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Tips to Avoid Common Scholarship Pitfalls

Students should use these scholarship tips to create a strategy to tackle applications without burning out.

Winning college scholarships sounds pretty easy – just apply and wait for the money to roll in. That's not how it works, of course. But you can increase your odds of success by using these scholarship tips, which include paying attention to detail and avoiding common problems that prompt judges to judge you – and not in a good way.

College scholarships are a particularly valuable form of financial aid because, unlike student loans, they do not have to be repaid.

Students likely already know the basic college scholarship tips: Apply on time, complete the application, don't make spelling or grammar mistakes and meet the eligibility requirements. Even a stellar application from someone in Connecticut won't win an award that is for Iowa residents.

But here are seven common scholarship application mistakes college students make, as well as tips on how and why to avoid them.

Don't Wing It

One big mistake is to start applying for every award in sight. Maybe an even bigger mistake is applying only for one or two high-dollar scholarships.

Here are a few scholarship tips to go into the process with a strategy:

  • Many local groups offer awards – they may be small, but they can add up. Plus, the competition is often lower.

  • If you know your major, check out the corresponding department at your prospective school and see whether you qualify for school awards.

  • Look outside your school for professional or other organizations that offer help within your major.

  • Don't count on winning that one big scholarship that will cover everything, but also don't apply for everything in sight. Why? Scholarship application fatigue can kick in – the more you fill out, the less committed you may be to each individual application and the more likely you will be to make mistakes. Decide on the best candidates, arrange them by deadline and go from there.

Don't Let Others Do the Work

Your parents may nag you about filling out college scholarship applications. After all, the more money you win, the less they pay.

It may be tempting to ask your parents to fill out applications for you, but that's a big mistake. Part of graduating from high school and going to college is becoming an adult. Start now and take control of your future with your work.

While your parents might know the outlines of what you see as your future, they may not know the specifics needed for the scholarship application. Some scholarships also require an interview. If your parents complete the scholarship on your behalf, you could get blindsided during the interview if you're asked about something you didn't know was in the application. This doesn't mean you have to go it alone. Get input on your essay ideas and the finished product from a parent, teacher or trusted friend – or all three.

Don't Simply Reuse Essays

One essay won't suffice for every college scholarship you want. Judges can tell when you've just changed the names of the award on a one-size-fits-all essay.

Your essay needs to reflect you and your goals for each particular college scholarship. It also provides perhaps your best opportunity to make the case that you're a winner in general and should be the scholarship winner. Make the introduction sparkle in case that's as far as the judges get – and don't try to impress with unfamiliar big words that you could misuse.

If you choose to recycle an essay from a previous application that you think meets the current prompt, be sure to freshen it up. You can add a section specific to the sponsoring organization, for example.

Don't Submit Before Checking the Details

For many college scholarships, you can apply online or via email. But once you hit send, you can't make changes.

If you are applying online, check that you have entered all the information correctly before you submit. If you are emailing your application, be sure you have the correct address. And always double-check that you've entered your own email address correctly.

Also make sure your email address is appropriate – not a novelty or nickname address like You can always set up a separate scholarship email. This may also be a good time to edit anything from your social media accounts that could be construed as offensive or distasteful.

Don't Spend Money to Make Money

Don't pay for a scholarship. If a scholarship requires an application fee or any other payment, it's almost certainly a scam. And if you're "guaranteed" an award for a payment, run from the scholarship.

Don't Wait Until the Last Minute

You may pride yourself on working well under pressure, but waiting until the last minute before deadlines can leave you in a bind. For one thing, you might need transcripts or recommendations. Allow plenty of time to pull together all the required elements for the application ahead of the deadline. Plus, give your recommenders the time they need to write you a recommendation.

Applying for scholarships on the day of their deadlines also can send bad messages to an organization. For one, it can signal that you're a procrastinator. Or it can indicate that this scholarship is an afterthought and that you applied for more important awards first. Remember that you get only one chance to make a first impression.

Don't Underestimate the Power of a Recommendation

When it comes to recommendations, choose wisely, selecting a teacher, counselor or adult leader who knows you well and can articulate your case clearly and powerfully.

Give the individual plenty of notice ahead of the scholarship deadline to allow enough time to craft a thoughtful recommendation. Students can help by providing a resume or list of contributions to classes or organizations to guide the recommenders.

Are there other mistakes you can make? Of course. But avoid these for sure and concentrate on selling yourself and setting up a successful future.


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