How to Find the Right Scholarship for Every Occasion

Karen Wytmans
·6 min read

When I tell people that I paid for most of my university degree with scholarships, I recognize that may induce an eye-roll and an "OK, Boomer." In 2021, college is more expensive than ever—and certainly more expensive than it was back when I went to school. So yes, sure, you will be hard-pressed to pay for an entire degree with scholarships these days. But when used in conjunction with other smart money planning moves (included but not limited to college savings, low-interest student loans, or even using life insurance to fund tuition), scholarships can be a great way to "earn" some extra income to help bankroll your or your child's education—no matter what kind of degree or certificate program you're eyeing.

Here's a step-by-step guide to finding and applying for the scholarship that will be just right for you.

How to Find Scholarships

There are hundreds of websites out there with lists of scholarships—which can be overwhelming. But don't get discouraged; this is a good thing. Start with a few trusted sites, such as Fastweb.com, College Board, or Cappex. These sites have search features that will help to narrow down the list of scholarships that are specific to your situation. School counselors are also a great resource for advice—and can notify you of new scholarship opportunities as they come up. Other resources for scholarships are personal connections and professional affiliations. When I started my second career as a high school teacher, the EnCorps STEM Teacher Program sponsored scholarships to help pay for my training courses.

You can find scholarships catering to folks of your ethnicity, in your area of study, based on your geographical location, or even hinging on your interests and hobbies. Attributes like living in a small town or being a multiple-birth sibling will, believe it or not, qualify you for special scholarships. Make a list of standout characteristics about yourself and use those to identify unique scholarships that could be a fit. Are you a BIPOC and/or LGBTQ+ individual? There are scholarships just for you. Are you thinking of a career change to nursing, psychology, or interior design? There are scholarships specifically for those fields—and many others.

You can apply for scholarships whether you are a high school student or an adult looking to go back to school. You can find scholarships to help fund community college, certificate programs, a four-year degree, technical school, or graduate school. Some people think they can't apply for scholarships if they don't have stellar grades; this is not the case. Based on your particular situation and the organization that is funding the scholarship, your grades may not be a significant factor in the decision.

Which Scholarships to Pursue

Now, you have a (possibly long) list of potential scholarships in front of you. This is great news. But it can also feel like scholarship overload, so start by just picking one or two that pique your interest, and focus on those. And keep in mind that the dollar amount for individual scholarships can vary widely—from a few hundred dollars to several thousand. You may be tempted to focus on the larger scholarships, but don't forget the small ones will add up. My neighborhood high school counselor advises students to "apply local because the applicant pool is smaller"—local organizations love to promote local students, so if you can show your connection to the company or organization whose scholarship you're applying to, that will also set you apart.

A hard fact is that there are many scholarships out there that no one applies for, especially those low-dollar-amount scholarships. For this reason, don't worry too much about being the perfect fit (although you should have some way to justify why you are a good candidate—when I was in college, I received a scholarship from an organization promoting the Basque language and culture. I'm not Basque, but I did plan to study in France's Basque region, and that was good enough!)

Bottom line: Don't sell yourself short. Instead, focus on the good qualities you possess.

See It Through

So you have a handful of scholarships that you think might be a good fit for you, and you've started parsing through them one by one. Now is the time when many people will lose steam. But a little persistence will get you a real advantage. Think of this as a job; if you spend two hours on a $300 scholarship, that's $150/hour. Not bad! Set aside a block of time each week to work on your scholarship applications, just like you would a real job. Maybe work with a friend to help hold you accountable.

After the first application, they will get easier. Some typical items you need on hand to apply are your personal information, your transcripts, and information about your future goals. Once you fill this out for one scholarship application, you can reuse this information for the others. Some scholarships require essays; think of this as your chance to differentiate yourself—to tell your story. Some applications also require letters of recommendation. To make it easier for your teachers and friends to write the letters, provide an outline with your qualifications and information that you would like for them to include. Once completed, you can reuse the essays and letters for multiple applications. Taking the time to write essays and ask for letters will set you apart; far too many students do not pursue scholarships that require this extra bit of effort.

Create a spreadsheet that will help you keep track of each scholarship, when they are due, and what you need to provide. This document will also help you see how much you have accomplished. Come up with a target for yourself, even if it's just to complete one application a week. Finally, follow up after submitting your application, and send a thank-you note when you receive the award. By making a good impression, the organization may offer you the same award next year, especially if you keep in touch and show them how the money helps you succeed. These organizations are people, and they want to build a connection with you.

The best part about scholarships? You don't need to pay the money back, and they look great on a resume. Maybe you will even make some new connections with people who will support you in the future. Spring is the best time to start looking and applying for scholarships, and whether you're fresh out of high school or jumping on a second career, there's a scholarship out there for you.

Remember: It is never too late to start school or make a career change, and there are many organizations out there that want to help you succeed. So take the plunge and start the process.