As the school year winds down and the last scholarships for the season are handed out, students across the country are able to take a break and assess how they did. And while thousands of scholarship recipients are heading into summer with a clear idea of how they'll be paying for college next year, there are also plenty of high school grads and college students wondering why they came up empty.
That's a question with no easy answer. Every scholarship program is different, and the high cost of tuition has made them more competitive than ever before. But there are a few basic mistakes that are almost guaranteed to cost you. If your scholarship haul wasn't as great as you'd hoped this year, here are four big mistakes to avoid when the majority of applications open again.
1. Don't start too late. Being a student is hard work, and between classes, activities, work and your social life, it can be almost impossible to find time to look for scholarships, much less to fill out long applications.
But getting a late start on your search means missing out on opportunities that you didn't have time to find, and getting a late start on your applications means you have to try and write big-money essays in a big rush. Most scholarship programs are closed over the summer, and that makes it a perfect time to research when they open again and what they're looking for, so you can hit the ground running in the fall and winter.
[Follow a scholarship application calendar for the year.]
2. Don't limit your search. You have a wealth of scholarship sources available to you, and it can be a costly mistake to ignore any of them. Your search will probably start online, with a scholarship aggregator like Fastweb. That will find a lot of options for you, but it's only the beginning.
Your high school, your current or future college and your department or major all provide scholarship opportunities, which you can find online or by talking to advisers. Your employer, or your parents', may offer scholarships or other tuition assistance.
[Use these 10 tools to help find ways to pay for college.]
3. Don't write a cookie-cutter application and expect it to work for everything. There are plenty of elements that just about every scholarship asks about, such as academics, activities and future plans. As a result, you may also be tempted to copy-and-paste your essays and personal statements from one application to the next -- but you're losing money if you do.
Scholarship evaluators are looking for students who stand out and who fit a specific set of criteria. To boost your chances, take some time to learn about the organization presenting the scholarship.
Find out about previous recipients. Learn what the scholarship provider values in a student, and make sure your application emphasizes why you're the perfect recipient for their exact award.
[Take time to apply for essay contest scholarships this summer.]
4. Don't expect to get everything right on your first try. We all make mistakes. Unfortunately, in a competitive scholarship program, any little mistake might be the reason that your application gets tossed aside.
To help make sure you avoid typos and essays that don't make sense, find a trusted editor or proofreader to go over your application before you submit it. It can be a parent, a teacher or a fellow student, as long as they can edit your work with an eye for detail -- and you don't mind hearing some constructive criticism that could pay off in the long run.
There's often no single, simple reason why one scholarship application is selected over another. But by avoiding these four major mistakes, you can ensure that you're submitting the best possible applications to all the right programs.
Matt Konrad has been with Scholarship America since 2005. He is an alumnus of the University of Minnesota and a former scholarship recipient.