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You Don't Have to Be a Straight-A Student to Get a Scholarship

10/07/2014 12:40 EDT | Updated 12/07/2014 05:59 EST
Dave and Les Jacobs via Getty Images

When you think of a typical scholarship winner, what kind of student comes to mind? Do you think of the student with straight As? Or the one who is involved in all the extracurricular activities? Or maybe you think of the star student athlete? These star students are often the ones that win the biggest scholarships. You read about them in your local paper and hear about them on the news. The problem is that these students' very public success gives people a false impression about scholarships.

As an applications and scholarship consultant, I meet students all the time who believe they have no chance of winning scholarships. Maybe they don't have the highest marks, or they haven't done a lot of extracurricular activities. They might apply for a few scholarships that are looking for the types of star students that I mentioned above and then they get discouraged when they don't receive anything.

Find the Pool of Money With Your Name on It

I like to tell these students that there are many different pools of scholarship money. Universities and colleges often have one pool of money that they use as a way to attract the very smartest students. They also often have another pool of money to help students who have financial need. Some schools want more leaders in their ranks and so have a pool of money for leadership scholarships. Other schools want people from diverse backgrounds and so have a pool of money to help those applicants. And that's not even starting on external scholarships where people offer awards for all kinds of things like being left-handed, tall, or even a D student.

What each student needs to do is find the scholarship pool that is right for them. Sometimes this is hard to remember since leadership scholarships and the marks-based scholarships are often the largest, and most talked about scholarships. Who wouldn't pay attention to a $70,000 scholarship like the TD Canada Trust Scholarship that I was a finalist for? $70,000 is a lot of money. But if you aren't that student who does all the extracurricular activities, then you're wasting your time and that could mean you miss out on other smaller scholarships that you have a much better chance of winning.

But Isn't Applying A Lot of Work?

There is a lot involved in a successful scholarship application. But if you create what I like to call a good scholarship story beforehand, you save a lot of time. Still, many scholarships will want you to write or submit very specific things and while you can often repurpose some parts of one scholarship application for another scholarship application, for a better chance of success it is best if you customize your application for each scholarship.

But consider these numbers. The average scholarship is $2,000 and generally you have to apply for 10 scholarships to win one award. Let's say applying for those 10 scholarships will take about 50 hours. How much would you earn per hour at that rate? You would earn $40 per hour. I don't know very many teenagers who can make that much per hour!

Also, if that money means that you need fewer student loans then you need to factor in the extra money in interest that you're saving. What's more, aside from just giving you money, scholarships are also great to put on your resume. Potential employers, graduate school admissions committees, and, yes, other scholarship committees love to see you've received other awards.

But, I Don't Have Time To Apply

Sure, applying for scholarships takes time. But if you start early and spread it out over the year, it doesn't need to consume all your time and energy. Scholarship deadlines come at different times, after all, so you could get by with only spending a few hours every week working on scholarship applications. Decide to commit to the process and apply for scholarships instead of watching TV one night, or playing video games. Or spend one or two lunch hours a week in the library at your school working. When I was applying for scholarships, I was also working two part-time jobs for a total of 20 hours per week, spending 10-15 hours a week doing volunteer work, and working hard to keep my grades up. But I started in the summer and I realized the importance of making time for scholarship applications. The key is to make it a priority.

But what if you didn't start in the summer like I did and now you're in the middle of the hustle and bustle of the school year and all your extra-curricular commitments? You can only work with the time you have so I would suggest spending as much time as possible getting the materials for your application ready. Want to go out with friends? Maybe skip this weekend. Your older self will thank you someday.

Then, you need to prioritize which scholarships to apply for. By devoting your time to the scholarships you have the highest chance of winning, you're far more likely to be successful and you'll waste less time applying for scholarships for which you would have a lower chance of success.

Why Scholarships Are Worth it

When I graduated debt-free with $40,000 in the bank, I had a lot of freedom. I wasn't tied down to paying off student loans and could do work that I was passionate about. Because I took jobs at small organizations that didn't pay very well but where I had a lot of responsibility, I was able to gain the experience I needed to quickly move ahead. I'm much farther along now in my career and make more money than if I had taken a better paying job when I graduated with less responsibility.

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