Starting Strong (Blog)

I received a call last week from a friend of mine who just recently made the decision to return to school and complete her degree in business management. She is trying to avoid taking on any student loan debt and was reaching out to me, asking if I had any suggestions for scholarships for the upcoming academic year. Unfortunately I had to tell her that the scholarship process usually requires a 9-12 month lead time, so scholarships offered for this Fall 2015 would have been applied for as early as November of 2014. While I was unable meet her immediate need, I was able to encourage her to begin the scholarship process for the 2016-2017 academic year. My guess is that she is not the only person who has questions concerning what she needs to do now in order to be prepared for the upcoming scholarship season, one which will impact your 2016-2017 academic year. If that is you, below is a great “get-started” list. Maybe you are not new to the scholarship game. If so, this list is just as applicable to you; instead of starting for the first time, it’s time to circle the wagons or hit the refresh button, taking into account all that you have accomplished over the past 12 months.

Scholarship Search: Your ability to earn scholarship funds is directly correlated to the strength (quality) and length (quantity) of your scholarship list. You may have great test scores/grades, work and volunteer experience, and personal essays, but if you are not sending out scholarship applications to institutions and individuals who want to fund your education, you will never be considered for their assistance. While there are many ways to build a list, I would begin by building a relationship with your school’s financial aid department. They should be able to direct you to internal scholarships, i.e. those scholarships that are given directly by the university and require an internal application. Your financial aid department may also have access to external scholarships, i.e. those scholarships that are not affiliated with the university and require an application from the granting organization. In addition to these options, there are also opportunities with local organizations and scholarship resources offered in books and websites. I do not have the time at present to discuss these resources, but I will be advise you how to use these sources over the next few months.

Transcripts: Every external scholarship application I have ever submitted required an updated transcript. “Updated” can have different definitions, so check the application carefully to see how it defines the term. Normally, updated is defined as the close of the previous academic year, so your Spring 2015 transcript would be your required submission. Others require your most recent academic work, so an application submitted in January of 2016 would need your academic work through Fall 2015.

References: Like the milk in your refrigerator, reference letters have a shelf life. Luckily, it is longer than a month. They may expire due their dating, or to pertinent information changing over time. Regardless, you want to examine your reference letters at the beginning of every academic year in order to make sure they are still applicable. As you do so, ask yourself these questions:

  • Does this reference still reflect who I am now as a student / volunteer / employee?
  • Have there been any significant changes since its creation that need to be included?
  • Have I built relationships with any faculty / employer / etc. that would make them a better reference when compared to those I am currently using?

Depending on your answers to these questions, you may require anything from an updated date to a completely new reference. Since you want to be respectful of a reference’s time, starting your review of your references early should allow your references plenty of time to update your letters before they are needed for your applications. The last thing you want to do is send an emergency email requesting an updated letter by day’s end.

Essays: When done properly, scholarship essays give your homogenous application staying power in the mind of the reader. Do not lose the opportunity to impress, by using the same essay over and over again. Be ready to constantly update and refine your essays as you gain new insights. But, to gain these insights, pay careful attention to your “ordinary” life. We often forget that one year of our life contains innumerable experiences and opportunities and each one of these may serve as the foundation for a great story, one that is uniquely suited to you.

As you can see from this list, with only a few months to go until the early deadlines of scholarship season, i.e. early November, you have a lot to get done in a short amount of time. Be sure to start soon, so that you are ready to compete with excellence. In my next post, I want to piggy-back off of the essay section of this post, demonstrating that everyone has a story, you just need to take the time to find what makes you different and the time to craft one that compels the board to grant you a scholarship.