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Posted at 8:00 AM ET, 03/ 9/2011

Secrets to winning a college scholarship

By Valerie Strauss

Following is a Q and A I did with Mark Kantrowitz, a financial aid and college planning expert, and author of a new book called “Secrets to Winning a Scholarship,” which provides strategies to maximize the chances of being successful in this enterprise. Kantrowitz is publisher of publisher of, a web guide to scholarships, and

Q) Let me start by asking about something I hear a lot. It goes something like this, "There’s a ton of scholarships out there and there’s something for everyone who takes the time to look." Is that close to being true? What’s the universe of scholarships?
A) The scholarship database lists 1.5 million scholarships worth more than $3.4 billion. I wrote "Secrets to Winning a Scholarship" to help families find and win scholarships.

While you don’t have to have good grades to win a scholarship, every scholarship sponsor is looking for the students who best match their criteria. Instead of academic talent, they might be looking for artistic talent or athletic talent, or even something a bit unusual. One of my favorite unusual scholarships is about making a prom costume out of duct tape. That may seem gray and boring, but duct tape comes in many colors. The winners are incredibly creative and make amazing costumes. (See for pictures of past winners.)

Most high school seniors will match 50 to 100 scholarships. You can double your matches by completing the personal background profiles more thoroughly. For example, students who complete the optional questions in the Fastweb profile match about twice as many scholarships, on average, as students who answer only the required questions. The optional questions are there to trigger the inclusion of specific scholarships. It’s a little tedious to go through the laundry list of questions about hobbies, activities, affiliations and other attributes, but it doesn’t take much time and can double your chances of winning a scholarship.

Not everyone is going to win a scholarship, however. According to my analysis of the 2007-08 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS), about 1 in 10 students enrolled full-time at 4-year colleges used scholarships to pay for their education, and the average amount was about $2,800.

But there are tips that can help increase your chances of winning a scholarship. Besides following the tip about answering the optional questions, students should apply for every award for which they are eligible. The scholarship providers receive so many qualified applications that there’s an element of luck in determining who wins a scholarship even among very talented students. So it’s a bit of a numbers game, and applying to more scholarships increases the odds of winning one. For every scholarship you win, you’ll probably be rejected by a dozen or more. It isn’t as much work as it might seem. By the time you’ve completed your first half dozen applications, you find that you can start reusing and adapting previous essays. It becomes much easier to apply to each subsequent scholarship.

For this reason it is also important to start searching as soon as possible. Many families wait until the spring of the senior year in high school to start trying to figure out how to pay for college. By then half of the deadlines during the senior year have already passed. Moreover, you can apply for scholarships in grades 9-11.

There are even scholarships for children in grades K-8 (see for scholarships such as the national spelling bee or the Jif PB&J scholarship). You should also continue searching after graduation, as there are many scholarships open just to students who are already enrolled in college. The Fastweb database is updated daily and the site will automatically email you new scholarships that match your profile.

Students should also not ignore the small scholarships. I often hear from students that a $500 or $1,000 scholarship is too small to bother with, though I don’t know of any student who can potentially earn $500 for an hour’s work. The disdain that some students express for small scholarships makes them easier to win. They also add up and add lines to your resume that can help you win bigger scholarships.

Q) What are the most common scholarships?
A) The most common scholarships are major-specific, where the sponsor is seeking to support students who are pursuing a particular field of study. Students who major in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) are more likely to win scholarships than students majoring in arts and humanities.

The most common type of scholarship is the essay competition, where the candidate has to write a short essay on one or more topics chosen by the scholarship sponsor.

Q) Making a prom costume out of duct tape? What other unusual scholarships are out there?
A) There are scholarships for lefties, short people and tall people. There are knitting scholarships, a Dr. Seuss scholarship and scholarships for students with a last name of Zolp. There are scholarships for twins, scholarships for average students and scholarships for students who speak Klingon. There are scholarships for billiards, bowling, marbles, skateboarding and surfing. There are scholarships for vegetarians and scholarships for beef-eaters, candy-makers and wine-makers. And fungus.

Q) Aside from urging students to find scholarships that match their criteria, what other tips can you give them?
A) If you have trouble writing essays, record yourself as you answer the question out loud. Transcribe the recording and create an outline to organize your thoughts. Most people can speak about 200 words per minute, while they can write or type at only about 30-60 words per minute. The act of writing interferes with the flow of thought. This tip helps avoid writer’s block and yields a more fluent and passionate essay.

Google yourself and clean up your Facebook profile. If your Facebook account demonstrates immaturity, inappropriate behavior or a lack of good judgment, it can make a difference between winning and losing a scholarship. Scholarship providers want their winners to reflect well on the organization. They do not want scandals. So just as you would dress professionally for a face-to-face interview, you need to have a professional online appearance. Choose a professional email address, such as one based on your name, and not

The other day a student emailed me through Facebook, with a profile picture that was an image of a toilet. When asking someone for help, try to make a good impression.

Depth is more important than breadth, as scholarship providers are looking for students who excel in particular areas. Length of experience also matters. It is better to participate in one activity for several years than a different activity each year.

Don’t chew gum during an interview. It is extremely distracting.

Proofread your essays by printing them out and reading them. The reader will form an impression of you based on how you write. Spelling and grammar errors give a bad impression.
The spelling and grammar checkers built into modern word-processing software do not work well. They can’t correct valid word spelling errors, like its vs. it’s or principle vs. principal, or though vs. through.

Reading your essay out loud can also help identify disfluencies and awkwardness.

Try to avoid editing all of the life out of your essay. Most essays are boring, so if you make it interesting, you’ll stand out. Use concrete specific examples, as opposed to general statements, so that the reader can form their own conclusions based on the evidence. Members of the selection committee will champion particular candidates, and providing them with examples helps them argue for why you should be the winner.

Q) How common are scholarship scams? What are the quickest ways to avoid being scammed?
A) Scholarship scams are unfortunately still a bit too common, though they are not as prevalent as they were a decade ago. Most scholarship scams are about getting you to give them money. They may have a plausible excuse (e.g., an application fee or the taxes), but if you have to pay money to get money, it’s probably a scam. Never invest more than a postage stamp to find out information about scholarships or to apply for a scholarship.

Q) You mention has a great database of scholarships. Where else can kids find scholarships?
A) There are a variety of scholarship listing books available in your local library or bookstore. Usually you’ll find them near the jobs and careers section of the library. These books aren’t as well-targeted as the online scholarship matching services, but they are useful for random exploration. However, before relying on such a book, check the copyright date. A book that is more than a year or two old is too old to be useful, as about 10% of the scholarships change in some material way each year.

You can also find bulletin boards in the library and outside your high school guidance counselor’s office or the financial aid office that provide information about small local scholarships. Fastweb has many local scholarships in its database. However, some of the local scholarships deliberately do not want to be listed in any of the national databases because they do not want to be inundated with too many applications. Good examples, include local PTA and small union scholarships.

The coupon section of the Sunday newspaper is another interesting source of information about scholarships. Many national brands will advertise their scholarship programs in the coupon section. Many of the best-known brands sponsor scholarships, from Coca Cola to Tylenol to Discover.


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By Valerie Strauss  | March 9, 2011; 8:00 AM ET
Categories:  College Costs  | Tags:  cleaning facebook, college scholarships, duct tape scholarship, facebook, facebook accounts,, mark kantrowitz, scholarship databases, scholarships, scholarships and facebook, winning college scholarships  
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Great blog today! I used a similar search service when I was applying to college back in 1985. I ended up with a $1000 scholarship from a local group in my community. I wouldn't have found them without the scholarship search. Thanks Valerie - these suggestions can be very helpful to cash-strapped students and families!

Posted by: abcxyz2 | March 9, 2011 8:41 AM | Report abuse

As an independent college counselor, I encourage all of my students to investigate any possible organization or business that might provide scholarships: A parent's employer, Rotary, Optomist, local school districts, etc. A lot of students have spent hours on applications and essays and have run out of steam when it comes to applying for scholarships. They need to be encouraged to hang in there a little longer because even a little money can help pay for books and other miscellaneous items.

Susie Watts
Denver, Colorado

Posted by: collegedirection | March 9, 2011 10:52 PM | Report abuse

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