How to Play the Scholarship Game

Paying over-inflated tuition costs often feels like flushing your money and your future down the toilet.

The rising cost of college is one of the first big adult challenges that millennials like me run into. Suddenly, you are faced with the fact that the life you want costs money. A lot of money. If Mom and Dad are helping out, this can ease the burden (though you’ll still see them turn a bit pale when it comes time to pay the bill). If you’re on your own, the huge chunks of change draining from your savings and mountainous loans can make you feel like you’re crippled before you even got your start in life. Even with a solid, money-making degree like engineering or computer science, student loans will hinder your ability to be financially successful in the first few years of your career. Desperate for relief, you turn to the holy grail: scholarships.

Determined to win these elusive scholarships, students and parents take to the internet with hope in their hearts. They scour the big scholarship search engines from dusk til dawn, searching for anything remotely relevant to them. For weeks and weeks they fill out application after application, and wait with bated breath to receive the blessing of their mysterious online benefactors. But as the months roll on and the seasons change, they hear nothing. Discouraged, they eventually resign themselves to paying that big tuition bill some other way.

It doesn’t have to be this way! There is a strategy to winning scholarships, a strategy I used to win over 25 separate awards during the course of my undergraduate education. In this post, I will share with you the 7 key components of my scholarship-winning method so that you, too, can have someone else pay your way.

1. You’re Not the Only One… or Are You?

When I ran one of my school’s student organizations, my board members and I tried to advertise like crazy to get people to apply for our $500 scholarship. We were so excited that our award had gotten corporate funding this year, and couldn’t wait to read over the applications and pick a lucky senior to receive our scholarship. We put up fliers, announced it in our newsletter, even pestered our best friends to throw their hats in the ring. In the end, only three people applied!.

Although this can happen with any scholarship, it is particularly common with local or demographic-restricted scholarships. The first thing that pops to everyone’s mind is probably race. Yes, there are a ton of great scholarships out there for African-American, Hispanic, and Native American students! But the buck doesn’t stop there. I have seen Italian, Irish, German, Swedish, Polish and many other atypical heritage-based scholarships out there. There are scholarships for women in engineering everywhere, and scholarships for men in fields like teaching and nursing where they are underrepresented, too! If you see an award that matches up with your make-up, you should apply! 

Even if you know nothing about your heritage, and your gender puts you on the lower end of the see-saw in your field, I promise you there is a restricted scholarship out there for you. Your major, for one. If a scholarship is restricted to just people in your major, that hugely ups your chances. Do you live somewhere? Cool, me too. There is probably a scholarship for people who live where you do, and you should apply for it. Try local clubs and communities, especially (to be frank) where a lot of older people hang out. Alumni clubs, veterans clubs, Mom/Dad associations for your college.. They want nothing more than to use their accumulated riches to inspire the younger generation! Do you have a hobby? I’m willing to bet there is a scholarship for people who do your hobby. Start looking into it. Do you know what major you’re going to be? Call up local chapters of your major’s professional organizations and see if they give out any scholarships.

2. Look for Love in All the Right Places

I discovered nearly half of my scholarships just by being signed up to the right newsletters. Does your department send out a weekly email newsletter? Make sure you receive it, and make a point to skim it over for scholarships every single time it pops up in your inbox. Are there student or professional organizations for your field or major? Do you have a hobby with a corresponding club at your school? Even if you never go to a single meeting, sign up for their newsletter and watch it for scholarships. If they don’t have a newsletter, make a bookmark of their website and check it every so often (once a month will do). The people who give out these awards want desperately to tell you about their programs, but if you’re not listening, you’ll never know!

3. Invest in your Writing Skills

I am of the opinion that a good essay is what will set you apart from other applicants. As much as we tease English majors for their “worthless” degrees, writing is a skill that can make you a lot of money. I know for a fact that my essays are what won me two of my scholarships, because the people who were handing out the scholarship came up to me at the award ceremony and couldn’t stop talking about them. All that stuff your teachers always stressed to you about being “well rounded?” Turns out, it’s really useful. I know engineers tend to dislike writing, but learning to make people feel excited and passionate about what you have to say is a really valuable skill.

If your writing skills aren’t the best, here are some great ways to practice:

  • If you’re still in college or high school, take a creative writing class. Creative writing teaches you to make a piece that people will find engaging, and that will help review committees remember your application.
  • Try to write something (anything, from a short poem to an emphatic email to a scholarship essay) every single day
  • Read exemplary works, especially persuasive essays. When it comes down to it, the purpose of a scholarship essay is “pick me, not the other guy,” and you need to know how to argue that.
  • Figure out what your life story is, and find a way to make your life story interesting. Find the common thread between the defining elements of your personality, no matter how disparate they may seem–for me, this was linking Doctor Who with my world travel experiences. If you’re an engineer, you will (I guarantee) write several dozen “And This Is Why I’m An Engineer” essays. Figure out how to make that interesting and compelling, no matter how tired the theme may seem to you.

4. Keep Your Mind on the Money

When you’re lining yourself up for scholarships, or even after you’ve won a few, every decision you make can potentially impact your bottom line. I remained an electrical engineering major in official capacity despite finding later in my undergraduate years that I preferred computer engineering because, had I switched, I stood to lose several of my scholarships which were strictly for electrical engineers. Though this was annoying, I worked around it and still got to take the classes I wanted to take, and still wound up in the field I wanted.

Big decisions like “What major should I be?” or “What minor should I pick up?” should be made with scholarships in mind. Not that you have to completely change your life plans (don’t become pre-med if you were going to be a dance major just because your prospects for scholarship are better), but if a small tweak to your plan will keep you out of debt, do it. If you have a choice between joining club A and club B, but club B has more scholarship opportunities than A, or lines you up better for a certain award, let that be a consideration. If you only have time to write one scholarship essay this week but two awards have deadlines coming up, apply for the $20,000 one and not the $500 one.

5. …But Beggars Can’t be Choosers

Small scholarships really do add up. I did not pay for my whole junior and senior years’ tuition with one full-ride scholarship. It was painstakingly pieced together with $1,000 here, $500 there. I’m not saying that’s the easiest way–far from it, so if you can get that one dream full-ride scholarship, go for it. Those are few and far between though, so for people like me who weren’t able to get a full- or half-ride right off the bat (and believe me, I tried), don’t stick your nose up at a scholarship just because it’s “only $500”. Think about it in terms of an hourly wage. Even if that scholarship app takes you five hours, that’s $100 per hour. Pretty sweet! Even better, other people WILL snub smaller scholarships, which brings me back to point #1: it might not be as highly contested as you think. So for those of you who responded to my “hourly wage” claim with “But you forgot to take into account the probability that I’ll actually win the award!” remember that you might be thinking too pessimistically.

6. Be Your Department’s Darling

Once you’re in college, do everything you possibly can to endear yourself to your department (if you go to a larger college and your department offers scholarship), or possibly your university (if it’s smaller and individual departments don’t give out scholarships). Things like getting involved in advancement or alumni relations committees, volunteering for department or university-wide initiatives with high visibility for you such as helping to organize a conference or annual event, and getting involved in undergraduate research are some great possibilities. The administrators (such as deans, alumni services staff, etc) involved in these programs are often the same ones who administrate scholarships, and if they know your face that can only work in your favor.

7. Whatever You Say, Bo$$

This is especially relevant for graduate school (if you’re in science or engineering, you should never pay for your own graduate degree), but it can be useful even for undergrad. Many times, employers will offer scholarship or tuition reimbursement programs that can support you through school. In engineering, fields like cyber security, nuclear energy, and military technologies are ones for which the federal government will pay your way for the low, low fee of a couple years of (paid!) work after graduation. If you interned, or want to intern, at a big company, many companies like Microsoft and Intel offer scholarships targeted at their interns, so keep a look out for things like that. You can even ask your parents if their employers offer any scholarships for their employee’s children! When it comes time to find a job, pick an employer with a good tuition reimbursement program to ensure you never pay a dime for graduate school.

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