In my four years at the UCLA Scholarship Resource Center (SRC), I must have given my introductory workshop about how to perform effective scholarship searches online to thousands of parents, students, and prospective students. Every time that I picked up the phone, gave campus presentations, or faced someone who had just walked into my office and heard the same question: “Do you have a list of scholarships for me?” And I always smiled and said, “No, but let me tell you how to make your own personalized list.”
These workshops and initial discussions lasted anywhere from 20-60 minutes. In my sessions, I saw many eyes glaze over with anxiety, and I encouraged several people to make follow-up appointments. Plenty of students started the process, and stuck with it through a few applications. But it was rare for me to encounter students who truly took on the challenge, integrating the legwork into their regular schedule, which meant they also became part of my weekly or monthly life.
In my work at the SRC, several students became my “scholarship ninjas.” These individuals carefully considered the tools, methods, and skills that I shared with them, consistently put in the work, and blew it out of the park.
Jin: A scholarship success story
One of these ninjas, Jin (a pseudonym), came to my office for the first time during his freshman year of college. Like many people who wandered our way, Jin was panicked. Due to his family’s income, he did not qualify for any financial aid. But a tense relationship with his parents had created extremely limited access to their financial support. So, despite not qualifying for aid, and being claimed as a dependent on his parents’ tax returns, Jin was responsible for the full in-state cost of attendance at UCLA, which totaled $34,000 per year.
As I talked through the broad landscape of scholarships with Jin, I saw familiar tears of overwhelm form as he realized the kind of commitment it would take to pursue $34,000 worth of scholarships. And then Jin shed his tears, thanked me for the information, and got to work.
The importance of persistence in applying for scholarships
Over the course of two years, I worked with Jin almost weekly. The first year was rough, and he received disappointing rejections from many organizations. For more than one extremely competitive scholarship, he made it all the way to the finalist rounds, but was ultimately not selected as a recipient. Those were probably the worst phone calls of the year, for both of us.
The rejections were, of course, painful. But along the way, we saw several smaller scholarships come in, some in the hundreds of dollars, a few in the thousands, and Jin just kept applying. By the end of the first year he had covered a little under half of the cost of attendance for his sophomore year with scholarships. Jin also pursued work opportunities on campus that significantly reduced the cost of housing.
The scholarship process can take years of hard work
After the summer, Jin returned for his sophomore year and continued his application efforts. Based on the previous year, he recalibrated his internet searches. As he gained confidence in understanding which opportunities were the most relevant to him, his personalized master list of scholarships began to shrink. He reapplied to one of the extremely competitive scholarships that had previously rejected him, made it through to the finalist round, and was selected as a scholarship recipient.
Along with several small wins, that competitive and renewable1 scholarship enabled Jin to fund all remaining needs for his junior and senior years of college. After two years of intense, strategic, and continuous work, he was suddenly done. As a result of that work, he also ended up with a portfolio of written materials about his life and future goals. He made sure to save all of that for graduate school applications. There is no doubt in my mind that Jin will get into graduate school and receive at least partial funding for his future studies.
Scholarship work literally pays off
I have learned a lot from students like Jin, and I’ve grown to appreciate their willingness to share their stories over and over again, despite rejection. It’s an intensely personal exercise to put oneself through, and it is an exercise that is ultimately required by the rising cost of education in the United States. But these students have taught me that this is an exercise worth doing for reasons that go far beyond the reduction of student debt.
As with any type of success, the ability to win scholarships comes from the intentional and self-driven development of resilience and confidence.
The most successful students that I work with have actively adjusted their expectations, approached the scholarship process as a chance to develop long-term strategies, routines, and habits, and have frequently engaged in processes of self-reflection.
What are the 7 habits of scholarship success?
Here are seven habits that these students formed in order to achieve success with scholarships:
- They played the long game.
Even though these students, like Jin, were overwhelmed at first, they learned to think about the scholarship search and application process as a long-term commitment. Over time, every hour that they set aside to navigate the internet, write essays, or request letters of recommendation contributed to their self-knowledge, sense of community, and confidence.
- They became extremely knowledgeable about available campus resources.
As they sought opportunities related to funding their degree-based goals, these students became extremely familiar with campus opportunities to engage in research, clinical experiences, create hands-on engineering projects, and work with the greater Los Angeles community. That meant that these students learned how to navigate the campus for a variety of experiences that greatly enhanced their time in college, regardless of whether or not each of these experiences came with a scholarship.
- They generated and regularly updated a valuable portfolio of written materials.
Even when they were not actively applying to scholarships, my students habitually updated their resumes, CVs, and personal narratives of their accomplishments as they progressed towards their degrees. When new scholarship opportunities, potential internships, and research roles revealed themselves, these students were instantly prepared to share documents that clearly displayed their eligibility to be considered as qualified candidates.
- They carefully organized and integrated a list of scholarship deadlines into their busy student schedules.
Staying organized allowed these students to benefit from their previous work. They kept clear records of the scholarships that they had already considered, crossed off of their lists, and applied to. By the end of one annual cycle, these students already had a calendar full of deadlines for the following year, and they treated the application process as part of their regular routines.
- They learned how to think outside of the box.
Once they learned how to manage their time and find scholarships, my students regularly broadened their search techniques. When searches started to feel repetitive or unsuccessful, they reassessed and changed their strategies.
- They applied to scholarships frequently.
Rather than set their hopes on winning one dream scholarship that could solve all of their financial woes in one fell swoop, these students applied to as many scholarships as they could without compromising their studies and well-being. Through the practice of tailoring each set of application materials to the specific scholarship opportunity, my students improved their personal essays, proposals, and short summaries with every new opportunity.
- They made time for self-reflection.
As part of their routines, these students actively reflected on the relationship between their ongoing activities and aspirations. By regularly writing down thoughts about their future goals as they evolved, my students were open to a changing vision of their trajectory. This allowed these students to be more comfortable with writing a variety of confident proposals, and gracefully overcome multiple rejections.
They also reflected on how their work habits changed over time, and identified the strategies that worked best for them. Over time these students developed a resilience that allowed them to continuously improve, and pursue their goals regardless of the potential for negative outcomes.
You, too, can develop these habits and win the scholarships you need to make your educational dreams a reality. Check out our Graduate School Consulting Services and work one-on-one with an experienced advisor who will guide you to scholarship success or help you with any other element of the graduate school admissions process. Learn more here.Want Rebecca to help you get Accepted? Click here to get in touch!
• 5 Fatal Flaws to Avoid in Your Grad School Statement of Purpose, a free guide
• Awards! Grants! Scholarships! Oh My! a podcast episode
• Why are Scholarships SO HARD to Find?
1 Renewable scholarships are rare. This type of award is wonderful to win because the foundations that create them have decided to select students at any point in their degrees, and then commit to providing financial support for these students through graduation. Most scholarships are paid out one year at a time, without the opportunity to automatically renew. This means that students should be applying and reapplying to scholarships every year if they want to maintain the same award amount.