Correctly submitting all the different pieces of your college application is like a test — one you can easily pass. While the process may seem complicated, a little organization and attention go a long way.
Start early and beat the deadline
You can apply to colleges online or through the mail. Online applications can be processed quickly and may have built-in checks to ensure all materials are included. Mailed applications are easier to proofread. Either way, following this advice will set you up to succeed.
Set deadlines for completing essays, collecting recommendations and filling out forms a few weeks before they’re actually required. Mark these earlier deadlines on your calendar and don’t miss them. College websites are the best place to find accurate deadline information.
Using the exact same name on all your forms makes things easier for admission officers. Decide if you want to use a shortened version of your legal name or your middle name, and then always use the same version. Switching names — going from Bill to Billy, for example — increases the odds that your materials will get misfiled.
Careless mistakes on your application can hurt your chances of getting accepted. After you finish an application, put it aside for a day and then check it over for errors. If you can, have a teacher or parent proofread it as well. Save and review online applications before you submit them.
Alert your school
You need to let school officials know which colleges you’re applying to so they can send along your transcripts. The people you ask to write recommendation letters also need to know where you’re applying if they’re mailing the letters themselves.
Completing the Package
Once you’ve completed your application, follow these tips to make sure all the parts get where they’re going.
Anything that needs to be mailed, including your application itself, should be sent in several weeks before it is due. This allows time for delivery and processing. Online materials should be sent weeks before the deadline as well.
When you apply online, you’ll usually get an automated response saying your materials have been received. If you don’t, contact the college’s admission office. Don’t apply online again or mail in another application.
Make a copy of each piece of each application. Save personal identification numbers, passwords, canceled checks and notes or emails from admission officers. This documentation can save you if a problem arises.
If you mail applications, put a stamped postcard addressed to your house in each package so admission officers can let you know that your materials arrived. The U.S. Post Office also offers a similar “return receipt” service. It may take a few weeks for confirmation cards to reach you.
If you get a notice saying something is missing, don’t panic. Just call the admission office and calmly ask what steps you can take. This is why you wisely saved copies of everything and sent in your application early!
General Scholarship Tips
- Remember, due to limited funding, not all applicants receive scholarships. The process is competitive, and you should be careful and thorough when filling out your application to give yourself the best possible advantage.
- If you were not selected in the past years, re-evaluate your qualifications and application package. Be certain that you make academic progress in the next term, earn the highest GPA possible, and make any necessary adjustments in your application process, then reapply next year.
- Do not assume that because you have received a scholarship previously, that you will automatically receive another award. Some students make the error of assuming that they will not have to be as careful filling out their application package and writing their personal statement when applying the second or even third time around. Be aware that there are always new students competing for awards. You must present a high quality package every time you apply for a scholarship.
- Talk to scholarship recipients to get their advice on the application process, scholarship search process, etc.
- Start to build a network of professionals and educators who are willing to advise you, write recommendations, proofread your applications and essays, and guide you through the application process.
- Be ready with the necessary information and experience to apply for need and/or merit based funding.
- Each scholarship fund has its own specific guidelines. Before applying for a scholarship, be certain that you meet, or will meet, all the necessary qualifications such as academic standing, specified financial situation, and personal or professional background and explain how you meet them.
General Application Tips
- Have multiple copies of the application in case you make a mistake and must start over.
- Make a checklist of what you need to have for the application.
- Make a copy of your ENTIRE application and keep it in a folder. That way, if your submission is lost, you can easily and quickly send another copy.
- Unless otherwise stated, please bind all the materials for the application together. It makes it easier to keep up with loose sheets.
- Put your name on all of the materials; photo, every page of the essay, recommendations, etc. If part of your application is misplaced, there will be no confusion as to what belongs to which applicant.
- If you have multiple names, i.e. two last names, please be consistent with which name you go by. Do not put “James Avery” when you go by “James Avery-Johnson.” It makes clarification easier.
- If the application asks for a GPA or other specific information, fill in the information, do not write “see transcript.”
- If you want to be taken seriously, consider getting a generic email address rather than a cutesy one like “jellybean07” or “pimpstress” or “lopezlover.” Email is used as a form of contact with applicants. Consider setting up a separate email account for college information and scholarship information. Make sure that your email address is clearly legible. If filling out by hand, put a slash through zeros so they do not look like letters.
- If a required attachment will be sent from another source, such as a high school or college transcript or financial aid information, it is up to you to make sure the information has been sent.
- No substitutions! If an item is requested, particularly for a need-based program, provide it. If you don’t understand the request, ask. In competitive programs, the missing or substituted item could tank an otherwise strong application.
- Read your application packet and ask yourself, “Would I give an award to this person if all I knew about them is the information presented in these documents?”
- Don’t let a parent fill out the application.
- Your application package represents the entire and only picture of you the selection committees have. Always type (or neatly print using black ink) your application. Your application must appear neat and professional.
- Proofread your application. Pay particular attention to any spaces you have left blank. If the answer is zero, write in 0 rather than leaving a blank spot. If the question does not apply to you, do not write in N/A. You risk eliminating yourself for the selection process. Simply answer the question to the best of your knowledge. Blank spaces can deem your application incomplete and ineligible!
- Have at least one other person review your application package, and supporting documents, including your personal statement or essay. Find the most qualified person to proofread for you.
- Start early! Rushing to the post office to get a piece of mail postmarked on the day of a deadline is not really that much fun–it’s stressful! Leave plenty of time to check, double-check, and triple-check to make sure all directions have been followed and that you are turning in the best application possible. Scrambling leads to mistakes. Use a calendar to keep yourself on top of things. Remember that there is nothing wrong with turning in an application before the deadline!
- If a photo is requested, use a suitable color head shot, not your prom photo or photo sitting on the beach and wearing inappropriate clothing.
- Be sure to follow guidelines. If the application asks for a self-addressed stamped postcard to receive confirmation, include that. Don’t include an envelope; follow the guidelines.
- If you are notified that you have received a scholarship always send a thank you note to the donor. If appropriate, continue to keep the donor informed of your progress throughout the year.
Personal Statement/Essay Tips
- The committee wants to know three things: why are you right for the scholarship, why it is right for you, and why it is important to you.
- Your personal statement/essay is viewed as the equivalent of a face-to-face interview.
- Avoid long, drawn out, essay responses. While a background story is sometimes necessary, try to get to the point but don’t be so brief that the importance is lost. Remember the committee members reading your essay have many more applications to read.
- If the essay prompt calls for an explanation and you provide an article, still explain what you have done and do not simply put “See attached article.”
- If you have a story that reflects overcoming obstacles, tell it. If not, express your appreciation for the benefits of a solid home life; it’s still the best gift parents can give.
- If you make a case based on financial need, you need to do so carefully and convincingly; that is, NOT simply say, “I really need this scholarship.”
- For scholarships that have a financial need component, tell your story if there is something that is out of the ordinary. If you don’t know if your story is unusual but you wonder, ask the high school counselor or any financial aid person, including the scholarship administrator. If something impacted your EFC (Expected Family Contribution) that was a one time situation, most will consider the difference.
- Make connections between areas of study, career goals, interests, and personal philosophies.
- You should be certain that all requested topics are covered in your personal statement/essay. Use specific examples whenever possible.
- Part of your proofreading should include attention to the tone of what you have written. Do you sound like a student that the donor’s organization would be proud to sponsor?
- Remember to BE YOURSELF. Do not try to give a response that you think will be liked by the selection committee. All selection committees are looking to decipher your own, UNIQUE personality, not one crafted to fit what you think the judges are looking for. An honest reply will usually get you far.
- Save your essays on the computer or a disk. It will save frustration when websites have errors or it could save you time when you come across the essay question for a different scholarship. You can pull up the old essay you wrote, edit or expand on ideas, and submit your revised copy. That will save you time that you could use to apply for additional scholarships.
- Really make the most of essay questions. For example, if asked, “Of all the activities you are involved in, which one means the most to you?” Keep in mind that this does not necessarily have to be the activity you spend the most time doing. In one case, when writing this kind of essay, a student was torn between describing involvement in the school’s theater troupe or a role on the school’s honor council. Though more hours were spent rehearsing for and performing in plays, the student felt like the work as an honor prefect had done more to impact the life of the school community and also to change the way that integrity was defined and priorities were viewed. Therefore, the student was able to show more about personality and values by writing about honor council.
- If you start to feel like your bragging about yourself too much, don’t worry about it. In a sense, that’s what you are trying to do. You’re hoping to impress the scholarship committee with your accomplishments.
- Don’t just describe what you have accomplished, but also share how you felt when making those achievements.
Recommendation Letter Tips
- Ask the recommender to fill out the form if one is provided. Some scholarships have the need to find evidence of some really specific personality trait that was set by the donor whose generosity made the scholarship available. Eloquent letters of reference that do not touch on that one specific trait make it hard for the evaluator to find evidence of the required trait.
- Good examples of people to ask for references include past or present teachers/professors, past or present employers, religious leaders, community leaders, and organization leaders. Generally, family and friends do not make the best references. The person you ask should know you personally and be able to attest to specific qualifications outlined in the scholarship requirements, i.e., financial need, GPA, community service, leadership roles, etc. They should be able to write about your character, commitment, experiences and successes.
- The letter should be tailored to the particular scholarship, not generic.
- Provide the recommender with a resume or list of your activities and accomplishments.
- Always give the recommender adequate time to prepare your letter or form.
Cover Letter/Resume/CV Tips
- Do not include a cover letter, resume, or CV if the application does not request it.
- Show you have worked–either with substantial responsibilities in the home or in summer/school year jobs. This may not be an important qualification for a lot of scholarships, but work/employment responsibilities build character as much as many other activities.
- Provide evidence that you have made something good happen. That’s leadership. If you have made a difference–in whatever way–share it.
- Show evidence that you believe in something apart from the certainty you hope to make a million dollars. What are you doing, or what do you hope to do, that will make the world a slightly better place?
- Never think that any accomplishment or activity is too insignificant to be mentioned. If you’re proud of it, passionate about it, or think there is something even slightly interesting or unique about it, include it! Now is not the time to sell yourself short!
- Spell out abbreviations that may not be generally recognized.
- Include part time work, list of awards, achievements, etc.
Transcript/Academic Record Tips
- If you have an off-semester or even a course grade that is an aberration, explain the situation/circumstance/reason. Leaving it out there for the evaluator to guess is not in your best interest.
- Make sure your transcript is properly sealed, with school stamp/signature across the seal.
- If your school’s grading system is not based on a standard scale, include a description of how your school determines grades.
What is the difference between a Financial Need Based Scholarship and a merit scholarship?
Most scholarships are awarded on the basis of merit; thus, students distinguished by academic excellence, participation in extracurricular activities and involvement in community service have the best chance at receiving one of these rewards. Financial Need Based scholarships, on the other hand, are chosen at based on financial need and scholastic achievement, meaning every student who applies for this scholarship has an equal chance of winning.
What are my chances of receiving a scholarship?
This depends largely upon the scholarship, how well you meet qualifications and the level of effort that you exert in your search. Typically, if you can find scholarships that are limited to students within a state, city, sport or academic area, you have a better chance of winning. The more applicants there are for a particular offer, the less chance you have of winning. Choose scholarships that give you an opportunity to exercise your skills in an area of interest to you —this should increase your chance of winning. Also, keep in mind that to find money for college, you have to create your own success by committing the time and brain power necessary to achieve your goal.
How does community service increase my chances for receiving a scholarship?
Not only is community service experience a common essay topic but your involvement in community service can distinguish you from other applicants. Scholarship providers often look for this quality because they are looking to assist in funding the education of someone who gives back to their community and values making contributions of time and service for its benefit.
Who should I ask to write my letter of recommendation?
Start by asking a teacher, employer or mentor. Do not ask a friend or family member. A letter of recommendation is similar to a professional reference; choose someone who can articulate your strengths and praise your accomplishments.
If the required G.P.A. is 3.8 and I have a 3.7, should I still apply?
No. If you don’t meet the criteria exactly you shouldn’t apply. Scholarship offers typically receive thousands of applications. Anyone who doesn’t meet the requirements is typically disqualified.
How quickly will I be notified?
You will typically be notified within a few weeks of the deadline, though this varies with each scholarship provider.
How does the scholarship provider choose a winner?
Each scholarship provider is looking for different skills or interests. A winner must meet all of the standard criteria required for the scholarship but also distinguish himself from the rest of the applicants. Read about the scholarship and try to determine what exactly the scholarship provider is looking for so that you can emphasize your related qualities in you essay or cover letter.
Does the amount I receive in scholarships affect my eligibility for financial aid?
Yes. Often the scholarship provider gives your award to the college you are attending as credit towards your tuition. If this happens, the school adjusts your unmet financial need accordingly.