How to Win a Merit Scholarship
This page provides advice on how to maximize your chances of winning a merit scholarship. It talks about searching for scholarships, getting organized, advanced preparation, writing winning essays, getting good letters of recommendation, and acing the scholarship interview.
Merit scholarships are typically awarded on the basis of academic, athletic or artistic merit, in addition to special interests. Some merit scholarships also consider financial need, but rewarding talent is the primary objective.
In most cases the scholarship sponsor has a set of criteria they use to select the winners from among the qualified applicants. (This is in contrast to scholarship lotteries which select winners randomly.) So a key to winning a scholarship is to identify the sponsor's criteria and tailor your application to those criteria.
The first step is to make sure you qualify for the scholarship. If the application requirements specify that you must have a 3.7 or higher GPA and you have a 3.6 GPA, don't bother applying. Most scholarship sponsors receive so many qualified applications that they do not have the time to consider applications that fail to satisfy the requirements. You may be a wonderful and talented person, but if your application is not qualified, the selection committee is not going to look at it.
On the other hand, if you barely miss the application requirements, you should try to improve until you qualify. For example, if you have a 3.6 GPA and the award requires a 3.7 GPA to apply, you could try working hard in school to improve your grades until you achieve a 3.7 GPA. This is why it is worthwhile to search for scholarships as soon as possible. Many awards also have prerequisites, such as requiring a portfolio of your work or a project report, that can take time to prepare.
The FastWeb scholarship search will only show you awards that match your profile. FastWeb has the tightest match of any scholarship database, so you're less likely to waste time on awards for which you aren't qualified.
As noted previously, all scholarship sponsors receive more qualified applications than they have awards available. The most competitive scholarships have a selection ratio of 1 in 400. The least competitive awards have a selection ratio of 1 in 10. According to the 2003-2004 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study, 6.7% of undergraduate students receive private sector scholarships, and the average amount received is about $2,000. That means that your raw odds of winning a scholarship are 1 in 15.
But scholarship sponsors aren't going to give you money simply for breathing. They want to give money to the most talented qualified applicant. So to maximize your chances of winning the award, you need to identify the criteria they will use to select the winner. Sometimes the sponsor has published the criteria they use. Sometimes you have to critique your application from the sponsor's perspective.
You can help your odds of winning by applying for less competitive scholarships, such as local awards. For example, college juniors and seniors have a better chance of winning a scholarship, since fewer upperclassmen apply for scholarships. But don't neglect the more competitive national scholarships, since these also tend to be more lucrative.
It is important to remember that scholarship sponsors are evaluating applications, not applicants. You need to ensure that your application and the supporting materials contain all the relevant information the committee needs to evaluate your candidacy. The committee only knows what your application and your letters of recommendations tell it. Write an application that highlights the aspects of your background that match the sponsor's goals.
Additional tips for maximizing your chances of winning a scholarship fall into several broad categories:
See also Fastweb's two-page quick reference guide on winning a scholarship for the top twelve tips on winning a scholarship, common scholarship application mistakes and a variety of top ten scholarship lists. Additional insider insights and advice on finding and winning scholarships can be found in Fastweb's new book, Secrets to Winning a Scholarship, which is available on Amazon.com for $5.95 (Kindle) or $9.95 (paperback).
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