How to Avoid Scholarship Application Errors – The Last Man Standing Is Often The Winner…So Stop Getting Knocked Out!


With millions of students applying for scholarships from private funds each year to pay for the rising cost of higher education, one would assume that only the best and brightest win. After all, that is the point of a merit based system. But the reality if far from the perception. The truth is, a 4.0 GPA, 2400 SAT, and all the volunteer work in the world will not bolster an application that has errors or is incomplete. Simply put, small errors and lack of attention to detail could be costing them or their child thousands in scholarships each year.

more after the jump…

Recently, I interviewed Cathy Makunga & Kaity Ocean for my podcast series. Cathy is the VP of Scholarship Programs for the Hispanic Scholarship Fund, and Kaity is the PR Rep for Jimmy Beans Wool, and has served as a scholarship judge for their scholarship, Beans For Brains. A great deal of both interviews involved discussing “Pet Peeves” and most common errors that get an application tossed.

The Three Ways To Torpedo An Application Quickly

It doesn’t take much to lose oddly enough In fact, the less you do the more likely it becomes. Scholarship applications are like submitting a business plan to a venture capital firm; you are asking for investment (scholarship money) in your efforts (college education), and try to justify why you win over other applicants (competitive  argument). Much like the venture capital firm, there is a limited pool of money, and the goal is to select the best.  The basic mistakes applicants make must be avoided so their application graded on the merits of the proposal, not the typos and mistakes.

Deadlines: When Set, They Mean It!

It would seem obvious that applications not submitted on time, would be ignored. But most scholarships  that offer any money of significance usually fall into two categories with regard to their ability to accept late entries.

The first category has greatly automated the application process and have to deal with thousands of applicants. They just don’t have time to help late entries, and must have a definitive cutoff. The second, are those scholarships that receive maybe a few hundred applicants, and rely on volunteers to help screen and judge. Volunteers have limited time available. Either way, time can kill an application. No matter how good the grades or qualifications, late entries typically end up in the round file.

Incomplete Information: The Missing Element Will Be What Sinks You

We all know what they say about assumptions. Problem is, a person can’t control others assumptions about them without information to the contrary. Applications often ask for information such as name, date of birth, and school/major of choice. While the name and date of birth parts are simple, many high school seniors who apply for scholarships each year have not chosen a school or major yet and often leave this information out.

Many students do the same to other areas of the application they are not sure of. Problem is, without this information, judges and evaluators must make judgment calls. Often these calls are not to an applicants benefit. It is very damaging to leave out financial information on an application, because it will disqualify most applicants if financial need is part of the equation.

Even if a student sends in their application on time, and fills out each area of the application, forgetting to include tax information requested to judge need will also kill someones chances. Cathy Makunga of HSF made it clear that while they might be able to contact a student to let them know something is missing, it is not always likely. When a fund deals with thousands of application each year, it’s not possible to help applicants correct mistakes. So that missing element can cost the student the win, even when they are fully qualified.

The Essay: Did You Even Read The Question?

A huge complaint most scholarship judges have is when essays don’t actually address the question itself. Sure, it’s frustrating when a fund asks an applicant to defined their goals, dreams, personal history, and achievements in less than 250 words. But completely avoiding the answer by B.S.’ing through it with useless data wont cut it. Judges know what to look for. No matter how good the writing, essays that dont address the question asked are ignored and lose the chance to get the money they need.

Three Easy Ways to Avoid Application Errors

When we know where the pitfalls of scholarship applications are, they should be easy to avoid right? And while some would seem common sense, the truth is this is not something we prepare kids for in this 140 character driven world. So here are three quick ways to avoid massive errors that will keep an applicant from being considered.

Partner Up

Oddly enough, while competition is good for us, so is a unified effort. If a student is taking the time to fill out applications, it is likely they keep company with those doing something similar. Partnering up with either a friend or parent is a huge time saver.

On a recent podcast, Monica Matthews talked about how she partnered with her son to find and win more than $100,000 in financial aid. Part of that partnering strategy allowed her son to concentrate on the most critical elements of the application, such as writing the essay and answering questions. Monica would keep track of due dates, and checklist application elements to make sure they were complete.

When I was applying for scholarships, I worked with a single mother who was applying for scholarships similar to my own. We would let each other know about new scholarships we had read about, and reminded each other about deadlines. In addition, we always checked each others essay work for completeness, grammar, and clarity of writing to make sure we put our best feet forward.

Get Organized & Follow Rules

Missing elements and missed deadlines are usually the result of an unorganized effort. In a world where every phone and computer can send students timely reminders, it’s easy to make sure an application is complete and on-time. So applicants should take the time to set deadlines and milestone reminders that begin no less than one month before a scholarship is due.

Also, don’t deviate from the rules set out. If they ask for less than 400 words, 401 is unacceptable. If they say to use only 12 point font and one inch margins, don’t do otherwise. If they allow for an additional page for additional information, use only that one page. Applicants should never substitute their own judgement over the scholarships rules. This is not a time to be rebelious. If someone doesnt know what to do about an issue, call or email the fund for guidance

Any serious effort for scholarships should include a checklist of the items a scholarship needs before being mailed. Some are often universal such as an application, letters of recommendation, and essays. Some, like photos and work samples are not. Either way, by having a checklist for each scholarship you apply for can help make sure that when that application is mailed out it is truly ready for review.

Get Serious About Writing

Writing is often seen as measurement of the intelligence of the writer. However, the amount and difficulty of language used matters less than how well students get their point across. People have written entire books on how to write essays properly. However, here are a few quick tips that should address 90% of errors made

  • Grade School Rules Still Apply – We often forget about the “1-3-1” rule (intro/body/conclusion); however it is very relevant and an effective way to write a page of material. It allows for a simple and easy to understand word flow and makes it easier for judges to read.
  • Answer In Three Sentences Or Less – While trying to add context, we often add too much fluff to an essay. A great tool is to take the question asked, and answer it in three sentences or less using the plainest language possible. That alone will help to guide the essay’s development while actually answering the question asked in a concise way. From there an applicant can build on this concise language and add context afterwards.
  • Use the Tools Pages/Word Offers – Spell check, spell check, and then spell check again. In addition, use the thesaurus to simplify language, as opposed to complicate it. Pay attention to passive voice errors and address them to make them active.

In the end, everyone who follows the rules will have to stand on their merits to win a scholarship. However, students actually have to follow the rules to have their merits considered.

Listen to the Top Scholarship Errors Episode Here:

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