3 Scholarship Strategies That Worked for Me and Mine

By John Gardner

Dollar SignIt used to be that “March Madness” meant more than just basketball. The school would emphasize the mostly local scholarships that would be awarded and presented on “Achievement Night” toward the end of the school year. There is still a push in mid-spring, but the local Guidance Department now organizes scholarships by application due date and there is clearly a newer emphasis on working at the scholarship process throughout the (mostly) senior year.

As a high school teacher, I encourage students to go after all the scholarships available and too often hear responses like…

As a high school teacher, too often I hear variations of…..

“Everybody applies for that one.”“I don’t have the highest grades,
so what’s the point?”
“I’ll fill it out,
but I’m not going to spend
a lot of time on it.”

The PURPOSE of this post is to ENCOURAGE students (and parents) to implement 3 strategies as you go through “scholarship season”.

STRATEGY #1: Work harder and smarter. COMPETE to BEAT the competition.

My son David was applying for a “Fellowship” at the University of Pennsylvania, where he completed his PhD. A fellowship is similar to a ‘scholarship’ with generally bigger dollars. A fellowship is usually more like funding for a job. It would pay for a semester of teaching two Penn classes and a semester of research for his dissertation.

“The fellowship’s description clearly favored someone with 1 yr less experience than me. Knowing that, all things being equal, the fellowship would go to someone else, I determined to make sure things were not equal.

I devoted an entire week toward preparing my application. I knew few would spend that much time or commit that level of energy. Apparently it worked as they went outside their target group to pick me.”

Half way through his undergrad experience at Duke, David won a $32,000 scholarship for college expenses, including travel to potential grad schools.

Compete confidently.


In high school, he won a scholarship from the local ABWA (Women’s Association), whose literature said they give “preference” to a girl, but did not exclude guys. Also a $4000 from a Catholic organization even though he is not Catholic.

“I read the criteria for every scholarship.
If not specifically excluded, I applied.

There was a time during Spring Semester of high school senior year that our living room had numerous ‘stacks’ representing different scholarships. His attitude that scholarship season was that it was his ‘part-time job’ and he intended to make more money doing that than he would have made at a fast food restaurant job. He did.

Make scholarships worth your time and effort.


There is money out there. Part of the battle is finding it. Your high school Guidance Department probably has a listing. Here is a page from a local school Guidance Department page.

Scholarship providers are looking for LOTS of things, and grades are not always at the top of the list. They want achievers. Extracurricular involvement and community service indicate that you are a responsible person. Good reference letters from teachers are valuable. Hopefully you have cultivated and earned strong teacher advocates. Sometimes financial need is a factor. Memorial scholarships often focus on students pursuing particular majors.

Read about
How to get Good Reference Letters

Demographics can matter. There have been at least three people from our local high school accepted to a particular top-tier university in recent years. This school tends to attract students from wealthy east coast boarding schools — and from overseas…..but in trying to change that reputation/perception, some local students benefited. For example, they wanted to increase the percentage of white, public school mid-westerners in their “community”. Sometimes engineering schools want more girls while education departments may want more guys. As you write essays and complete applications, focus on and market your strengths. You are, after all, asking for someone to “buy you”. Why should they?

Going after scholarships can feel like the ice skater learning how to do the quad. They fall down and get hurt a lot before you see them nail it on TV. Go for the good scholarships. Go for all you can. Go hard. And don’t give up.

Dream, Focus, Follow and Never Give Up

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17 yrs experience as a high school band director. 14 yrs as college adjunct faculty. 30+ yrs in the fundraising industry and 24 yrs as a small business owner. (Don't add all those up.). Experience in both the fundraising sales and education worlds give me a unique combination of perspectives in both. I love working with the youthful enthusiasm of today's teenage achievers and with those who work with them. Also 4yrs as proprietor of VirtualMusicOffice.com, which offers a wide variety of virtual services including web/blog design/hosting/managing, social media management (scheduling posts/tweets for maximum impact and brand enhancement) and small business consulting - specializing in school product fundraising.

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