Money Talks, So Should You

Q&A: How does the scholarship process work?

Erin Baehr
by Erin Baehr, NAPFA (@erinbaehr)

Just like in school, having an organized approach is important when applying for college scholarships. Keep a master list of scholarships you want to apply for, as well as the requirements and deadlines. You’ll want to check with the colleges you are considering and find out if they have a separate application process, or if by applying to the school itself you are automatically put into the scholarship pool.

Many of the scholarships will have requirements in common, like your transcript, recommendation letters, financial information or an essay. Make a file with as many of those documents as you have available ahead of time, and include things like the transcript request form from your guidance office in case you need to request official transcripts.

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Look through the essay requirements and see if there is a common theme you can use. What resonates with you? Is it a challenge you overcame? Or a special talent that drives you? That can be your scholarship “brand.” Creating one or two master essays around that theme will save you time and hone your message. Customize each essay to fit with the particular requirements and the mission of the sponsoring organization.

Note that even if you do not need a separate application for scholarships offered by your college, you may be required to complete the FAFSA (financial aid) form, regardless of your financial aid prospects. Be sure to ask the school. 

Put the application deadlines in your planner and mark out time to be sure to get them completed and sent in on time. With all you have going on in your senior year, time can get away from you, so think of this as a job with the prospect of a lump sum payoff. You’ll want to prioritize too; you are much more likely to win a local scholarship with a smaller pool of applicants than a national competition, so if it comes down to choosing, get the local application done. 

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Before sending out anything, ask a teacher or parent to proofread for you. Watch especially for the correct names; the Smith Organization probably won’t think so highly of a letter addressed to the Jones Organization! Get your list and check it twice to make sure you have all the required enclosures and have requested any documents that may need to come from the official source, like your high school transcript or recommendation letters, and have completed your FAFSA or other required financial aid forms. 

For scholarships that require an interview, just like with a job interview, preparation is key. Know the organization and what they are looking for in a recipient. Practice possible questions, and prepare to present yourself as the best candidate to represent their organization. Believe in yourself and have fun!  You may win some, you may lose some, but you won’t have a chance unless you get in the game. 


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Erin Baehr, CFP, is the owner of Baehr Family Financial, LLC. Baehr is a member of the National Association of Personal Finance Advisors (NAPFA), a fee-only professional association and a Dimespring knowledge partner.