Five traits that will help you win outside scholarships

Outside scholarships are awards from private companies and foundations rather than from the colleges themselves. They typically require separate applications that can also include essays, letters of recommendation, and even interviews. While the majority of money that helps students pay for college comes from filing a FAFSA and applying for need-based financial aid, every extra monetary boost can help. If you’re applying for outside scholarships, here are five traits to demonstrate if you want to increase your odds of winning.

1. Matchmaking
Like choosing colleges where you’re a good fit, the best way to win scholarships is to apply for those you’re most likely to win. Use a free matching site like (never pay for a scholarship matching service—all that information is available for free). Answer their profile questions as thoroughly as possible to get more accurate matching results. And pay very close attention not just to the eligibility requirements, but also the descriptions of what types of students the organization is looking to honor. For example, a scholarship from the local fire department that’s intended for “a student who’s shown outstanding commitment to their community” is not going to go to someone who participated in just one blood drive. Match your accomplishments, strengths, goals, etc. to the scholarships intended to reward what you have to offer.

2. Passion
I write here often that passion is contagious. An admissions officer—or a scholarship reader—won’t care about what you’re sharing if you don’t care about it yourself. Don’t hide how much you love math, debate, or your church. Don’t restrain yourself from expressing just how much you care about helping the homeless, coaching youth baseball, or restoring old cars. The descriptions of these activities are the “what,” but the feelings behind them are the “why.” And the why—when it’s strong—is where the passion is.

3. Potential
Potential is promise that has not yet been fully realized. And coupled with the appropriate qualifications and passion, it’s an enticing trait for scholarship readers. I’ve written a past post about how to demonstrate potential as you progress through high school. Now that you’re applying for scholarships, use the same post to help you identify examples of potential worth sharing.

4. Ambition
Ambition is the “strong desire to achieve something, typically requiring determination and hard work.” The best way to express that ambition in a scholarship application is to focus not just on what you want to achieve, but also what you’re willing to do, and what you’ve already done to get there. Just saying that you want to be the CEO of a corporation someday is not ambition. But expressing that goal, then describing how you want to learn about business through both a major and internships while in college, then illustrating how many business books you’ve already read as a high school student while also working a part-time job and rising through the ranks to become an assistant manager at a local store–that’s ambition. See the difference?

5. Marketability
Outside scholarship providers want to highlight the students they reward (thereby not-so-subtly announcing that the provider has generously provided a scholarship). Presentation matters. Keep your online presence clean. Have a simple, intelligible outgoing message on your phone. If the application requires an interview, don’t show up in yoga pants and flip-flops. I’m not suggesting that outside scholarships go only to those students who look a certain way. But every little bit helps. So while you should always be yourself, and never apologize for that, there’s nothing wrong with bringing the best authentic version of yourself to the scholarship application process.