When I first started teaching students at UCLA how to search effectively for scholarships online, I strongly encouraged students to sign up for Unigo, a profile-based scholarship database. Together, students and I would sit down and discuss strategies for filling out profiles as comprehensively as possible. All too frequently I found myself reminding students to take their time exploring the various categories, keywords, interests, communities, and future goals listed on the database.
Why students love scholarship databases
Students love the idea of a customized database. By allowing users to fill out an individual profile, Unigo promises to match students with relevant scholarships, thereby answering the most popular question among scholarship seekers: “Where can I find scholarships that are perfect for me?” But most people rush through the process of building a profile so they can get to the list of scholarships as soon as possible. In doing so, users miss out on the promised value of databases like Unigo, which collects words from the user’s profile to generate keyword searches that produce a relevant list of opportunities. If you rush through creating your profile, you’re missing out on the only thing that makes a database more effective than a Google search. So it’s important to develop your own search terms before you open one of these accounts.
Why these databases aren’t enough
Towards the end of my four years working as a counselor at the UCLA Scholarship Resource Center, I decided that scholarship databases should not serve as the central source of opportunities for those who seek scholarships. Ultimately, I noticed that students who relied too heavily on apps and databases built unfocussed and relatively passive approaches to the process of finding, applying for, and winning scholarships. The most important attributes of successful scholarship seekers included persistence, creativity, consistency, and a sense of personal control over their processes.
If you are not proactive in managing your engagement with the tools offered by databases, you will add unnecessary clutter to your email inbox and daily cell phone push notifications, and lose a sense of ownership over the process. Many of my students signed up for databases, quickly got sick of all the emails, and quit. To make sure this doesn’t happen to you, put most of your energy into developing a personal strategy and treat databases as supplementary tools that can add new perspectives to your regular scholarship searches.
How to make the most of your scholarship database search
Here are some suggestions for you to build a strategic approach to using scholarship databases.
- Select only one database to work with at first.
Consider functionality and transparency over all else.
There are many scholarship databases on the internet and they all have different goals, organizational tactics, and levels accuracy. If you’re just getting started, I suggest that you work with Unigo which organizes opportunities by deadline or Sallie Mae which specializes in scholarships for graduate school. The clear business strategy for both of these companies is to host their own scholarships, provide lists of other opportunities, and connect students with unsubsidized or private student loans.
To attract students who might eventually need private loans, these companies have created accurate and useful content regarding financial planning for college, scholarships, and financial resources.
- Make sure you fill out the profile as comprehensively as possible.
Spend at least one hour making your profile, and make sure that you read through all of the possible categories and options.
I suggest that you spend time brainstorming about yourself and your “key search terms” before you open an account with any of the available scholarship databases. Then you’ll be prepared to assess the many categories and options that you will have to sort through in order to set up a useful profile.
- Thoughtfully control settings related to how the database communicates with you.
You only need one type of notification from the database. To make sure that you devote focused time to the effort of analyzing opportunities on a weekly basis, I suggest that you adjust your settings to receive bundled notifications in a weekly email from the database. If you choose email, make sure that you use filters and labels to direct messages away from your inbox and directly into a “Funding” folder.
I’ve noticed that students who elect to receive text messages, push notifications, or inbox emails from scholarship databases on a daily basis usually forget to follow-up with each new opportunity. Then they have trouble figuring out which notifications have and have not been considered. Direct all automated notifications to one organized place so that when you sit down for your weekly scholarship session, you’ll know exactly where to find related information.
- Strategically analyze the opportunities that are available to you before you engage with them.
Whenever you discover an opportunity that is interesting to you, track down a link or website that allows you to view the original source, which should include up-to-date, and accurate information. This step will most likely require you to leave the database where you initially found out about the opportunity.
There are plenty of opportunities that are characterized as raffles, sweepstakes, or participation in networks through the building of profiles. Here are a couple of reasons not to apply to these types of opportunities merely because they appear to have the easiest application processes:
• The “easier” it is to apply to a scholarship, the harder it is to win. This is because far more applicants will do what is easy before they will put the intellectual work in to write a competitive application essay. With opportunities like these, your chances of winning are actually pretty slim.
• If there is no required essay or clear community-based component to the competition, it is unlikely that a human being will actually review and evaluate your materials. You want your application to be read by a real human audience, not an automated one. Most of the opportunities that include “giveaways” are in the business of collecting data, so chances are that the “application” or “profile” that you fill out is part of a profit-minded strategy to collect information specific to your age demographic.
• While these opportunities are not necessarily “scams,” they are not scholarships that are awarded based on you, your accomplishments, communities, or goals. So, the content that you produce for them won’t be useful to you in other contexts. Ideally, any written content that you produce for a scholarship opportunity will be relevant to more than one application. Since your chance of actually getting a scholarship is low, and the likelihood of your being able to reuse the content is next to nil, the chances that you are wasting your time are high.
- Only apply to opportunities that require you to write a persuasive essay of some kind.
The persuasive written pieces that you compose for scholarship opportunities should either be related to a topic you truly care about, or require a detailed story about you, your accomplishments, communities, and future goals. If you stick with this rule when it comes to your writing efforts, then you can be more strategic about using your time.
Let’s say that you decide to write an essay about a topic that you don’t really care about, just because you found a related essay contest. In this case, you are probably competing with someone who truly does care about the topic, and chances are that person will write a stronger essay.
Furthermore, if you write about a topic that you do care about, you will more easily identify multiple organizations or communities that are also invested in this topic. Ideally, you will find ways to submit your topic or community-based writing to more than one competition. Finally, if you write an essay about yourself, your accomplishments, communities, and goals then you are building content that you will be able to use and adapt over-and-over again. Most scholarship organizations want to know about you, so the more practice that you get writing about yourself, the stronger your story will become.
- Spend additional time assessing opportunities that require you to pay a fee to join an organization before becoming eligible to apply for a related scholarship.
There are a lot of organizations, databases, and opportunities that require applicants to pay dues or make a payment in order to become eligible for related scholarships. One example is the Golden Key Scholarship organization. I generally discourage students from applying to opportunities that require any kind of payment. There are so many free scholarship options that unless there is a real affinity between you and the organization requiring payment, it simply makes sense to start with the free scholarship opportunities first. However if a legitimate organization offers large scholarships to their members, and membership confers benefits that appeal to you even if you don’t get the award – you should consider joining.
Before you make any payments to join communities as part of your search for scholarships, ask yourself these three questions:
A. Does the organization provide profiles about previous scholarship recipients? If so, are these recipient profiles up to date? Can you find a list of last year’s winning students?
By analyzing the way that the organization celebrates its annual winners, you will get a sense of whether or not they stand behind their mission to support students both financially and professionally. If you can’t find any profiles of recent winners on the organization’s website, I recommend against joining.
B. What other benefits do you receive with membership? Would those benefits satisfy you even if you did not win an award?
If you would like to be part of the organization even without winning a scholarship, it’s probably worth paying to join the community. Ideally, the organization can communicate the various activities, networks, and benefits that you gain by joining. If it can’t, do not join.
C. Does the mission of the scholarship-providing organization match up with something specific to you, your accomplishments, communities, or goals?
It should be relatively easy for you to find the mission statement and history of any organization that offers scholarships to its members. If you can’t find out which person or company started the scholarship program and why, then do not join. Furthermore, even though an organization may not be able to generate community activities, events, or networks, if its clearly stated mission includes specific research interests, or community goals that are aligned with yours, it may still be a good idea to join and apply.
In these cases, carefully weigh the specificity of the mission statement against the cost of joining. If the stated mission of the organization truly aligns with your career and personal goals in unique ways, then making it to a finalist round or winning a scholarship from the organization might grant you entry into a prestigious community.
Overall, scholarship databases are a useful tool to assist you in searching for opportunities. If you are proactive and use them to supplement your overarching search strategy, then you will familiarize yourself with what’s out there. Rather than depend on these databases to do all of the work for you, use them every once in a while to expand your ongoing search for institutions, individuals, and organizations that support various aspects of you, your accomplishments, communities, and future goals.
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• 5 Fatal Flaws to Avoid in Your Grad School Statement of Purpose, a free guide
• Sallie Mae: Student Loans with Options and Flexibility, a podcast episode
• 7 Habits of Highly Effective Scholarship Seekers