In 2007, when I was getting ready to fill out college applications, admission officers were asking what makes you special? Getting into college and finding funding were more challenging with schools focusing on boosting their selectivity ratings. Facing fierce competition, students were forced to hone their applications and essays to demonstrate exactly how they would be an asset to the school.

The same general principle applies now to scholarship applicants. With hundreds of potentially qualified applicants competing for the funding you want and need, how do you distinguish yourself as the best choice for the award?

For this first post in the Scholarship Applications that Win series, I have offered a few preliminary ideas for making your application stand out:

1.   Think like the committee

Whacking out a standard resume that you can apply to any situation is not the best choice if you want scholarship selection committees to add you to their semi-finalist pile.

It’s important to think about what the committee is looking for:

Applying for an arts scholarship?

-Highlight the fact that you designed your yearbook cover and designed the set for your high school’s production of Annie.

Looking at applying for a leadership in service scholarship?

-Write about your initiative to help your school improve their recycling procedures or the way you got your sports team to volunteer for the annual Walk for Life event.

Thinking in terms of your goal about the activities you’re already doing will help you tailor your accomplishments to your audience.

2.   Don’t take shortcuts

While it might be tempting to shortcut your application by mentioning only leadership roles on that application for that “Emerging Leaders” scholarship, showing that you have multiple interests and giving the committee an accurate picture of who you are as a person is important.

Involved in a sport?

An after-school club?

Community activities?

Make sure the committee can see all of your major commitments clearly in your resume or application. Highlight your leadership experience and any specific contributions you’ve made to the group.

The same goes for essays – don’t try to whip out an essay in an hour or two the night the application is due. Take the time to tailor your answer to what the committee is looking for. Always revise and have someone else who will be really honest with you look it over and give their feedback.

3.   Be a real person

In a world where parents and guardians push their protégés to be at the top of the pile in everything they do, make sure your personality and goals shine through in your resume profile, personal statement, or essays. Give some thought to who you are; what makes you, you; and what your long- and short-term goals are.

Scholarship committees want to fund dreamers who have demonstrated grit

-stick with something and see it through even if it’s difficult

-don’t jump ship even if something else seems more fun

-choosing to be involved in anything will eventually force you to say ‘no’ to something else – this is one way to prove that you are committed and can achieve the goals you set for yourself.

The committee wants to know how this specific scholarship will contribute to your plans for the future – thinking this through will not only help you write materials that set your application apart, it will also help you prepare for an interview or a secondary selection round.

4.   Take responsibility for recommendations

Many scholarships, particularly larger ones, require recommendations from a teacher, mentor, or someone similar. Ideally, you will be able to ask a few teachers and administrators who know you well and can write a personal recommendation.

Here are some things to think about when asking for a recommendation:

– It is your job to make sure that the letter or form gets turned in. Period. If they don’t get your recommendation in on time, you cannot blame them or anyone else.

-Ask well in advance. You should give your recommenders at least a month’s notice and remind them again two weeks and one week before the deadline.

-Make sure recommenders have the documents and information they need; including links to forms, specific information about the type of scholarship and the deadline, a copy of your completed resume so they don’t have to rack their brain about what you have been involved in, and anything else that might be helpful.

If you don’t have close relationships with teachers or faculty members, don’t despair. You can prepare a sample recommendation letter and request a recommendation from a teacher or faculty member in whose class you have done well. Once again, make sure you are on top of reminding that person about the deadlines and that you give them all the information they need to write as personal a letter as possible.

Why Apply for Scholarships at all?

While it may seem like applying for scholarships takes a lot of time without much guarantee of success, investing in crafting excellent, tailored applications will increase your chances of earning money. In my experience, students who think like the committee and tailor their applications to each scholarship can see an estimated eight percentage point advantage over students applying with a one-size-fits-all resume, cover letter, essay combo.

A Note to Parents and Teachers

Please don’t succumb to the temptation of filling out applications on behalf of your student(s). Besides robbing them of an opportunity to grow in responsibility and as an emerging adult, having a personal and financial investment in their education is linked to student success, persistence, and successful graduation.

I know that for parents or guardians especially, the pull is strong – you understand that scholarships are an opportunity for your student to get through college without incurring crippling debt. And if you have offered or agreed to help the student fund their education, it can be incredibly difficult not to submit applications for students or threaten them with reneging on your offer. However, for the student’s long-term benefit, the best thing to do is to talk through the importance of scholarships with your student and then, if applicable, make an agreement that rests on the student helping to fund part of the overall cost, whether by working or via scholarships.

You can always assign them some reading to help get the conversation going – check out The Only Way to Pay for College Parts 1 and 2.