A college scholarship is the best way to get help paying for college. Period.
Why? Because it's free money. Unlike a loan, you don’t have to pay back scholarship money. It can help reduce your student debt load. And that’s important, with the cost of tuition — and interest — continuing to rise.
Getting a scholarship isn’t easy though. Competition is often stiff depending on the kind you're applying for. They range from academic or athletic achievement to financial need, and the good news is that there are plenty to choose from.
Applying for a scholarship takes work, so being prepared can make the process easier. It might even help your chances of obtaining it. Read the list of requirements for each scholarship opportunity thoroughly; you wouldn’t want to lose out for simply not following directions.
Below we’ve listed what you’ll need when you apply for a college scholarship.
With a few exceptions, each item on this list is a requirement of most college scholarship programs.
You can download the complete scholarship application checklist here.
If you aren't convinced that a scholarship is the best way to pay for college yet, don't worry, we outlined everything you need to know about scholarships
to change your mind!
Your resume/curriculum vitae
The resume is a key element of the college scholarship checklist. If you need help updating yours, take a look at our free resume template.
While similar, a curriculum vitae (CV) is formatted a bit differently than a resume. It tends to be more detailed and stresses credentials and qualifications rather than work history.
Whatever approach you take, your resume/curriculum vitae should give the awarding committee an overview of your qualifications and experience. It can also let them know something about your interests and where you tend to spend your energy.
That means including details such as:
- Academic achievements.
- Awards or other notices of recognition.
- Lists of organizations or clubs you're involved with.
- Community service projects you've been part of.
Some students (and job applicants, for that matter) assume a cover letter is just a formality that no one reads. But don’t underestimate the power a well-written cover letter can have in influencing the scholarship decision committee. After all, it’s your opportunity to make a good first impression.
To take advantage of that opportunity, highlight important items in your cover letter, like:
Make your personality shine. Include a short anecdote that gives the committee a sense of who you are as an individual.
A generic cover letter, one that you send with every application, will not make that all-important lasting first impression. Take the time necessary to make sure it stands out. That alone will give you a head start over other applicants.
Don’t forget the basics: Double and triple check your spelling and grammar!
- Attributes that make you a desirable candidate for the scholarship.
- Why you’re a great fit for the school and program.
- What you plan on doing once you are the successful scholarship recipient.
Letters of recommendation
You’re going to need all the help you can get to secure at least some of the college scholarships you’re vying for.
Stellar recommendation letters are key. One of the most important steps is choosing the right people to write them for you. Start with those teachers, guidance counselors, and coaches at school with whom you’ve established a strong relationship over the years. You can also ask any instructors or leaders outside of school, including managers at part-time jobs you’ve held.
It’s not a bad idea to think about people who know you in different parts of your life to give the committee a good sense of your whole self.
While some scholarships don’t require you to secure letters of recommendation, it’s always helpful to have at least a couple on hand that you can provide.
Transcripts are a general requirement for students applying for college scholarship programs.
They serve as a record of the grades you’ve received in school, and also show the committee the courses you’ve taken, and how many requirements you’ve completed.
It’s important to note that obtaining official transcripts can take some time, so make sure you plan appropriately. Have them on hand well before you’re ready to submit finished applications.
We’ve got a handy college application timeline you can use to organize the process, so you don’t miss crucial deadlines.
SAT or ACT scores
As you know, your SAT or ACT score is important for determining your chances of getting into the school of your choice. But you may not know that your SAT score can also impact your chances of securing scholarships, or how much money you end up getting.
A high score on these exams is important; but they aren’t always deal breakers for scholarships. Other aspects of your scholarship application that can help you in the selection process.
Worried about your scores? Check out all the colleges that aren't requiring SAT scores
for 2021 admissions.
This is why recommendation letters, CVs and cover letters can go a long way in painting the full picture of you as a student and a person. If your grades leave something to be desired, put extra effort into all the other little details of your application.
The dreaded essay
Many scholarship applications require an essay as part of the submission. While it may seem tedious to write something unique for each application, your essay can be the deciding factor.
Read the requirements carefully and answer the questions. You may be prompted to describe yourself, why you’re choosing a particular field of study (or school), and your future plans. Make it personal, authentic, and above all, interesting, with real-life situations.
Students can overlook this as a minor detail, but it is often recommended that you include a photo yourself with your application. And no, we’re not talking about a selfie.
Either use a junior or senior yearbook photo, or get a professional headshot taken. It will upgrade the look of your entire application package, and make it seem more professional and complete.
Most scholarships don’t come close to covering the full cost of college. Apply for as many as you can, and don’t forget to look into grants, tax credits and work-study jobs in addition to private student loans and federal student loans.