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How to craft a winning scholarship application

Making yourself standout and staying on top of deadlines key to private school scholarships

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Scholarships are excellent opportunities to ease the financial expense of a private education. According to educational consultant Elaine Danson, more schools and their alumni are making scholarships available than ever before, and parents are taking advantage. The variety of merit-based awards available and the application process may seem intimidating, but understanding how best to apply can help a family's private school dreams become a reality.

(Learn about the difference between merit-based and needs-based awards here.)

When to start

Danson's top piece of advice is to start researching scholarships as soon as possible. Don't wait until acceptance into a school - inquiries about scholarships should be part of the research process. Many schools have strict deadlines on submissions, and sufficient time must be allotted for the sometimes lengthy application process. Scholarship information and deadlines can usually be found on the school's website or in their application package, but as private schools are known for fast-paced developments, it is better to go straight to the administrators.

To begin forming your shortlist of private schools, click here. And be sure to check out our scholarship finder -- schools and third-party organizations periodically add scholarships to that page.

What kinds of scholarships are available

There are countless scholarships out there that appeal to a variety of qualities in a potential student, much more than most parents even imagine says Danson. Entrance scholarships offer a tuition break for incoming students without a formal application, but others awards that target a student's academics ability, artistic or athletic skill or efforts in community service often do. Also, some scholarships provide only part of a school's annual tuition, while others completely cover all costs. Schools often offer several scholarships, but depending on their policies, families may be restricted to applying only to one. Large established schools will most likely have more financial opportunities than smaller and newer schools.

Read our free scholarship guide for more backgound information on merit-based scholarships.

Writing a great scholarship essay

A large part of a school's decision is based on a student essay describing who they are, what they've done and why they should receive the award. It's often the most difficult and time-consuming portion of the application. When writing a personal essay, students should tailor it to each specific school. What are they looking for? What qualities do they value? Why are they providing this money? And keep these questions in mind throughout the entire paper. Another tip is to be specific. Many students are "members" of clubs, but only a few take on a leadership role or make an outstanding accomplishment.

Committee members only know what is written down, so now is not the time to be bashful. But while details are important, essays should be succinct. Avoid repetition, and be creative whenever possible to make yourself stand out. Administrators must go through hundreds of these papers—so don't bore them! Finally, students should revise their essays repeatedly. Family, friends and current teachers are excellent resources to ensure the message is effectively conveyed, with an intriguing introduction, smooth transitions and a compelling conclusion. These are also the people who know the applicant best, so they can point out any missed opportunities to make their case.

What applications require

The application process is unique to each scholarship and school, but often details are key in applications, so read every outline carefully. For academic scholarships, records, transcripts, report cards and work samples from an applicant's current school may be requested, possibly along with an entrance exam. For skill-based scholarships, an audition or try-out may be necessary. For community service scholarships, Danson says a school may ask a student to give an impromptu speech or presentation on their commitment to education or experience in volunteer work. But in most cases, an application will require a personal essay demonstrating why they deserve the award.

Attend information seminars on financial aid, including scholarships and tax breaks, at any of the Private School Expos every fall. These one day events are a must for any parent or student considering an alternative education.

—Caroline Maga
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