Earning a college scholarship is hard enough these days.
To win free money for college, you have to outshine the competition, demonstrate why you’re deserving of an award – and impress scholarship judges with some aspect of your background, personality, credentials or experiences.
Unfortunately, many potentially deserving students accidentally sink their scholarship applications by making certain common – yet completely preventable – blunders.
Here are four fatal mistakes that will kill any chance you might have of winning a college scholarship.
Mistake #1: Missing a deadline
This slip-up should be obvious. However, every year countless students blow their opportunity to earn scholarship dollars simply because the students failed to meet some stated deadline.
Scholarship deadlines come in many forms.
There’s the application deadline. Sometimes there’s a deadline just to register for a scholarship or to request an application. Then there may be separate deadlines by which you need to submit supplementary materials, such as letters of recommendation or official transcripts.
As if all that weren’t enough, some scholarships have time-specific deadlines.
For instance, if a scholarship has an online application and the instructions require you to upload your application by 5:00 pm Eastern Time on March 1st – that doesn’t give you until 5:01 pm. Even being one minute late can doom your application!
So do yourself a favor: don’t cut it too close when turning in scholarship applications. Apply early rather than “right on time” – or even worse, late. Take into consideration mail processing times for anything sent via the U.S. Postal Service. Above all: take extra care to organize and keep track of all your scholarship applications, so that you know each and every pending deadline.
Otherwise, you run the risk of putting a lot of work into a scholarship application, only to have a scholarship committee not even consider you – just because you didn’t apply in a timely manner.
Mistake #2: Disregarding the rules
Another fatal mistake that will send your scholarship application into the trash bin is blatantly disregarding the rules that a college or scholarship-granting organization has clearly outlined.
For example, if the scholarship application states, “Submit a maximum of two recommendation letters,” don’t submit three or four letters.
When a scholarship calls for “an essay of 500 words or less,” don’t push it by writing an essay of 650 words – or even 505 words.
And please, whatever you do: don’t make the horrendous mistake of turning in extra documents and supporting items that were specifically prohibited.
I understand why students often get tempted to send in such “extra” materials.
Maybe you think that additional documentation – like newspaper articles about you, artwork you’ve created, or various photos and videos – will really “wow” the scholarship committee and help impress the judges.
Some of you might even believe that by going “above and beyond” what was asked for, your extra paraphernalia will better demonstrate your scholarship worthiness.
But this is definitely a case where less really is more.
Most likely, going “above and beyond” will just backfire in several ways.
First, you’re giving the judges extra work to do: they either have to evaluate your supplemental materials, or trash them. Both options take added time and effort, which could frustrate some judges.
Additionally, some scholarship providers may balk at reviewing additional items, on the grounds that it would be unfair to other student applicants who didn’t submit such materials because they followed the established guidelines.
Another possible pitfall: committee members may see all your extra materials as a sign of excess or overkill at best – or as a sign of desperation on your part, at worst.
Finally, by throwing in items that you were expressly told not to include, you will likely make the scholarship judges think that you can’t follow simple instructions. Why should they reward you with scholarship money when other students played by the rules?
Mistake #3: Ignoring the qualification guidelines
Applying for scholarships when it’s obvious that you don’t meet specific, required criteria is not only a waste of your time and the scholarship committee’s, it’s also a sure-fire way to get a scholarship rejection.
It’s one thing to stretch the bounds of being “eligible” for one scholarship or another – if you can show why you might reasonably be deemed eligible, especially when you don’t appear to be at first blush.
Let’s assume, for instance, that a scholarship is intended for Native Americans and your parents are White. But since one or more of your Grandparents were Native American, and you’ve immersed yourself in Native American culture, ritual and traditions your whole life, you feel you can legitimately call yourself part Native American. Again, this is just an example.
However, it’s an entirely different matter when students try to win scholarships that are clearly earmarked for specific applicants and the students applying don’t even come close to being eligible.
Here are a few illustrations:
- high school sophomores or juniors who apply for scholarships that definitively declare that they are available only to high school seniors; that’s a flat-out no-no
- middle-class or wealthy students who apply for scholarships that specify that selected winners must come from low-income households, as evidenced via previous tax records, paycheck stubs, etc.; unless there is some extreme, easily documented extenuating circumstance, the wealthy student won’t be eligible;
- out-of-state students who apply for scholarships designated as being open only to in-state students; one look at the out-of-towners’ zip code, state, school or long-distance phone number, and it’s curtains for the non-resident applicants
Again, in each of these cases, the applicants mentioned above are doing themselves a disservice by even applying. In all likelihood, once the scholarship personnel discover something that disqualifies the applicant, that person’s scholarship submission won’t get any further consideration.
Mistake #4: Being boring
This last error is one that, sadly, many scholarship applicants commit without ever actually realizing it.
Instead of writing creative, one-of-a-kind essays that reflect their personalities or that offer a unique spin on something, plenty of students opt instead to stick with “safe” subjects or say what they think scholarship committees might want to hear.
But think carefully about the duties and responsibilities of scholarship committee members. They spent countless hours poring over dozens, sometimes hundreds or potentially even thousands of applications. After a while, all the applicants can easily seem to blend together.
So if your scholarship application has no sizzle, if it’s bland and fails to be memorable, well, that’s the kiss of death.
You must find a way to differentiate yourself from the horde of other applicants vying for the same scholarship funds you seek. Standing out from the crowd can come from the anecdotes you tell about yourself, from the personal stories that your teachers tell about you, or even from the compelling way that you package yourself overall: not just part of you, but all of you — yes, warts and all.
Done properly, that kind of scholarship application is the exact opposite of boring. Besides, being boring never won anybody a scholarship.