Many students fail to pursue scholarships because they believe scholarship competition is so fierce that only the most exceptional students receive awards. The truth is you do not have to be a super student to win scholarships. Many scholarships do consider academic talent and performance; however, the level of achievement required to win the scholarship is always relative to the other students in the applicant pool. Additionally, some scholarships are based on criteria other than academic performance: pursuit of a particular major, membership in particular groups, or financial need.
Don't waste your money on scholarship search services that promise to help you tap into vast amounts of unclaimed financial aid funds. There are many websites that provide the same information for free. For more information on scholarship myths, see the article in Peterson's Scholarship Guide.
Despite the myths surrounding scholarships, students do need to put forth a modicum of effort in the research and application process. One way to think about the time spent is to consider you are getting paid for this research. If you spend ten hours finding and applying for a scholarship and you receive a $300 dollar stipend, you just made $30 an hour! Even if you don't get awarded a scholarship, you will have refined your research and writing skills and will be more likely to succeed in similar future endeavors.
There are two main ways to obtain scholarship information: through the Internet and through the mail. To search on-line, go here or perform your own research through various Internet search engines. To find print information, start with the reference section of the library. Also check all organizations with which you or your family are affiliated, as well as those that interest you. If you request applications by mail, include self-addressed stamped envelopes.
Improve your application techniques by talking and listening to anyone and everyone you know who has won scholarships. Scholarship recipients can give you new ways to successfully approach the application process and inspire you to get started. To find people who have won scholarships, keep a lookout on bulletin boards for workshops on-and off-campus; campus libraries, the union, and many other campus sources can lead you towards your quest. Also, don't be afraid to contact the scholarship organizations - you may end up with valuable referrals!
Be sure to complete application materials well ahead of the deadlines. Have friends, advisors, or faculty members proofread your applications before you submit them.
Some merit-based scholarship applications also require data from the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, the FAFSA. File your FAFSA as soon as possible after January 1. For maximum consideration for UM need-based aid, the FAFSA processor must receive your FAFSA by 2/15. If you miss the 2/15 deadline, the Maryland State Scholarship Administration's Priority Deadline is postmarked by March 1.
As soon as you receive applications, read the instructions carefully. If you have questions, contact the funding agency. Before filling out any application forms, make extra copies in case you make mistakes. Proofread your application and have at least two other people review your essays. Check your finished product for stray marks, white out, stains or wrinkles. Make a copy of the completed forms before mailing them. Consider sending your documents through certified mail or with a return receipt.
Ask for letters of recommendation well in advance of your deadline to give your contact(s) time to write a strong letter. Notify them of your deadlines and be prepared to contact them a couple of times as a reminder. If the letter is delayed, ask whether they need additional information.
Many applications require letters of recommendation from faculty. Ideally, you already know several faculty members who have taught you in class or worked with you on independent projects; they should be well-equipped to write informed and specific letters about you. A concrete, detailed letter from a faculty member who knows you well is usually worth more than three or four letters from people who don't. Although it may be tempting to ask a dean or prominent faculty member for a recommendation, it is best to have your letters written by faculty who know you and your work. If you don't feel any faculty knows you well enough, make an appointment with some of the professors or T.A.s whose courses you have taken. Even if you don't know them personally, talk to them about your plans and see if they would be comfortable writing a letter for you.
Provide a copy of your resume, writing samples, or other documentation of your strengths. Let the writer know the kind of information you would like the letter to convey. The more information given, the more likely the letter will be substantial and persuasive. Keep a copy of any vital records you submit to your referrals. Do not forget to write a thank-you letter to everyone who wrote your letters of recommendation.
If the application requires a transcript from all the schools you have attended, request this information as soon as possible. Whether you e-mail, fax, or call in your requests, mail a letter as a backup. Some schools charge a nominal fee for official transcripts. After a few weeks have passed, call the schools to ensure that the transcripts have been sent to the proper address. If by chance you have to hand-deliver a transcript, do not tamper with the seal - this may render the transcript invalid.
Be sure to answer the essay's question(s)! Tailor your essay to its audience. An exceptional essay that fails to address the main points of the question will not succeed. When writing about an experience, highlight what you accomplished through specific details and examples. "I made a difference in people's lives" communicates much less than "I helped rebuild six homes, and through our teamwork, families moved back just three months after the hurricane." Be detailed yet concise in your writing without getting bogged down.
Employ clarity and structure in your essay/statement. Use paragraphs and transitions to signal a change in emphasis or ideas. Be judicious in your use of the words "I" and "you." Use proper punctuation and spelling. Avoid repetitious, trite, or meaningless phrases and unnecessary jargon. Make every word count toward overall clarity and impact! Several drafts may make a large difference in the quality of your essay.
Find a person to review your statement or essay, especially someone with experience reading or writing statements for scholarships. Leave time for revision and consulting. Proofread your essay. Then proofread it again. Visit the Writing Center if you need assistance.