True: There is a lot of private scholarship money available for smart, hardworking students willing to seek out donors and enter contests. False: There is so little competition for those scholarships that it's easy to collect thousands of dollars in unclaimed awards.
But millions of other students slave over essays and applications for naught. Scholarship America, the nation's biggest manager of scholarship programs, says that, on average, for every one of the scholarships it hands out, three or four applicants are rejected. Worse, several hundred each year lose money to fraudsters who charge application or processing fees — something no legitimate scholarship does. Scholarship judges, fraud investigators, and previous winners say a few simple techniques can boost your chances of winning money.Don't bother with any offer or contest that requires you to pay money or that even just asks for a credit card or other financial number to "hold" the scholarship. Scholarship America says legitimate scholarships never do this. While many scholarships require proof of financial need, such as that provided on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), there's no need for any scholarship to have your bank account or credit card information.Don't trust any pitch that says a scholarship is "guaranteed" or indicates the student has been preselected or is a finalist in a contest he or she hadn't entered, says Gregory Ashe, spokesman for the Federal Trade Commission.Don't copy previous winners. Too many entrants in the $3,000 Duck-brand contest to make prom outfits from duct tape simply tweak the designs of previous winners, says Bethany Schmotzer, a Duck Products executive. This year, the judges eliminated prince-and-princess-style costumes because that kind of design won in 2004. Schmotzer voted for the 2006 winning couple (Holly Nelson, 18, of Willington, Conn., and Bing Xu, 18, of Ashford, Conn.) because their "snazzy" outfits surprised her with creative duct tape hats and other accessories.Don't waste a lot of time writing new essays for different competitions. — Try instead to rework essays already written for courses or college applications, says Ben Kaplan, author of How to Go to College Almost for Free.Follow instructions and do a spell check before sending your entry. Judges in the OP Loftbed $500 essay contest say they can discard about 60 percent of entries for not following contest rules. Then they ditch almost half of the rest for bad spelling and grammar.Zig where you expect your competition will zag. Lesley Wainwright, who won one of the prestigious Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation scholarships in 1994 and has been a judge for the $20,000 top prize, says prize judges "know the canned answers." When she applied, she had to answer the question, "If could you could go back in history, what one thing would you change?" She figured everybody else would write about saving the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. or John F. Kennedy, or perhaps abolishing slavery. She wrote instead about something she'd just studied: She said she'd prevent the burning of the library in ancient Alexandria.Dress like a winner. Robin Gorneau, an Allstate staffer who helped judge last year's Connecticut Boys and Girls Club's $3,500 "Youth of the Year" contest, said she voted for the contestant who not only had an impressive application and showed poise during the interview but dressed in a way that would make the judges proud when she accepted the award on stage. "Some kids were too casual," she says.Play the odds. The scholarships that are best known, give away big money, or have easy applications tend to get flooded. The Coca-Cola foundation received over 70,000 applications for its 250 scholarships of up to $20,000 in 2005. But the competition for local scholarships is often easier. The Central Scholarship Bureau of Maryland, for example, has yet to find a graduate of a Baltimore area public high school with good grades who is attending Southern Vermont College and would thus qualify for a $7,500-a-year award.Expand your scholarship search. Simon Hanna knew he'd have to raise lots of money to attend his dream school — Drew University in Madison, N.J. So besides entering local service clubs' scholarship competitions and essay contests he found on the Web, he wrote to hundreds of relatives, friends, and acquaintances. A mentor happened to mention his letter over lunch to someone whose father ran a foundation. Though the charity didn't typically give out scholarships, the father was so impressed with Hanna that he awarded him $10,000 scholarships for each of his first two years. "I didn't have a 4.0 [grade-point average] or high sat scores. I wasn't on sports teams, so I wasn't going to get [much] aid," says Hanna, now a junior majoring in theater and business at Drew. "I was just going to have to find it elsewhere. … There is money out there. It is about taking the time to go after it."
For an edge in scholarship contests, be creative, but master the basics. Judges toss essays that wander off topic, contain bad spelling or grammar, or bore them with obvious conclusions.
By Kim Clark
U.S. News & World Report