Lesson 1:Prepare to apply. Applying for scholarships is a numbers game—the more scholarships for which you apply, the greater the chances of seeing your financial aid tally increase. However, you should prioritize your time by researching and applying for scholarships for which you are a competitive candidate based on your race, gender, socioeconomic background, personal hardships, academic achievement, test scores, dependency status, or gifts and talents. The following checklist will assist in focusing your time and being prepared to submit high quality scholarship applications:

  • Ensure that you have copies of the following documents:
    • Certified copies of your high school transcript
    • Letters of recommendation from counselors or supervisors
    • Letters of recommendation from teachers
    • Academic Résumé
    • SAR (Student Aid Report)
    • Autobiographical Essay
    • Personal Statement
    • ACT or SAT Score Reports
  • Identify who will review your essays and responses to writing prompts
  • Identify the timeframe required for your essay review
  • Identify who will review your final scholarship packages to ensure they are high quality and contain all required information
  • Identify the timeframe required for your scholarship application review
  • Identify your primary scholarship research criteria (following are some examples)
    • Race
    • Gender
    • College Major
    • Disability
    • Unique Hardships
    • Dependency Status
    • First Generation
    • Qualify for the U.S. Pell Grant
    • Meritorious Achievement (e.g., athletics, academics, visual arts, theatre arts, dance, music, Eagle Scout, Girl Scout Gold Award, etc.)

Lesson 2:Understand the scholarship requirements. Applying for scholarships is a time-consuming process, requiring a significant investment of your time, as well as an investment of time by those who will assist with essays and proofreading your applications. Carefully considering the following points will result in investing your time wisely. A scholarship is a legal contract in which an individual or organization (i.e., scholarship provider) agrees to certain terms. Use the following checklist to guide your efforts.

  • I meet ALL of the criteria to be considered for this scholarship
  • I fully understand the due dates and deadlines, such as:
  • Applications considered on a first-come first-reviewed basis, or
  • There an application deadline, at which time all applications will be considered
  • I fully understand the submission requirements, such as:
  • Applications must be typed
  • Recommendations must be submitted on a specific form or submitted directly to the scholarship provider
  • I have all of the supporting documentation being requested
  • My essays or writing responses effectively respond to each of the questions and fall within the word-count limits

Lesson 3:Track your scholarship applications. While applying for scholarships is a big first step, it is not the only step. You must track the scholarships to which you apply and follow-up with scholarship providers if you do not receive a response by their posted deadlines. You may be awarded a scholarship that does not reach you by mail, is misdirected to your SPAM email folder, or due to a mistake by the scholarship provider. To ensure that you do not miss scholarship opportunities, consider the following:

  • Complete a Scholarship Table Form and file the contact information for each scholarship to which you apply in your College Planning Notebook behind the ‘Scholarship Research’ tab.
  • Note the dates your essays and writing responses need to be submitted to your reviewers
  • Note the dates that your scholarship application packages need to be submitted to your proofreader
  • Note the date that each of scholarship is submitted
  • Note the date that each scholarship decision is scheduled to be rendered
  • Note the decision received for each scholarship to which you apply
  • Plan to follow-up with those scholarship providers to whom you do not receive a decision
  • Note the date you send a Thank You card to those scholarships you are awarded

Part I: Scholarship Analysis: Preparing high quality scholarship essays requires a number of critical steps, e.g., pre-planning, knowing your audience, understanding your ability to effectively respond to all of the writing prompts or questions, providing documentation that supports the focus of your essay, and adhering to the guidelines (i.e., word count or character count). Before writing the first draft of your scholarship essay, it is important to develop an understanding of the audience for whom you are writing.

  • I meet the qualifying criteria. The following questions will provide guidance in engaging in a critical review of the scholarship application criteria:
    • Do I meet all of the qualifying criteria?
    • Will I be able to effectively respond to the questions or topics being addressed, e.g., leadership, overcoming personal hardship, short- and long-term goals?
    • Does the scholarship require one or more letters of recommendation and do I have recommendation letters that will support my application?
  • I have researched the organization offering this scholarship. The following questions provide guidance in gathering background information about the organization offering the scholarship:
    • Who is the organization and what is their purpose?
    • Does the organization publish a mission, core values, or guiding purpose that can assist in better understanding why they are offering a scholarship?
    • Narrative: Summarize what you know about the organization.
  • I am a competitive candidate for this scholarship. The following questions provide guidance through the process of engaging in a critical review of the scholarship application:
    • Is this a competition or lottery where one scholarship will be awarded to potentially thousands of applicants? If so, what are my chances of being awarded this scholarship?
    • Is this a marketing company using the scholarship prompt to gather consumer information, e.g., “why you should not text while driving?” If so, what are my chances of being awarded this scholarship?
    • Is this an organization, or private individual, who has an educational mission for supporting the educational aspirations of students from certain backgrounds or communities? If so, I am I well matched to the mission of the organization or individual?
    • Does the organization post information about previous awardees on its website, and if so, is my profile competitive to the profile of previous awardees?
  • Critical Review: Based on your research, if you do not believe yourself to be a competitive candidate, there is no need to proceed further. Identify another scholarship for consideration.

Part II: Planning Your Essay: Since you are likely to submit many scholarship applications, you must manage your time. The following questions will assist in focusing your time:

  • I have already written an essay on this topic. If you have already written an essay on the topic (e.g., leadership, community service, overcoming hardships, short- and long-term goals) take the appropriate elements from a previously written essay to respond to as many prompts as possible.
  • I understand the goals of the organization. Use the summary from your ‘Scholarship Analysis’ or write down what you consider to be the key goals of the organization, such as supporting leadership, encouraging community service, building stronger communities, or advocating for women’s rights.
  • I have identified the experiences or activities to which I will refer in my essay. After reflecting on the essay prompt(s) and goals of the organization, carefully review your ‘My Profile Forms,’ résumé, autobiographical essay, personal statement, or previously written essays. Try to identify an activity or experience that can provide the foundation of a story that relates to the essay prompt(s). For example, in response to the prompt, “What does it mean to be ‘My Sister’s Keeper?’” a student wrote a winning essay that began with information taken from her autobiographical essay:

“As women, we are inextricably bound together by the commonality of issues that uniquely affect us. In our role as matriarchs, we are challenged with leading and guiding families. In our role as mothers, we are challenged with raising and nurturing children. In our role as wives, we are challenged with loving and supporting spouses. In these and the many other roles we assume in our journey from birth through life, we are in need of becoming our ‘Sister’s Keeper.’

My mother was sixteen years old when I was born and I was only nine years old when she passed away. I have lived most of my life with my grandmother, the matriarch of our family, from whom I have learned the importance, if not the absolute responsibility of being my sister’s keeper. I have observed my grandmother labor through 3 jobs and 13-hour shifts to provide for her and me. I have firsthand experience with the disparity in wages that relegate millions of women worldwide to living in poverty and struggling to take care of their families…”

A scholarship program, valued at $50,000, had a mission to provide funding to support the educational aspirations of an African-American male attending an HBCU. Selected as the sole recipient, from a pool of over 1,000 applicants, the student’s winning essay focuses on the student’s transition into high school, character, and lessons learned.

“I have had a lifelong passion for playing basketball and believe that through sports, I have learned important lessons regarding discipline, hard work, sacrifice, and teamwork. The ease with which I was able to balance sports and school work throughout elementary and middle school caused me to enter high school over confident and under-prepared. Hard work and sacrifice were not enough. I was forced to learn new study and time management skills—first struggling to keep up and then struggling to catch up. Throughout this difficult transition into high school, I remained focused on the character traits posted on my bedroom wall—discipline, hard work, sacrifice, and teamwork.

During the summer following my freshman year of high school, I practiced basketball and got a jump start on my math and science textbooks. As a sophomore, I earned a position on the varsity boys’ basketball team. I can recount one of our early games in which I hesitated on a shot in a third overtime which cost us the game; it was then that I realized that hard work and sacrifice would all be for naught if not accompanied by preparation. Basketball, like life, requires physical preparation and mental clarity. While this was not the last time that I had experienced disappointment, I have always sought to be well prepared for sports, the classroom, and for life…”

  • I have determined how I will put ‘Me’ in my essay? The question, “How do I put ‘Me’ in my essay?” probably sounds rather silly, however, many students write their essays about parents, grandparents, or older siblings. However, the scholarship is not being to your parents or grandparents! While your essay may use examples of what you have learned from others, such as parents, grandparents, or siblings, your essay must be about you.

As you prepare to write your first draft, consider the following important points:

  • What will be unique in my story, that I can write passionately about, and will distinguish me from other applicants?
  • What have I learned from my experiences that have made me a better person, student, athlete, musician, etc.?
  • How will I provide a strong opening, to tell a sensational story, resulting in a strong ending?
  • Write your first draft without focusing on grammar, punctuation, or word count…just write.

Part III: Writing Your Essay: The following step-by-step process will assist in creating the first draft of your scholarship essay. Following each step will ensure that you have a high quality draft to present to your essay reviewer:

  • Heading: Use the MLA Format (i.e., 12 pt Times Roman font; double-spaced; .5” paragraph indentation; heading with the subject/title of your essay).

You Name

Name of Scholarship

Name of Your Small Group Coach or Essay Reviewer

Day Month Year

  • Reference Paragraph: Provide your summary of the organization at the beginning of your essay to serve as the reference paragraph. This will assist you in remaining focused on the organization, its goals, and stated mission throughout your writing. It will also assist your editor by providing a context for their editorial review. Note that this paragraph is only to be used as a guide and should be deleted from your final essay.
  • Provide the word prompt(s) and word-count limits. If your essay must respond to a specific prompt, such as “Describe the three characteristics of leadership” add the prompt, together with the word-count limits (e.g., 250 – 500), to your reference paragraph. If you are responding to more than a single question or writing prompt, it is good practice to use each prompt to guide a section of your writing or opening to a new paragraph.

Carefully review each prompt, or question, so that you clearly understand the number of prompts to which you are expected to respond. The following prompt is actually 3 prompts:

“Describe the three characteristics of leadership you value most.  Discuss why you believe that these traits are so important and how you feel that they are developed in an individual.”

Separate each prompt to guide your writing:

“Describe the three characteristics of leadership you value most.” 

“Discuss why you believe that these traits are so important.”

“Discuss how you feel they are developed in an individual.”

  • Consider a quote to focus your writing: Unless the application criteria states that you cannot use quotes or cite sources, a quote pertaining to the writing prompt can provide a focal point of your essay. Generally accepted formats for introducing a quote are, “George Washington is quoted as having said, ‘…’  or “Our country’s first president, ‘George Washington,’ is quoted as having said, ‘…’ You may research quotes by performing an Internet search for a quote by using a phrase from the writing prompt:
  • “characteristic of leadership quotes”

Matshona Dhliwayo is quoted has having said, “The real power of a leader is in the number of minds he can reach, hearts he can touch, souls he can move, and lives he can change.”

  • If the source you are quoting is not widely known, then performing an Internet search on the source of your quote (e.g., ‘Matshona Dhliwayo’) will enable you to more fully identify your source.

Canadian author and philosopher, Matshona Dhliwayo, is quoted has having said, “The real power of a leader is in the number of minds he can reach, hearts he can touch, souls he can move, and lives he can change.”

  • Make strong connections to open your essay: Your essay should have a strong opening that captures the reader’s attention with an emphatic statement or quote. Should you choose to use a quote, the quote must not only draw the reader into your essay, but provide a strong connection to the focus of your essay and effectively respond to the first prompt. Following is an example of how these elements come together (i.e., writing prompt, quote, and opening paragraph of your essay):

First writing prompt:

“Describe the three characteristics of leadership you value most. 

Quote used to provide the foundation of your response to the prompt:

Canadian author and philosopher, Matshona Dhliwayo, is quoted has having said, “The real power of a leader is in the number of minds he can reach, hearts he can touch, souls he can move, and lives he can change.”

The 3 connections being made in your opening paragraph (i.e., prompt, quote, essay response):

Canadian author and philosopher, Matshona Dhliwayo, is quoted has having said, “The real power of a leader is in the number of minds he can reach, hearts he can touch, souls he can move, and lives he can change.” As a leader, I too, would seek to reach minds, touch hearts, move souls, and change lives. I believe that the three characteristics of leadership that would enable me to do so are personal resolve, commitment to truth, and possessing a genuine spirit of service.

  • Use the themes from your opening paragraph to guide the body of your essay, and your response to each of the required prompts: This essay requires responses to 3 writing prompts:
  1. “Describe the three characteristics of leadership you value most.” 
  2. “Discuss why you believe that these traits are so important.”
  3. “Discuss how you feel that they are developed in an individual.”

The first paragraph of this essay indicates the 3 characteristics the student has chosen for the focus of the essay (i.e., personal resolve, commitment to truth, and possessing a genuine spirit of service) and provides a response to the first prompt. Consequently, the balance of the essay is to respond to the second and third prompts.

  1. “Discuss why you believe that these traits are so important.”
  2. “Discuss how you feel that they [these traits] are developed in an individual.”

It is good practice to repeat or paraphrase the prompt to introduce your response:

“I believe these traits to be important because…”

“These traits are developed in individuals through…”

Following is a further example of bringing all of these elements together:

Canadian author and philosopher, Matshona Dhliwayo, is quoted has having said, “The real power of a leader is in the number of minds he can reach, hearts he can touch, souls he can move, and lives he can change.” As a leader, I too, would seek to reach minds, touch hearts, move souls, and change lives. I believe that the three characteristics of leadership that would enable me to do so are personal resolve, commitment to truth, and possessing a genuine spirit of service.

I believe these traits to be important because leaders must have a personal resolve to pursuing a set of goals—whatever they might be. Whether a leader is engaging in civic or political advocacy, coaching an athletic team, or building a business, he or she must be driven by a personal and commitment to achieving goals. I believe that it is the personal resolve of leaders, which inspire others to follow, collaborate with, and support their efforts…

These traits are developed in individuals through…

In my own life, I have developed personal resolve, in part, from the many lessons learned from observing the leadership demonstrated by my parents, coaches, and youth pastor at my church, to name a few….

Leaders serve as a compass which shows others ‘true north.’ Their character and integrity, i.e., commitment to truth, is critical to reassuring others to join in and support their efforts. For people to work toward common goals and support a shared vision, they must have confidence in the integrity of their leaders…

While there are certainly leaders who are driven by their own self-interests, I believe the best leaders to be those individuals who are driven by a genuine commitment of service to others, i.e., servant leaders. Reflecting on the leaders who have provided the best examples in my life—parents, coaches, and my youth pastor, I can cite examples by each of servant leadership. For example, my parents….My track coach…My youth pastor…

Part IV: Reviewing Your Essay: Carefully, and thoughtfully, proceeding through the first three parts of writing your essay should result in a successful first draft, which has effectively responded to each writing prompt. Before submitting your essay to your reviewer, review your essay for usage of ‘non-cognitive’ variables.  

Non-cognitive Variables: Many colleges and scholarship providers review essays against what are referred to as non-cognitive variables. These variables suggest a student’s potential for college success beyond grades and standardized test scores as being reflected in such areas as adjustment, motivation, self-perception, and recognition of support mechanisms. Incorporating these variables, whenever possible, will strengthen your essay for such reviewers. Review your essay and place a check next to each of the following variables, which you believe are reflected in your essay.  

  • I made reference to my Self-Concept by providing references to, or examples of, confidence, strength of character, determination, and independence.
  • I provided a Realistic Self-Appraisal by identifying or recognizing my strengths and weaknesses, together with realistic strategies for growth and development.
  • I shared my Long-Range Goals and clearly distinguished between my short- and long-term goals, and provided examples of having developed practical and thoughtful long-term goals.
  • I provided examples of my Leadership by providing examples of having demonstrated leadership my personal life, church, school, community, activities, or areas of interest.
  • I acknowledged a Strong Support Person (or program) by providing examples of the support and encouragement received from persons, programs, and local networks.
  • I made reference to how I have served my Community by providing examples of my involvement in, and concern for, the community as a volunteer, advocate, or leader.
  • I made reference to Nontraditional Learning by providing examples of I how I sought learning opportunities beyond the formal classroom through after-school programs, summer camps, enriching experiences, or independent or self-guided learning.

Note: Based on the writing prompts to which you responding, only some, if any, of these variables may be reflected in your essay. However, the process of reviewing your essay for these variables should reveal where certain elements of your essay may be expanded or strengthen.

  • I presented my essay for review: A reviewer who receives an essay, prepared in the format as previously set forth, should be able to provide a quality review. Knowing the word-count limits and goals of the organization will allow the reviewer to not only edit your essay for technical merit, but provide a qualitative first review within the context of the scholarship provider.
  • I am currently engaged in the review—rewrite process: A thoughtfully developed and carefully written first draft should provide a good beginning of the review—rewrite process. How many times your essay moves back and forth through the review—rewrite process is dependent on the amount of time you and your reviewer can commit to the process. Great essays take time to develop, perfect, and finalize.

Part V: Proofreading Your Application Package: ALWAYS take the following two steps before submitting your scholarship application packages:

  • Collect everything requested for the application: Carefully read through the scholarship application and set aside each required document, e.g., written or typed application, high school transcript, letters of recommendation, résumé, etc.
  • Present your application and all required documents to your proofreader: Have each scholarship application reviewed and approved by a trusted proofreader (i.e., parent, teacher, counselor, coach, mentor, or college planning consultant).

While this is a lengthy process, the process has resulted in many students being awarded competitive scholarships, accepted into prestigious programs, and offered admission to the country’s most selective colleges and universities. Your efforts may be the difference between being offered the scholarship or receiving a rejection letter.