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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.

Tip #1: Find the scholarship

Finding scholarships can be challenging, and many students get hung up here by how many opportunities are out there and the number of applicants with whom they are competing. ThisWayToCPA’s scholarship search engine makes it easy to find scholarships specifically for accounting majors. You can also try other free sources of information to find money for school, such as your state CPA society, college financial aid office, and the U.S. Department of Labor’s scholarship search tool.

Tip #2: Look professional

How others perceive you online is just as important as writing a compelling application essay. Ensure your online identity is communicating a positive perception by auditing your online presence. Start with removing any inappropriate material from your social media profiles. Haven’t updated your email address since middle school? Get a separate account for official business. The same goes for your voicemail recording: professionalism matters. 

Don’t stop there – thoroughly review your application for proper grammar. If you upload any supporting documents, keep the file names professional.

Tip #3: Choose references wisely

If the scholarship you are applying to requires a letter of recommendation, you will want to carefully consider who to ask as your reference. It’s best practice to select a professor or a professional contact, such as your club advisor, leader of your community volunteer organization or internship supervisor, who can vouch for your work ethic, intellect, and ability.

Try these strategies to improve your chances of getting a “yes” from your potential reference:

  • Ask in person if possible - it will show that you're truly committed. If that can't happen, pick up the phone and call. Use email as a last resort. 
  • Provide as much information as possible. What program are you applying for? Can the reference be completed online or should they write a letter? What’s the due date? It’s also good to send them your resume to remind them of your experience and 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 time and effort.

Tip #4: Know your audience

Scholarship providers often are awarding financial support based on professional or personal passions. To set yourself up for the best opportunity to succeed, research the organization or individual whose funding the scholarship and why they're interested in helping students. Read their mission statement to identify keywords and incorporate those into your application. 

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.

If the information isn't easily accessible on the organization's website, call the organization to gain clarity. 

Tip #5: Be passionate

The essay portion of the application is the opportunity to distinguish yourself as an individual with unique interests and abilities. Here are a few prompts you may expect to answer: 

  • What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
  • 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?

Be authentic. Talk about your favorite high school teacher that inspired you to pursue accounting. Describe the joy that you feel overseeing the finances for your environmental club. Writing about something you're passionate about will not only be easier for you to write, but it will also be easier for the reviewer to read. While it may be simple to get carried away with your essay(s), don't forget to adhere to the word count requirement. 

Tip #6: Proofread, proofread, proofread

Spell-check is a useful tool, but it will not save you from writing "effect" when you meant "affect". And that can affect your success here. Find at least one proofreader, preferably someone with some editing or writing experience. Ask your English professor, your peer, and even a family member to review your essays. Some colleges and universities also offer writing centers as a free resource for students. It's always beneficial to have multiple perspectives. 

Tip #7: Submit your application early 

Most scholarships have strict deadlines - avoid missing them by submitting your application early. Some programs allow changes up to the deadline so that you can edit or add anything you missed before it's too late. Applying early also means you'll prepare for problems that may arise with the site, the internet connection, or your computer. 

Tip #8: Say thank you

A polite email or hand-written thank you note, expressing gratitude for the reviewer taking time to review your application will go a long way. 

Tip #9: Stay in touch 

Earning a scholarship can be an excellent networking tool. Like anyone else, organizations and their board of directors like to see a return on their investment. Stay in touch; let them know that they made the right decision to invest in your education. You might be surprised how much additional assistance they can provide down the road. 

Ready to start putting these tips into practice? Start applying to scholarships today.


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