommendations, interview, etc.) to demonstrate how you meet these objectives.

Here’s how:

Give Them What They Want To Hear

Politicians are notorious for telling their constituents what they want to hear. Good politicians never lie, but they do put a flattering spin on their speeches depending on who they’re addressing. We are not suggesting that you lie on your applications-—NEVER lie-—but we are recommending that you present yourself in the best possible way to appeal to your audience. In short, never lie on an application, but do employ a little spin.

To be able to spin effectively you need to know your audience. To determine who your audience is, ask the following questions:

  • What is the mission of the organization giving the scholarship?
  • Who is reading your application?
  • Who is your competition?

Go For The Gusto – Quickly

In movies, the most daredevil-ish car chase, the most harrowing showdown between good and evil, and the most poignant romantic revelations are usually saved until the end. While this works for Hollywood, it does not for scholarship applications. Since selection committees pore through so many applications and often the space on the form is limited, you need to feature your most impressive points first.

If you have listed four extracurricular activities, assume that some judges won’t even read beyond the first two. This doesn’t mean that all judges will be this lazy, but there are always some who are. Therefore, it’s extremely important for you to prioritize the information that you present, and rank your accomplishments according to the following:

Fit with scholarship organization’s goal. The most important factor in prioritizing your achievements is how they fit with the goal of the scholarship.

Scope. Prioritize your accomplishments by their scope, or how much of an impact they have made.

Uniqueness. Since your application will be compared to that of perhaps thousands of others, include accomplishments that are uncommon.

Recentness. This is the least important criterion, but if you get stuck, put the more recent achievements first.

Write To Impress

Delivery of your application is very important. You must present your information in a compelling way.

Use Your Smarts. As you are completing your applications, keep in mind that while you may be applying for a public service scholarship you should also include at least a few academic achievements. For example, it does not hurt to list in an athletic scholarship that you also came in second place at the science fair. This should not be the first thing you list but it certainly should be included to show the committee that you have brains in addition to brawn.

Leadership Is Always Better Than Membership. If you’ve ever tried to motivate a group of peers to do anything without taking the easy way out—bribery—you know that it takes courage, intelligence, and creativity to be a leader. Because of this, many scholarships give extra points to reward leadership. Regardless of the subject, scholarship judges want to know that the dollars will be awarded to someone who will not only make a difference in the future but who will also be a leader and motivate others to do so as well.

Extracurricular Activities & Hobbies. If the only activity you did were study, your life would be severely lacking in the neighborhood of excitement. Scholarship organizers recognize this and thus the criteria for some scholarships include extracurricular activities or hobbies. Scholarship committees want to see evidence that you do more than read textbooks and take exams. They want to know that you have a variety of interests and that at least some of these transcend studying.

Honors & Awards. There’s a reason why all trophies are gold and gaudy: they shout to the world in a deafening roar, “Yes, this glittery gold miniature man means I am the best!” For applications that ask for your honors and awards, impart some of that victorious roar and attitude. In no way are we recommending that you ship your golden statuettes off with your applications. We are suggesting that you highlight honors and awards in a way that gets the scholarship committee to pay attention to your application.

Make Sure The Pants Fit

You’d never buy a pair of pants without trying them on to make sure they fit. Treat your applications the same way. You have limited space in which to cram a lot of information. You will need to do a lot of editing and may even have to omit many of your accomplishments.

As you fill out the application, you may find that you are trying to squeeze in too many details or that you have more room and can expand on your most impressive achievements. Don’t forget to adjust font sizes and line spacing if necessary—just don’t sacrifice readability. (i.e., Don’t venture below 10 point fonts).

Final Application Tips

An official Mom canon from childhood is: If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it. While this is a good lesson on self-restraint, it does not always hold true for scholarship applications. In general, it is not a good idea to leave any area blank. You don’t need to fill the entire space, but you should make an effort to list something in every section. However, before you try to explain how the handmade certificate that your mom presented you for being Offspring of the Year qualifies as an “award,” recognize that there are limits. If you’ve never held a job, then don’t list anything under work experience. If, however, you painted your grandmother’s house one summer and got paid for it, consider listing it if you don’t have any other options.

Ask yourself if what you are including will strengthen or weaken your application. Think like a judge. Is the information relevant? Or, does it seem like a stretch? If you cannot convince yourself that what you are listing is justified, then it will certainly not go over well with the actual judges. Recall Mom’s advice, leave it blank, and move on to the areas where you have something great to say.

Crafting a winning application takes time. Make sure you give yourself plenty of it. However, you also need to balance quality with quantity. Because each scholarship is judged on different criteria, it is not always easy to know if you will win. With time as the limiting factor, apply to as many scholarships that match your talents, goals, and achievements as you can find.

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