A Guide to Private Scholarships: How You Can Earn Money For College

Thursday, January 08, 2015

I recently received an email from someone working in the Wheaton Financial Aid department telling me that I brought in more private scholarships than most students they see.  She was asking me how this was possible because they're always working to make college affordable and she wanted to know my story so that it could potentially help other applying students.

I know all too well how everything adds up when you're studying to get a degree.  Tuition may cost a certain amount, but then there's room and board, meal plans, flights home and, of course, every student's favorite thing: buying textbooks. (Yes, some really do cost hundreds of dollars.)

But I've got a little secret for you.  The best way to earn scholarships often isn't though your college at all...especially if you go to a private school.  Most students (and parents) assume that they will only earn what their school of choice gives them.  They then miss out on the wonderful opportunities that exist through private scholarship organizations.

I'm here to tell you that with the right attitude and diligent hard work, you can make more money studying for your SATs and applying for scholarship competitions than you ever could by working a job all throughout high school.

Here's how.

The Prep Work:

1.Study for your SAT!! Take practice tests!  I lost count of how many times I actually took the SAT and ACT.  We ended up "super-scoring" my test scores. That means that if I did better in Math the first time but better in Reading Comprehension the second time, my school combined my highest scores in both categories together.  You can also decide if you're better at ACT or SAT - the ACT has Science and you're not penalized for missing a question and the SAT is more based on critical thinking skills.  But the best way to do well is to know how the test is structured. Buy the practice test books and utilize them.  Get the SAT question of the day sent directly to your email to stay sharp!

2. Have a resume.  You do not need to wait until you're job searching to have a resume. Keep it on file and have it ready at all times. If you haven't had much job experience, then include any awards or accomplishments, volunteer service, extracurriculars or special skills.  You will also need this resume for many scholarship applications.

3. Perfect your short bio application essay (less than 500 words).  Before you can start applying for private scholarships, you need to have your short bio paragraph ready. This is your time to shine and tell the judges about yourself and what makes you a good candidate for their competition.  Word of advice: do not over-emphasize other scholarships you have already won, as some organizations want to identify new potential winners.  

Example: As president of my Model UN club, I have a passion for foreign policy and I hope to pursue a degree in International Relations to prepare me for work as an ambassador.  In high school, I was the Secretary of Student Government while maintaining a 4.0 GPA and volunteering part time at the local VFW Association.  When I'm not reading the Washington Post or studying, I enjoy playing on the community tennis team and singing jazz.

4. Read voraciously. Dr. Seuss put it perfectly when he wrote: "The more that you read, the more things that you know. The more that you learn, the more places you'll go."  Reading deeply and widely will help you answer scholarship questions and will aid you in writing the necessary short answer essays on the standardized tests and on the grant application forms.

5. Gather letters of recommendation. It's helpful to go ahead and ask important people in your life to write a letter of recommendation for you.  Consider a wide range of people - teachers, pastors, coaches, mentors, employers etc.

The Process:

Great!  You have all your tools in place!!

Now what?

Don't be shy. Go for it.

Most of the scholarship opportunities you'll apply for will be online.  Sometimes you'll have to make an account with their websites - if you don't recognize the name of the organization, do some research to make sure that it's reputable and accredited.  The ones I'm going to share with you are well established and definitely trustworthy. 

The Scholarships:

Distinguished Young Women - Many of you probably know that I am quite a fan of this organization.  I walked away from DYW with $20,000 to be put towards Wheaton College, the school of my dreams.  This organization is for girls in their senior year of high school.  You compete in 5 categories: Fitness, Self Expression (onstage question), Talent, Interview and Scholastics.  Not only can this program help you gain money but it is also a thrilling experience and a wonderful opportunity to challenge yourself and to get involved in your community.  To sign up, just visit, click Participate, then Apply and they will put you in contact with your state director.

Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) - I also participated in this organization.  This program serves to educate young people about patriotism and the fundamental values of our nation.  You compete at several different levels in an essay competition: Post, Regional, State, National.  The competition is called "Voice of Democracy".

National Society of High School Scholars - This is an honors society that I joined as a senior after receiving an invitational letter.  They have monthly scholarships that you can apply for and some are quite simple. Not only is this a great way to earn money, but membership is also a great resume-builder.

National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) - This organization is for college athletes, so if you plan on taking your sport to school, look into the leadership programs, grants and scholarships with the NCAA.  There are multiple programs offered, including the $10,000 Jim McKay scholarship for sports communication. 

Siemens Foundation - Siemens offers both a merit scholarship and a national competition for math, science and technology.  You create a project and write a research report on your findings to be evaluated by a panel of judges in your selected field.  If you prefer science fairs to literary analysis, Siemens is the place for you.

Ayn Rand Institute - Every year, there is a great essay competition in honor of the magnificent writer and political thinker Ayn Rand.  The competition for Grade 12 - College is on her book Atlas Shrugged and the winner walks away with $20,000.  It's worth looking into. ;)

The Official College Board - This is the organization that releases the SAT. Through them, you can find online questions, study guides and other resourceful materials.  You can also find merit-based scholarships through private organizations. It's helpful to create a profile with the College Board and have them help you find the scholarships you want.

In just a handful of hours, you can apply for a plethora of scholarships.  Think about the possibilities! If you win one quick-draw $5,000 scholarship that probably took you only two-three hours to prepare for, you've just made over $1500 an hour.  

This is the kind of work that pays off.  This is the kind of work that pays for college.  Do your research, learn how to apply your strengths and how to apply yourself.  And if you're already in college, don't stop!  There are so many opportunities at your school and beyond to apply for and help you with your career plans!

With President of Wheaton College, Dr. Ryken

If you have any questions or comments to add on scholarships, please write in the comment box below - I'd love to hear from you.



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  1. I loved this post. I have a while until I start applying for college...Well, actually, I don't. I'm just telling myself that. In reality I have about three years. Ooh, yay! I already have a resume, although I'm sure I will be changing it over and over again in the years to come. Also, I agree that reading voraciously is extremely important. My dad told me that a professor once told him the key to getting into an Ivy League school is to read 100 books per year. I think that might have been an exaggeration, but the message behind that phrase definitely rings true. Thank you so much for the scholarship recommendation list. I sure will look into these.

    1. You definitely have time, Ana! But now is a great chance to start looking at the scholarships you want to pursue. And 100 books a year might be an exaggeration but the principle definitely still stands. Be sure to check out DYW and the local program in your state! Best wishes!

  2. That's so great you were able to do this! (And if that is your college in the first picture, so jealous! That place is gorgeous!) I completely agree with all of your tips and wish I knew about some of these organizations sooner. I'm really glad this is here to help others now though! I'm definitely with you on the SAT/ACT practice. One of my scholarships jumped from $2,500 to $7,500 just because of my ACT score. The first time I took it I got a 23 and was so discouraged but took more practice tests and then retook the actual test and got a 32! Practice definitely pays off.

    1. Thanks Alise! And that is my school in the photo - it's so picturesque, even covered in snow. It's great to hear how your scholarships jumped up because of test makes studying seem far more worthwhile. :)

  3. Congrats on all of your scholarships! That is a beautiful campus! Thanks for sharing all of this wonderful advice. I wish I'd known some of this when I helped my sister with her scholarships. She did pretty well on her own though.

    1. Thanks Molly! And I'm glad to hear that your sister did well - it's nice to see young students excelling and pursuing their goals :)