By Paul Culp, MA (Oxon.), CFT, GCDF, CCSP

We’ve just been taking inventory at The Coaching Educator, and we’ve found that since we instituted this blog about nine months ago, nearly a third of our posts have had directly to do with financial aid and college costs. In our effort to be a trusted source of information on all things collegiate, we have also written about the applications and admissions process, college preparedness, student health concerns, habits that contribute to academic success, and how to interview well, among other things—but we always keep coming back to money.

As we pointed out in An Arm and a Leg and Your Firstborn Child: Why College Costs So Much (September 6, 2018) the cost of college increased 1,128 percent over a span of about thirty years, considerably outpacing even food and medical care. What this means for most people is that it’s no longer possible to fund a college education by combining a part-time job during the school year with a summer job and perhaps a fiscal assist from parents. We established in More than Half of American College Students Leave Without a Degree (September 8, 2018) that the crushing cost of college and the pressure of combining work with school are simply too much for a great many students who otherwise could expect to perform well in college. Financial aid therefore is crucial, and if you can get a scholarship instead of a loan—in other words, if you don’t have to pay back the money and therefore can escape the infamous college debt trap—so much the better. But as with the admissions process itself, being strategic is de rigueur. We’ve already written about Ten Common Mistakes You Must Avoid in Applying for College (August 31, 2018), and now we consider some of the errors students are most likely to commit in seeking scholarships.

1. Not starting early enough

A surprising number of families don’t initiate the scholarship hunt until sometime after receiving letters of acceptance from colleges. By all means keep applying for aid as the admissions offers come in, but that’s awfully late to start. Many counselors and consultants maintain that junior year is the time to begin, but our position is that there’s no such thing as starting too early. Scholarship opportunities for underclassmen are plentiful, and for that matter even middle school and elementary students can begin raking in the loot. We’ve encountered scholarship competitions that are open to kindergartners. Just think what a kid like Mozart or Pascal could do nowadays.

2. Being dismissive of small scholarships

With college costs ever escalating, it’s understandable that many families think in terms of the big strike, of one or two lucrative scholarships that will solve all or most of their problems, but it’s essential not to ignore the small scholarships that can add up to large savings. That’s one reason why it’s important to start early, because the most realistic hope for many people would be a combination of small aid packages assembled over a considerable time. The lesser awards are more plentiful, and they often are less competitive, so they’re well worth pursuing in quantity. Remember, if you’re concentrating solely on the big payouts because one or two of them will cover all your costs, untold thousands of other people have had the same idea, and the competition for those large awards will be fierce. However…

3. Emphasizing quantity over quality

The pursuit of multiple small scholarships should not result in the attitude that if you sling enough manure against the side of the barn, some of it will stick. Bombarding the world with applications for lower-paying scholarships is not a viable substitute for the strategic pursuit of more lucrative ones.

4. Missing deadlines

As John Greenleaf Whittier said, ““Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: ‘It might have been.’” We add this corollary: “Your scholarship hopes will soon be gone if your pretty little head is solid bone.”

Blown deadlines should never happen. This is an area in which the applicant is entirely in control. The Coaching Educator strongly recommends using an old-fashioned paper calendar to track deadlines of all kinds throughout the process of applying for admissions and financial aid. We also warn against going down to the wire. A power outage, a computer breakdown, a website malfunction, an illness, or a family emergency could thwart the timely submission of an application. If you must submit it on the last day, make sure you coordinate your efforts with the time zone of the recipient.

5. Applying when not eligible

Scholarship-granting entities are serious about their requirements, so applicants should read carefully. There’s no point in consuming time and energy on an application that will merely be eliminated as a matter of course.

6. Taking a narrow view of sources

Using your imagination is essential, because scholarships originate with an impressive variety of donors. As we explained in Types of Financial Aid: A Very Short Primer (September 4, 2018), “Benefactors offer partial and full scholarships in recognition of academic performance, athletic prowess, ethnicity, political interests, business ambitions, artistic talent, and community service, among other criteria.” The possibilities are endless and sometimes bizarre (see The Odds Are Good But the Goods Are Odd: 16 Unusual Scholarships, October 12, 2018).

Many students think strictly in terms of major donors operating at the national level, but local sources can be highly fruitful, with less competition. Employers—of the student or his/her parents—often sponsor financial aid programs, as do labor unions. Local and state charities and foundations also take an interest in making higher education affordable to students worthy of assistance. Taking the broad view can yield impressive results.

7. Failure to follow instructions

Scholarship applications are similar to admissions applications in that the process itself acts as a winnowing agent. Just as some people lack the detail-consciousness to excel in college, a fact that becomes apparent to admissions officers reading their applications, students applying for scholarships may demonstrate through carelessness or ineptitude that they do not represent a wise application of the donor’s largesse. The directions for how to apply are not negotiable, and the failure to fill in all the blanks or submit all supporting documents can result in an application being discarded unread. Failure to observe word limits may also be fatal to your prospects: If the essay prompt says “500 to 700 words,” that means 500 to 700, not 368 to 1,342. As with deadlines, fidelity to instructions is an area in which the applicant controls his or her own destiny.

8. Failure to proofread

No form or document of any importance should ever be sent on its way without thorough proofreading. Lapses in spelling, grammar, and punctuation create a bad impression even in this dispiriting era of declining standards. (Ironically, colleges and scholarship sponsors often commit grammatical errors in their essay prompts.) We have even encountered unintentional obscenities in our students’ work, which is simultaneously good for a laugh and cause for alarm. It’s the sort of thing we catch and rectify, but the students ought to have beaten us to it. The best course of action is to combine self-proofreading with careful scrutiny by an educated adult.

9. Failure to customize

We at The Coaching Educator hail the copy-and-paste function. We love it like penicillin or the fork. The cry goes round the battlements, “Rebecca and Leigh and Paul acknowledge no peers in their admiration of copying and pasting!” But we are mature enough to love responsibly. Not everyone is.

The process of applying for college and scholarships is long, arduous, and often dull, and the ability to recycle mundane information efficiently is an inestimable boon. Therefore we encourage the judicious reuse of essays or portions thereof—but the “judicious” part is crucial, because each essay must read like a direct response to the prompt, not like something you’ve re-purposed and fiddled into a role to which it is not really suited. This fools no one. What is especially self-destructive is when you decide to plug new names into a re-purposed essay and then forget to do so. If you tell the Lions why you deserve a scholarship from the Elks, you’re almost certain to be rejected, having wasted your time pondering questions to which there are no antlers.

10. Falling for scams

Scholarships are about getting money, not spending it. If a supposed scholarship source asks for an application fee, or a redemption fee without which the funds will not be released, run fast and run far. If you are notified of winning something for which you never applied, treat it as you would one of those emails from some fellow in Nigeria offering to make your financial dreams come true. Be wary also of giving out your personal information, as some scholarship scammers have as their sole objective the acquisition of the details necessary for identity theft. Others just want to drive traffic to their websites.

The Coaching Educator has amassed a decade of experience helping students avoid mishaps, get into and succeed at the right college—and find the means of paying for it.To learn more about our philosophy and capabilities, be sure to watch our free webinars, listen to our podcasts, sign up for our four-week College App Boot Camp, consider our Ultimate Programs and our special services for athletes and performing-arts students, and book a consultation to hear what we can do for you and how we do it. Keep reading this blog, and look for us on social media (see links below) as we keep our clients and admirers advised of new developments in our effort to help students get into and succeed at the right school.

Paul Culp is certified as a global career development facilitator and writes about college admissions, college costs, financial aid, and college life in general for The Coaching Educator team. A former journalist and corporate ghostwriter, he has also been a humanities teacher at all levels from university down to sixth grade. Paul has degrees from Oxford University, Jacksonville State University, and Samford University, and also is certified as a fitness trainer.

Credits, References, and Recommended Reading About College Admissions and Scholarships

Images: Mozart by Anonymous, beggar by Paul Culp, elk by Sean Xu.

Culp, Paul. “An Arm and a Leg and Your First-born Child: Why College Costs So Much,” The Coaching Educator, 6 September 2018, http://tce.local/2018/09/06/an-arm-and-a-leg-and-your-first-born-child-why-college-costs-so-much/

Culp, Paul. “Eat Your Alphabet Soup: FAFSA, EFC, COA, and Other Delights,” The Coaching Educator, 6 November 2018, http://tce.local/2018/11/06/eat-your-alphabet-soup-fafsa-efc-coa-and-other-delights/

Culp, Paul. “More Than Half of American College Students Leave Without a Degree. Here’s Why,” The Coaching Educator, 8 September 2018, http://tce.local/2018/09/08/more-than-half-of-american-college-students-leave-without-a-degree-heres-why/

Culp, Paul. “Not So Fast, Part 2: When Scholarships Get Taken Away,” The Coaching Educator, http://tce.local/2019/02/20/not-so-fast-part-ii-why-scholarships-get-taken-away/

Culp, Paul. “The Odds Are Good But the Goods Are Odd: 16 Unusual Scholarships,” The Coaching Educator, 12 October 2018, http://tce.local/2018/10/12/the-odds-are-good-but-the-goods-are-odd-16-unusual-scholarships/

Culp, Paul “Part 2: The Odds Are Good But the Goods Are Odd: 10 More Unusual Scholarships,” The Coaching Educator, http://tce.local/2019/03/20/part-2-the-odds-are-good-but-the-goods-are-odd-10-more-unusual-scholarships/

Culp, Paul. “Ten Common Mistakes You Must Avoid in Applying for College,” The Coaching Educator, 31 August 2018, http://tce.local/2018/08/31/ten-common-mistakes-you-must-avoid-in-applying-for-college/

Culp, Paul. “Types of Financial Aid: A Very Short Primer,” The Coaching Educator, 14 September 2018, http://tce.local/2018/09/14/types-of-financial-aid-a-very-short-primer/

Ourada, Allison. “How to Avoid Common Scholarship Application Mistakes,” Education Quest Foundation, 1 October 2015,

Velasco, Jessica. “12 Scholarship Scams to Avoid,” JLV College Counseling, 23 October 2017,

Velasco, Jessica. “15 Common Scholarship Mistakes,” JLV College Counseling, 12 February 2018,

Wignall, Allison. “Mistakes Students Make While Applying For Scholarships and How to Avoid Them,” College Raptor, 19 July 2018,

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