Scholarships are financial rewards designed to help students pay for college. Unlike loans, you don’t have to repay scholarships, and unlike need-based grants, it’s possible to qualify regardless of your financial situation. In other words, a scholarship equals free money to help you pay for college. Sounds great, right? But how do you actually get a scholarship? Well, you’ll have to impress a group of people called the scholarship committee. Every time you apply for a scholarship, one of these scholarships committees holds your fate in their hands. It may help to know a little bit more about these committees and how they work.
We wanted the inside scoop on what scholarship committees are seeking in qualified candidates so we spoke with David H. Nguyen, founder of Next Level Prep, a service offering online software courses and online academic coaching. David has helped thousands of students get into America’s top universities.
We tapped David’s wisdom to find out more about the inner-workings of the scholarship committee.
A scholarship committee is composed of selected individuals who preside over the publication, solicitation, and management of scholarship awards for awarding organizations. In addition, the scholarship committee will typically draft submission rules, ensure procedural fairness, and evaluate submissions. Scholarship committees are generally tasked with evaluating applicants for eligibility and worthiness, assessing achievements, academic record, letters of recommendation, and personal essays in order to serve prizes with the most deserving applicant(s).
Awarding organizations may be universities, religious groups, professional associations, private companies, charitable foundations, and more. Scholarship committee members will often be selected as representatives of their respective sectors, industries, or charitable silos, but are expected to act independently of organizational leadership in order to provide fair and impartial evaluation of applicants.
David Nguyen notes that there is no secret to standing out. The key, he says, is “just great essays.”
“Send in letters of recommendation from a teacher and a mentor outside of school. The mentor can be a manager where you volunteer, a boss at a part-time job, or an athletic coach…You might include a portfolio of art, projects, or awards.”
Ultimately though, Nguyen repeats, “Write good essays.”
The personal essay may be just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to your college application. But when it comes to scholarships, the essay takes on far greater importance. Scholarships can be extremely competitive. Often, only a small handful of applicants will be selected from hundreds or thousands of submissions. Your personal essay is the best way to command attention and distinguish yourself from the crowd.
A few quick tips on writing a standout essay:
Check here for more tips on how to write a standout college essay—whether you’re applying for college or trying to impress a scholarship committee.
In some cases, you may be required to submit a scholarship cover letter, either in addition to or in lieu of responding to an essay prompt. If a scholarship letter is required, this is your opportunity to introduce yourself, highlight your noteworthy achievements, outline your educational and professional goals, and explain how this scholarship will help you reach these goals.
Your scholarship letter should be written in a formal and professional tone. Even if the personal essay portion of your application allows for some creativity or playfulness, the cover letter should be concise, informative, and free from errors.
If your scholarship application calls for a cover letter or another form of direct correspondence with the committee, you can use the traditional salutation, “To Whom It May Concern.” You may also address the correspondence to “Members of the Scholarship Committee.”
If such correspondence is required, begin on a respectful note. You may consider thanking the members of the committee for their time, and for considering your application, before launching into your personal introduction.
If you are a gifted athlete or a high-performing student, you’ll have the luxury of pursuing highly-coveted athletic or merit-based scholarships. If you truly excel in these areas, you may even receive scholarship offers from schools who wish to recruit you.
If you don’t fall into either of these broad categories, David Nguyen advises that there are plenty of other opportunities worthy of consideration.
“Merit can be earned in the form of art and innovation projects, or service projects,” he explains. “Don’t limit yourself to scholarships that are based solely on GPA or test scores.”
In fact, you may even be able to seize hidden opportunities by being proactive. “Talk to local businesses,” says Nguyen. “See if they want to create a small scholarship for you. They would have to open up this scholarship to other applicants, too. This would be a form of marketing for them at the local high schools.”
Don’t be afraid to approach a business that doesn’t currently offer any scholarship awards. The worst they can do is say no. On the other hand, if they say yes, you would be the inaugural winner of a brand new scholarship prize. In addition to furthering your own educational goals, you could be helping to improve opportunities for countless future students as well!
Practice makes perfect. The more scholarship applications you fill out, the better you’ll get at it. Not only that, but scholarship committees like to see that you’re already a winner.
David Nguyen tells students, “Don’t ignore the small $500 scholarships and only apply to the ones that give thousands. The small ones on your résumé help you win the big ones later on. Having won things in the past makes people more willing to pick you as a winner in the future.”
Take a stab at every scholarship that falls into your wheelhouse—large or small. And consider that every dollar counts when it comes to paying for expensive incidentals like a laptop or textbooks. That $500 prize could come in handy.
While you may have your heart set on a huge scholarship that can genuinely offset the high cost of college, you have a lot to gain by applying for small monetary awards as well.***
Learn more about paying for incidentals and understanding the true cost of college.
For more on scholarships and how to apply, check out our Guide to Scholarships for College.Jorid Martinsen (WMNO) / CC BY-SA