Emily's five strategies for earning scholarships

When I came to Union College as a freshman in the fall of 2013, I brought $15,750 worth of outside scholarship money with me. Combined with the scholarships I got from Union, I received a total of $43,250—enough to pay for my entire freshman year and then some. The story of this amazing haul started with my decision to come to Union, and my uncertainty about whether I could afford it.

Knowing the steep financial obstacle I faced, I began exploring scholarship-matching websites like Zinch and Fastweb and started applying.

Some applications were easy; others required recommendation letters, essays and transcripts. I worked hard and ended up receiving eight different scholarships—and the chance to go to my first choice in colleges.

My story may seem incredible, but you too can successfully apply for all kinds of scholarships. You’d be surprised at how much money goes untouched simply because no one applied.

I’ve come up with a few strategies to get you started.

Emily’s Tips for Scholarships

  1. Start early. I embarked on my scholarship search my senior year of high school, but some are even available to juniors. Once you get going, don’t stop. New scholarship opportunities pop up all the time. In fact, I recently applied for five more. Fingers crossed!
  2. Take chances. Don’t let the application process intimidate you. At the same time, be strategic when it comes to considering requirements. Make sure you have the qualifications they’re looking for so you have a fair shot.

    Still, I encourage you to pursue a few high-dollar scholarships. I received a $10,000 scholarship I thought I had a small chance of winning. Taking that chance paid off. Literally.
  3. Make connections. Get involved! Whether it’s volunteering in the community or taking a leadership role at church, seek out opportunities that will shine on an application. And get to know the teachers, church leaders and supervisors you meet along the way. Not only can these people provide recommendation letters, but they can also form a valuable support system.
  4. Don’t fear the essay. You can make essay writing easy. Write about your personal experiences and interests; tell your story and the words will come more easily. Most essays won’t be longer than a page, and once you have one written you can usually reuse it (with some tweaking).

    I found it helpful to have other people proofread my essays and give me feedback. Later, I found out that all the scholarships I ended up getting were ones that had required me to submit an essay. There are still plenty of scholarships that don’t require essays at all, but think of it this way: if you don't want to write an essay, chances are others don't want to either, so there will be less competition for those scholarships. 
  5. Get organized. I keep a special binder filled with applications, recommendation letters, deadlines and requirements. I also keep track of past accomplishments and my volunteer hours, because you never know when these records will come in handy.

    Another part of getting organized is sticking to a schedule. Keep in mind that most deadlines fall between October and March, so plan accordingly. Aim to apply for one to three scholarships per week. They can be time-consuming, but if you spend five hours on a $1,000 scholarship and end up getting it, that averages out to $200 an hour! That’s time well spent—and money well earned.

Check out some ways Union College can help make your education affordable.