by: Jimmy Chan (Schulich School of Business) and Michelle Osei (Richard Ivey School of Business)
Let’s get real. Post-secondary education is expensive and very few people have thousands of dollars just lying around the house. Most of us are in need of cash— preferably the type that you don’t have to pay back. In other words, we’re all searching for those coveted scholarships.
Recently, I’ve discovered that winning these scholarships is not a matter of luck or hard work. Rather, students who understand the secrets of scholarship writing are the ones who win big. For example, I was a sub-par student who barely made the 80% cut going into high school. By understanding the process behind winning – working similar hours as my classmates – I was fortunate to graduate with $74,500 in scholarships from over 14 organizations. Having recently met Michelle Osei, a student with a similar mindset that received a full-time scholarship to UWO, we’ve decided to collaborate to record these secrets down. So without further ado, here are the 9 secrets to winning $74,500 in scholarships!
Secret #1: Harness the “WOW” factor
Things appear more shocking the less you know about it. The following comparison explains this well: Andy tutors 8 students in Advance Functions and Calculus. James started a tutoring company at age 16 and employs 10 tutors. Who seems more impressive? Immediately after reading Andy’s profile, you can imagine how Andy tutors. Whether you have tutored or been tutored, I expect you are familiar with how this process works. But what comes across your mind when reading James’ accomplishment? Can you imagine a 16 year-old running a company with 10 employees? People would have a hard time understanding this process. And as psychology plays its role, people are impressed by what they can’t fully understand. Andy and James may work similar hours a week, but it is James who will graduate with a scholarship.
Secret #2: Avoid Conforming
Outside of tutoring, Andy and James (refer to tip 1) are also active in school. Andy leads multiple pep rallies and spirit events as student council president. James, with the support of David Suzuki, started an energy reduction program within the Peel Region – reaching ten thousand students. Andy’s accomplishments were typical for a Type-A student. His environment taught him that success means rising up in the hierarchy of student governance. All high school leaders are presidents of clubs, and being student council president is the most prestigious of all president roles. Having nowhere to expand, it is this system that contains Andy’s creative talents. James, on the other hand, set his sights outside the school system. He defied convention and reinvented success to what suited him. Unlike being a high school leader, James challenged himself to become a leader in the school board. He needed to network and find the right people to support him. There was no set trail to success. As such, James positioned himself in a route with limitless potential. He can build anything he envisions without the pressures of conformity. This is the beauty of working outside the system.
Secret #3: Show that you are a worthy investment
When it comes to giving away money, organizations like to know that their money is going to good use. A great tactic to secure that scholarship is to give the review board an idea of where their money is going in the long term. This is the extra bit that can separate you from the rest of the keeners. Telling them about your program choice or career aspirations are “nice” but it’s not awe-inspiring. Paint them a picture of the future you plan to build for yourself and don’t be afraid to talk about how some additional funding could play into that plan. Most importantly, be sure to mention how you plan to give back to your community in the future. Make the review board feel as if investing in you would be an excellent way to keep the cycle of “Paying It Forward” going.
However, it is important to be realistic. Don’t make yourself out to be a hopeless dreamer. When it comes to money, people tend to favour practicality, so be realistic about your visions. You can make your plans seem more feasible by talking about the specific goals you plan to accomplish or the results you’re aiming to produce. Again, think tangible and measurable.
Secret #4: Play the Right Cards
This is all about knowing your audience. It’s absolutely essential that you do some research on the company or organization that’s offering the scholarship. You need to figure out what’s important to them and use this information to fine-tune your application. This does not mean that you should throw in a bunch of lies about who you are and what you’ve done to make yourself appealing. It means that you should scroll through your golden list of accomplishments and emphasize the ones that will have the biggest impact on your potential sponsors. You simply have to figure out which cards to play.
If it turns out that you’ve done nothing relevant to the interests of these sponsors, you’ll have to get clever. The trick here is to repaint situations in an entirely different light. For example, imagine that you’re applying for a scholarship from an environment activist group. If you’re trying to write about that one time you led your social justice committee through a fundraiser that pulled in $10 000, think about every aspect of the endeavour and figure out what you can emphasize as being the most important.
It might be the fact that you made the decision to serve food on reusable plates instead of the disposable plastic kind, thus reducing the event’s waste production by 30%. Or it could be that you plan to use a small portion of the $10 000 to help fund the next event, which just so happens to be an environment protection initiative. It’s absolutely crucial that you don’t lie, though.
Lies always have a way of backfiring. Just find the seemingly irrelevant nuggets of truth and turn them into diamonds. You’ll have to be very specific about your wording to be successful.
This is a highly strategic process because the sponsoring organization doesn’t always make it explicitly clear what they find important and what they’re looking for in a potential recipient. You may get a list of qualifications but that’s definitely not a rubric; it’s just the minimum requirements. The next few tips can help you decide what they’re looking for.
Secret #5: Play the Numbers Game
Did you know there are hundreds of scholarships each year that are left unawarded? Or that some of the most prestigious scholarships are given to less deserving candidates because no one else applied?
It’s weird how our mind works. The idea of rejection produces stress chemicals even before any effort is made. People shy away from anything that may make them vulnerable. But just know that rejection is a part of the game.
Personal note: succeeding in the long term requires continuous rejections. I received 14 different scholarships upon graduation– but also got rejected from 36 others.
Secret #6: Show Off
Scholarship applications are one of the only chances you’ll ever get to unabashedly show off… and potentially be rewarded for it too! In fact, showing off is absolutely necessary because you’re going to be up against some stiff competition, and I can guarantee you that no one else is holding back. There’s no room for modesty here; save that bit for the interview, which you’ll only get if you put your best foot forward.
Keep in mind that nothing impresses review boards more than tangible or measurable results. Think about it: would you be more impressed by someone who said that they started their own social justice club or by someone who said that they started their own social justice club, recruited 30 members, and raised $10 000 within a month for a local charity? The answer is obvious. Showing that you can produce results is impressive in almost any given situation. You’ll often have a word limit so make use of it as best as possible. Instead of briefly explaining the six clubs and committees that you were a part of, talk about 3 and discuss the results that you produced. Remember, you’re expected to show off, so take advantage of this opportunity!
Secret #7: Forget about passion. Pick a theme and stick with it!
Make it a point to ignore anyone who tells you that you need to be passionate to succeed. Think about it… you have many friends passionate about video games… but how many make it their success story? Here’s the truth: success takes hard work in an area that can produce startling results. In other words, give others no other choice but be impressed by what you do. This is best done by focusing work around a theme. Leveraging connections and knowledge around that theme then becomes nature. Only by focusing your efforts can you produce results. Be picky when accepting
responsibilities and always centered your work around one topic. Once you have a theme, you will find work much easier as you can connect current tasks with past experiences.
Secret #8: Take a Note from the Reigning Champions
Writing a killer application becomes a lot easier when you know what the review board is looking for. The absolute best way to grab some hints is by thoroughly analyzing the past recipients. Luckily, most organizations provide a brief profile of the previous year’s recipient which features a summary of their past experiences and accomplishments.
You might be able to spot some patterns or noticeable traits that you can incorporate into your own application. For example, when applying for a rather large scholarship, I carefully studied the profiles of the past recipients and I noticed that every single person had some experience with entrepreneurship. The experiences themselves were incredibly diverse but in each case, the individual had taken the lead on the launch of the organization or company. It became clear to me that the review board was rather fond of innovation and action-taking. This had a major impact on the angle that I took when writing my application.
If you’re unlucky and you find yourself with a simple list of past recipients as opposed to a series of profiles, there’s no need to worry. With tools like Facebook and LinkedIn, it’s relatively simple to do some general research on these students. They’re likely to be A-Type keeners so a quick Google search might even reveal some newspaper articles that could give you some hints. And if anything, you can always do some good old-fashioned networking and find a way to contact these individuals for a bit of advice.
Secret #9: Look For Tips In The Right Places
When conducting research on the sponsoring club or organization, exhaust your resources by looking for information in unconventional places. Go beyond the website’s mission statement and take a look at some of their past projects and events. Go even further and look at some of their affiliates and partnerships. All of these will reveal little tidbits of information about the values that the organization holds in the highest regard. For example, if you’ve done volunteer work for a charity that the sponsoring organization is closely affiliated with, you should take advantage of this linkage and emphasize that experience. With the Internet at your fingertips, it should be relatively simple to trace these linkages. It may take a great deal of time and effort but the rewards it could potentially yield are definitely worth it.