How Financial Aid Applications Work

Completing the Application Process

Many scholarship applications require you to write an essay. It may be in the form of a personal statement, or it may be one or a series of questions requiring essay answers. Sometimes, the essay may be the entire basis of the award. For example, the United States Institute of Peace offers up to $10,000 in scholarship money for the best essay on topics such as "Governance, Corruption and Conflict" [source: USIP].

Some scholarship competitions involve making videos rather than writing essays. For example, the Bridgestone Safety Scholars contest offers a $5,000 scholarship for the best video about automobile safety [source: Bridgestone Safety Scholars].

Know what the judges are looking for. Usually, they want the entry to give a sense of how well you can organize and express your ideas. Start with an outline -- don't rely on a stream-of-consciousness approach. Your personal statement should provide a good picture of who you are, with a strong emphasis on your talents and passions.

You might also want to begin thinking in advance about responses for some of the most common essay questions, such as the following:

  • What are your educational and career goals?
  • How will you use your skills to give back to the community?
  • Why is community service important?
  • What person or event most influenced you?

Apply the principles of good writing, and keep in mind that the judges will be reading hundreds of similar essays. Try to make yours stand out by grabbing the reader's attention in the first paragraph and using specific details and vivid examples. Keep it focused.

Pay close attention to the criteria: Always stay within the minimum and maximum length, and provide the information in the format requested. You should write several drafts and carefully proofread the final one. Pass it on to a teacher or parent to critique before you send it.

Another important step toward completing your application may be to obtain letters of recommendation. You'll want to ask for one from an adult who's not related to you but who knows you well. It could be a teacher, job supervisor or community leader. Make sure the person likes you and is willing to take the time to write. If you can, choose someone relevant to the award -- a science teacher to recommend you for an engineering scholarship, for example.

No one likes to be rushed, so ask for the recommendation several weeks in advance. Also, give the person your resume, even if he or she knows you well. The information will make it easier for the person to write the letter and avoid errors. About 10 days before the deadline, call the person to see whether the recommendation has been sent.

On the next page, you'll learn about applying for a student loan.