Scholarships: How to FINALLY Get Started

There is a terrible thing that happens this time of year as Seniors sit down to write scholarships:  they are greeted by a mocking sea of empty space on the paper or computer screen.  EMPTY.  BLANK.  ENDLESS.  Then they notice it is time to eat, study, play with the dog, clean the fridge, anything but face that blank emptiness which mocks them with it’s lack of scholarly essay.

Every year we ask students who wander into the Career Center how their essays are coming along.  While there are always a few who are ON IT, most give us a guilty shrug and admit they are not yet started.  That blank space is downright intimidating for most kids, and we feel their pain.  Here are a few things that (I hope) may help:

  1.  Get those letters of recommendation on track.  Ask the folks you plan to ask, and give them a clear date for when you need it finished.  Make a list for them of the other parts of you life they may not know about.  A science teacher may write about your wonderful ways with science, but have no idea about your hobbies, sports, jobs, clubs, and any big challenges or accomplishments you have achieved.
  2. Make a complete list of all your clubs, sports, activities, jobs, achievements, challenges, and especially any volunteering/community service or leadership experiences you have had.  I mean list them, and figure out roughly how many hours you spent doing those things.  All the way back to 8th grade.  This gets tricky with the hectic schedule an average high school Senior faces…so parent help can be very key to getting it all figured out.  That lame certificate you got in 9th grade for showing up at a fundraiser to help is finally worth it’s weight in gold, because it helps you remember that miserable 8 hours spent in the rain, helping park cars for charity.
  3. Create your Dream Organizational  Initializing Table…code name DO IT. (see what I did there?)  Sit down with nice snacks, a beverage, comfy chair, good lighting, paper, pen and a timer  (use your phone).  Sit down, and set your timer for TWO MINUTES.  Using the time as efficiently as possible, in that two minutes write a sentence or two on the essay you need to complete.  Then stop. Eat your snack.  Set your timer again, to remind you to go back and DO IT again tomorrow…but tomorrow, you will have a head start.  No more blank space, mocking you.  Tomorrow, set that timer for 30 minutes, and put in the whole 30.  You may finish, or just make good progress.  Keep on adding 30 minutes per day of slogging away at the essay (or essays) until you are finally all done.  DO IT.
  4.  Have many people proof read those essays, because money is awarded to the kid who does NOT have glaring spelling, grammar or punctuation issues in their essays.  You want that essay shined up, buffed, polished and strung with twinkle lights.    You want to do the very best you can, because free money is awesome.
  5. Essays are usually limited to how long they can be.  Use the space you are given but DO NOT GO OVER.  Stick to the rules for each scholarship, but do your best with what they allow to paint the clearest, brightest picture of WHO YOU ARE.  You do not want to be funny, sarcastic or “clever”.  There are great times to be silly, but this is not one of them.
  6. Some kids have an ‘advantage’ in that they were born with two noses or had their house burned down by terrorists or they are only 17 inches tall.  They have had huge obstacles to overcome, and they can write a mighty mean essay with so much to talk about.  I honestly hope you are not one of those ‘advantaged kids’ (but if you are, tell that story and win that money!).  This is where the privilege of coming from a more stable place, and a life noted for being un-scary, lacking direct experience with trauma or terrible suffering means a lack of scholarship essay “material”.  DO NOT GIVE UP.  While the kid with the terrible history may win scholarships, most are not looking for the “best sob story”.  Most are looking for a kid who is motivated, who is making some sort of difference in the world (hence the focus on volunteering or community involvement) or a kid who has overcome or accomplished something.  Tell them your best story of YOU.  
  7. If you have an area of life that you care about very much, that CAN be a place to reach for the essay material you need.  Are you a kid who loves pets?  Have you done any pet sitting or volunteering in a shelter?  Did you work for a cause that benefits animals?  IF you can find a way to talk about what you care about and can either relate it to things you have done, or to things you want to do, that can also be great in an essay.  For example:  if seeing your neighbors house burn down made you decide you want to be a fire fighter, that would be a wonderful thing to put in a scholarship essay.
  8. Realize that the NUMBER ONE way to win scholarships is with good grades and high SAT or ACT scores (see my”Paint Your Target” article).  After those two things, it is about how well you tell your story and how well the competition tells theirs….so, like rolling the dice, you win some, you lose some.  Sadly, there is no guarantee that if you try for scholarships that you will actually win any.  Please do try for them, but also plan to do some very careful shopping for schools who offer more for less money (or who offer YOU more money in your financial aid letter (see “Romancing Universities).

The hardest part of applying for scholarships is getting the essays started and finished.  Just DO IT, make a start, and then keep at it until they are done.  Just getting 1-2 sentences on paper means you have a direction, and it is easier from there.  I am hoping you get piles of the free money thrown your way.  Now get going.


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