There are ways to win scholarships, even if you speak Klingon or have so-so grades. The secret is to find scholarships that are right for you, then prepare and apply.
With more than 50 million people using his Fastweb scholarship-matching site over the past 15 years, creator Mark Kantrowitz seems to have the knack for helping students and their families reach scholarship sponsors.
There are scholarships available to everyone, at all ages, he says, and his first piece of advice: Start now. Begin researching the sponsors and the scholarships that you match, and complete an online profile with Fastweb.Kantrowitz suggests compiling accomplishments on a resume, along with hobbies, awards, volunteer activities or anything in your background that you think is significant. It's good preparation for writing a scholarship-application essay, and it can help teachers better know your interests, too.
"An accomplishments resume will remind you of elements of your background to use to complete the essay more thoroughly," Kantrowitz says. "It will also help you understand where you've been and where you're headed."
One scholarship recipient, Casey Primo, listed her dedication to marching band and interest in her Norwegian heritage. While preparing to apply, she continually built her resume and had others review it.
"You have to visualize the image you want to portray to scholarship committees and stick to it," Primo says. "By this, I mean you need to make it clear when you are applying for an athletic scholarship that you play sports well."
Primo graduated from Crescenta Valley High School in the Los Angeles mountain community of La Crescenta. She began her college education at Chapman University in 2006 but transferred to Cal State University Northridge after two years, when Chapman cut the music therapy program. She is in her last semester, working toward her bachelor's in music and starting her own business making baby apparel and mommy-friendly gear.
She was awarded scholarships from the Elks Lodge, Crescenta Valley Town Council and Montrose-Verdugo City Chamber of Commerce.
Ultimately, the process of applying comes down to persistence, organization and strategy, Kantrowitz says.
"You have to be able to deal with rejection because you are going to be rejected more than you are accepted," he says. "The more you apply, the better your chances are.
"I see some students run out of steam after their first three or four applications, and they say it's not worth the work," Kantrowitz says.
But it is -- and can be less work than you think. Writing essays for scholarships can be good practice for writing college essays, and students can revise their essays for each new application -- as long as they don't copy them word for word.
Only about one in 10 students will win a scholarship and most of them are talented in a specific area, says Kantrowitz, who also has written a book on the subject. And you don't have to be a member of a minority, or earn a high grade point average or perfect test scores.
"There's a myth that minority students win more scholarships than equally capable Caucasian students," he says. However, one minority group, Native Americans, does earn more scholarships, according to data from Fastweb.
Not all scholarship committees go by grades. But data also indicate that people who have above average ACT and SAT scores win twice as many scholarships as others.
"Very few scholarship programs actually look at your GPA," Kantrowitz says. "When they evaluate the awards, the winners are more likely to have better grades."
One way to get noticed is with an original, memorable essay, he says.
"Most scholarship essays that I've read are extremely boring," Kantrowitz says. "They are usually cookie cutter copies of each other. It's OK to be a little risky. The same topics are not going to win you an award. You want to stand out."
Write about topics that you know and are passionate about, he advises, but avoid controversial topics on which you and board members might disagree, such as gun control or abortion. You're likeliest to win a scholarship in the area where you have the strongest skills.
And you want all record of you online to be as spotless as your interview apparel. Google your name to see what's out there already, clean up your Facebook account and create an email address with your name, Kantrowitz says.
"You don't want to put out something that's going to haunt you later on in life."
Correction: This post was corrected on Feb. 16 to say that more than 50 million people have used the Fastweb scholarship-matching site over the past 15 years. This post had incorrectly said that $50 million in scholarships had been awarded through the site in that time. We regret the error.
Secrets to Winning a College Scholarship