You sit at your desk, lamplight beaming down on your forehead, dripping sweat onto your keyboard. You look at the scholarship or college application on your screen, panicking- How am I going to stand out? What makes a scholarship application good vs. bad? Is there a correct way to fill out a college application? Is there anything I can do right now, filling out this application, that could make the difference between “Congratulations!” and “We’re sorry to inform you…”?
Yes, there is.
Even though there are thousands upon thousands of scholarships out there for every type of student imaginable, scholarship applications are all pretty similar. These scholarship applications are all made up of the same components, some of which can be tweaked to great effect. Many of these same components, while slightly different, also appear on college applications.
First, there are the things that cannot be tweaked. Your SAT score, GPA, and extra-curricular activities pretty much are what they are. Unless you lie when you’re filling out your applications (which we do not recommend!), there is now way to “improve” these categories for the purposes of your application. Sad, but true. Of course, you can study up for the SAT, work harder in school, and become more involved in your club, but that’s not what this post is about (a future post will look at SAT preparation). This post is about how to improve your college or scholarship application due in two weeks, not six months. So onto the good stuff…
Three important components of (most) applications are highly tweakable. Specifically, your essay, resumé, and, to a certain extent, teacher recommendation(s) can be developed to help your application reach full potential. A step-by-step guide:
1. Answer the prompt. The worst thing in the world is to write a great essay, but have it be completely off-topic. The entire time that you’re writing your essay, keep the prompt in mind. Every single sentence should, in some way, connect to the overall point you’re trying to make. Cut out anything that does not add to this point. If you do this, that 500 word limit suddenly might not seem so bad.
2. Don’t use a thesaurus. Okay, maybe use it once or twice. But my point- write the essay in your own voice. Don’t use words that you wouldn’t normally know the definition of, since you want the essay to read as a representation of yourself to the application reader. Plus, convoluted diction won’t mesh too well with that C in sophomore English.
3. Revise, then revise again. Don’t put all of the time into applying for a scholarship only to have a typo here and incorrect punctuation there. Look to correct simple word errors- then/than, there/their/they’re, etc.- and to break up that thirty word sentence. If you have errors, it will only show that you don’t care enough to put the time into your application to reread and revise. It helps to read your essay out-loud; by doing this, you can hear errors that you may overlook when reading silently to yourself.
4. Put the relevant stuff first. Resumés do not need to exist in a single, definitive form; rather, shuffle the order of items on your resumé to best fit what you’re applying for. If applying for a scholarship or program for environmental science majors, you should put that leadership role in the environmental club over your captainship of the tennis team. Don’t delete that you were captain, but think to yourself- what will they care about more?
5. Don’t leave out important details. So you’re a member of the history club? Cool. Unfortunately, this in and of itself is not impressive. I even underlined it for emphasis. Instead of leaving it at that, explain what you did with the history club. What were your responsibilities? Did you initiate any projects? How did you actually contribute to the club? Application readers for colleges and scholarship programs want to see depth in your involvement. Unfortunately, Woody Allen’s famous quote (“Eighty percent of success is showing up”) does not apply here.
6. Don’t add unimportant information. The other side of tip #5. If you were a member of the Key Club but did absolutely nothing over your high school career, spare this useless bit of information from your resumé (unless you have absolutely nothing else to put down instead, then, by all means). Instead, add detail to the descriptions of groups that you had an actual interest in.
The Teacher Recommendation
7. Fit the teacher to the application. This tip applies when you’re applying for a program in a specific department, or a scholarship with a narrower focus. Applying to a college’s competitive art program? Ask your fine arts teacher to write you a recommendation. A scholarship that has a strong emphasis on community service? Ask the teacher who advises a service-based club that you’re active in. Simple.
8. The longer you know them, the better. This one seems pretty self-explanatory. It’s always better to have a recommendation from a teacher you’ve taken 2 or 3 classes with versus a single course. This means they know you better, and thus will be able to write a stronger (more personalized) recommendation.
9. Go with core subject teachers. Let’s be real- if you’re applying for a general academic scholarship or general admission (not the type of application mentioned in tip #7), a glowing recommendation from your P.E. teacher might not be the most helpful. Instead, go with a recommendation from a teacher in a subject like biology, english, calculus, or world history. Bonus points if, as mentioned in tip #7, you intend to major in the subject that teacher taught.
10. Be courteous. This is meant in a number of ways. First off, be polite about asking your teacher for a recommendation by offering them an out. If, for whatever reason, they do not want to write you a recommendation, make sure they have the option of not doing it. After all, who would want a lackluster recommendation? This is the one spot where the application reader hears how great you are from someone other than yourself, so it’s pretty important to have a strong rec. Also, be courteous in the sense that you give your teachers enough time to write a recommendation. At the very least, try to give them two weeks, although preferably longer. You want their recommendation to be as well thought-out as possible, and this requires time.
This is by no means an exhaustive guide towards the perfect application (if such a thing exists!), but will hopefully serve as a good starting point. As always, questions and comments can be posted below!