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Acing the scholarship process

From applications to thank-you notes

Applying for a scholarship is a lot like applying to a college – the exact process often varies, and you want to read the directions carefully. One scholarship may be all about your GPA, while the next is more interested in your extracurriculars. Knowing the priorities going in can keep your application on track.

Here are some tips to help with the application process – and find yourself with extra cash for books.

Tip #1: Find the scholarship

Obvious, right? You’d think so, but many seekers get hung up here. If you’re an accounting major, it’s easy – start with ThisWayToCPA’s scholarship search engine. Then contact your state CPA society and college financial aid office. Believe us: Financial aid is out there.

Tip #2: Show a professional face

The people reviewing your application are people. As such, they’d like to get to know you a bit through what you submit. But TMI is still a risk – you still want to sound like the refined professional. That means no email addresses like “portajonjeff” or “foxymama212.” Get a separate account for official business if you need to. The same goes for your voicemail recording and social media profiles: professionalism matters. There are thousands of dollars on the line here.

Tip #3: References: choose wisely, ask nicely

You get to decide who to ask to serve as your references or write recommendation letters on your behalf. You likely won’t see the letters they write about you, nor should you ask to. So make sure you think carefully when choosing references. And not grandma, either. Go with a professor, perhaps, or a professional contact who can vouch for your work ethic, intellect and ability.

Got your references figured out? Time for the approach. This isn’t as scary as you might think – reviewers generally like to see you’re making strides in networking and establishing connections with professionals. Besides, there are easy ways to improve your chances of getting a “yes”:

  • Ask in person if possible. You’re always more charming in person, even if you’re nervous. 
  • If that can’t happen, pick up the phone and call. Use email only as a last resort OR choose another reference.
  • Provide as much information as possible. What program are you applying for? Can the reference be done online or should they write a letter? What’s the due date? It’s also good to send them your resume, for background and to highlight your strengths.
  • Say thank you! Once they agree, send the individual a handwritten note or email to let them know you are grateful for their effort.

Tip #4: Know your audience

Of course you have to know yourself pretty well – you’re painting a compelling portrait of your talents, after all. Just as important, though, are the people on the other side of the page. What will convince them you deserve of their support? Start by confirming who funds the scholarship, and move on to finding out why they’re interested in helping students.

At the AICPA, for example, we offer several scholarships with different purposes, for students from high school to grad school. But overall, as the American Institute of CPAs, we want to help accounting students who want to be CPAs. It’s part research and part common sense. If all else fails, call the organization to get more information.

Tip #5: Life experiences MATTER TOO

You’ve been around on this earth for a while now, and you’ve got stories to tell. 

  • What (other than school) do you enjoy doing?
  • What experiences have shaped you as a person?
  • Have you traveled to another country? Speak any foreign languages?
  • Are you a refugee? The first in your family to attend college?
  • What have your leadership activities, honors, internships taught you?

For most of us, it’s a little weird, getting touchy feely on paper to a complete stranger. A dry account about Career Stability and Earning Potential is much easier to write, and many do just that. Which is why yours can stand out – was there a favorite high school teacher who turned you onto accounting? Sing their praises. Quirky works: If you’re enraptured by the beauty in the structure of the Accounting Equation, come out and say so.

Tip #6: Proofread

Spell-check is great but it will not save you from writing “effect” when you meant “affect.” And that can definitely affect your success here. Find a proofreader, preferably someone with some editing or writing experience. (Time to befriend those English majors.) Offer to trade some accounting-homework help, or even tax-time rescuing, for a thorough review.

Tip #7: Say thank you and stay in touch

Nothing says “I deserve scholarship money” like a polite email or thank you note expressing gratitude for the reviewer taking time to review your application. Earning a scholarship can be an excellent networking tool. Like anyone else, organizations and boards like to see a return on their investment. Stay in touch; let them know how smart they were to help you on your way. You might be surprised how much additional assistance they can provide down the road.

And there you have it. Seven straightforward steps to going after a scholarship – or a whole bunch of them – the smart way. Good luck in your quest, and for your next step why not check out dozens of scholarships that could give you something to aim for?


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