Scholarships and Grants

How to get a top-notch letter of recommendation

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Letters of recommendation can help your school and scholarship applications stand out. They bring your application to life and illustrate who you are as a student and person. Asking someone to write a letter can be nerve-racking, but here are tips for a smooth, respectful request:

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  1. Pick the right person. Approach someone who knows you well. A letter from the local mayor might be impressive, but if she’s your neighbor’s cousin’s workout buddy, that’s a flimsy connection. Choose a person who knows, personally, why you are a good candidate. A teacher you’ve known for years or an extracurricular advisor is a good option, but you don’t have to limit yourself to school. A religious leader or the organizer of a community project where you volunteered can also provide strong recommendations on your behalf.
  2. Ask early. Don’t wait until the end of the semester to request a letter. Teachers and other school professionals are often flooded with requests at that time. Request it early, and give them plenty of time to complete it.
  3. Ask in person. If possible, pop the question in person and explain what the letter will be used for and when you need it. Make sure the person knows why you are asking them. Say something along the lines of, “I really enjoyed taking your class this year and I feel that you know me pretty well now. Would you mind writing me a letter of recommendation for a University of Iowa history scholarship? I’ll need it by March 31.”
  4. Give them everything they need. Make your letter writer’s life easier and send them all the details they need. Spell it out for them. Is there a word or page limit? Do you need more than one letter? Do they need to submit the letter online? Send them the scholarship description and highlight characteristics and achievements you think they could attest to. Most people want you to have exactly what you need to be successful.
  5. Send a handwritten thank you note. Your letter writer is probably busy and went out of their way to help you. Let them know how much you appreciate their time and effort.

Spring checkup on your college plans

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Winter is on its way out, and we’re not sorry to see it go! We’re ready for melting snow and rising temps. As you welcome signs of spring, now is also a great time to do a status check on your college plans:

If you’re a junior in high school …

  • Sign up to take a college entrance exam. The SAT registration deadline is tomorrow (February 28) to test on March 10. The ACT registration deadline is March 9 to test on April 14. Taking these tests in your junior year leaves you plenty of time to retake them if you want to try to boost your score.
  • Narrow down your list of possible colleges, and schedule campus visits. If you’re traveling over spring break, think about adding a visit to your itinerary.
  • Look up “priority deadlines” for schools where you plan to apply, and start a list. You don’t want to miss these deadlines during your senior year. Filing late can actually decrease your chances of getting financial aid. “Your Course to College” includes priority deadlines for every college and university in Iowa, and it’s free.

If you’re a senior in high school …

  • File your FAFSA! Priority deadlines vary for different schools and different financial aid programs, but March 1 is a very common date. Filing before a priority deadline will increase your chances of getting financial aid.
  • By now, you should have applied to the school(s) of your choice. If not, don’t panic. Some schools have rolling deadlines, which means the admissions office considers applications as they come in instead of setting a single deadline. Check with any schools where you plan to apply to see if your window is still open.
  • Get ready for acceptance and award letters! These will start landing in late March and early April. Most schools will expect you to make a commitment around May 1.
  • Don’t slack off in your studies, even after you’re accepted. Your college will ask for a final transcript that includes all your high school grades.

What’s the Iowa Financial Aid Application?

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If you’re a senior in high school, you’re probably hearing a lot about the FAFSA. But there’s another application that should be on your radar, too.

By completing the FAFSA, you’re applying for most forms of federal and state financial aid. When you finish the FAFSA, you’ll see a prompt asking if you want to complete the Iowa Financial Aid application as well. Say yes.

That prompt actually leads to something called the “Eligibility Wizard,” a short series of simple questions to determine whether you might be eligible for additional state aid. If you’re not eligible, you’re done. If you meet initial eligibility requirements, you’ll see instructions to continue the application process for those additional grants and scholarships.

Did you already say no to the Iowa Financial Aid Application? You can find it here. It’s worth the few minutes it takes.

How to spot a scholarship scam

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Fraudulent organizations sometimes pose as legitimate agencies willing to help with scholarship searches. They often guarantee you a scholarship or promise to do all the work for you for a fee. The Federal Trade Commission advises students to be cautious of these red flags for scholarship and FAFSA scams:

  • “The scholarship is guaranteed or your money back.”
  • “We just need your credit card or bank account number to hold this scholarship.”
  • “We’ll do all the work. You just pay a processing fee.”
  • “The scholarship will cost some money.”
  • “You’ve been selected by a ‘national foundation’ to receive a scholarship.”

Busting scholarship myths

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“I won’t qualify.”

That’s the No. 1 reason students don’t apply for scholarships—and they’re often very wrong. Today we’re going to bust some common myths.

MYTH: I’d have to be a genius or a star athlete to get any money.
REALITY: Academics and athletics are just two among many criteria that could earn you a scholarship. Some awards are based or service or leadership. Others go to students who take part in certain organizations or activities. (Iowa has a scholarship just for participants in the Iowa State Fair.) Some companies offer scholarships to the children of employees. Many scholarships are downright quirky. Do a search on Unigo and you’ll find awards for students who answer questions like “What flavor ice cream would you like to be?”

MYTH: I’ll have to write dozens of different essays.
REALITY: You can’t turn in the exact same essay for every scholarship application, but you’re likely to see some common themes in the questions, like accepting challenges or embracing new ways of thinking. Save each essay that you submit, then look for sections that can be repurposed. Just make sure you do enough reworking to answer the question being asked.

MYTH: No one with any pull will give me a recommendation.
REALITY: Your recommendations don’t have to come from “big names.” In fact, choosing someone well-known can backfire if that person doesn’t really know you. You need a recommendation from someone who understands your strengths and can offer specific examples that illustrate them. Talk to the teacher of a class you enjoyed or the advisor for an activity you took part in. What a person can say about you is much more important than his or her name recognition.

MYTH: There’s so little money available, it’s a waste of time.
REALITY: There are billions of dollars available every year. Some of that money actually goes unclaimed because not enough people apply for it. Check with your high school counselor and your college financial aid office. Do a Web search for scholarships that might suit you, whether you’re a bassoon player or a comic artist or an aspiring funeral director. The money is out there.

Winning application strategies

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We’re hitting deadline season for college and scholarship applications, but you don’t need to panic. Here are some quick tips:

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Apply to more than one school. Yes, you should have a “safety school,” but also try for a “stretch school.” Some students are surprised when they’re accepted at a school they thought was out of their reach. You can’t truly compare costs of different schools until you have award letters from those schools in hand. An expensive school might end up being the most affordable option if it offers a generous financial aid package.

Apply for more than one scholarship. You can improve your odds by expanding your search. Some scholarships actually have trouble giving away all their available money because they don’t get enough applicants. Talk to counselors, teachers, coaches and mentors about scholarship possibilities.

Put some effort into your essays. These are a chance to distinguish yourself, so take your time. Make sure your essay relates to the question, and back up what you say with specific examples. Don’t just list your accomplishments. Show that you’re capable of growing and learning from challenges. Proofread at least twice, then ask someone else to read behind you.

Sell your actual strengths. Don’t exaggerate or lie. Think about the things that you truly do well, and focus on those. Having trouble identifying your best areas? Ask an adult close to you, “What makes you proud of me?”

Be sure to submit. You should see a confirmation screen or receive a confirmation email when you’re done.

Personal Connection is Key for College Apps, Says Drake Professor

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College Application Month focuses on encouraging students to take the first step toward their future by completing their college application. But for many students and families the process of what makes a good application can seem a mystery.

Once students have found a school that seems a good match, completing the application and essay that goes with it can be a stressful process that, when done well, can help a student stand out from the pack. But how to do that? Drake University professor Jeff Inman serves as an interviewer and application reviewer for some of the school’s most prestigious scholarships, but even he admits that the upcoming application process his 15-year-old son will be undertaking in a few short years can be daunting.


To better help students and families gain focus on the process, he offers some advice on what makes a student’s college application stand out:

While I am always impressed with the resumes of the applying students, many of who are so busy I always wonder if they have to go without sleep to get everything done, it’s the essay that really solidifies the standouts for me. Those students who don’t just answer the question, but tell a story, really catch my eye. They don’t just talk about a fictional character they relate to or a quote they are inspired by. They find a moment in their life, an epiphany they had, or a failure they learned from and relate it to the question. To me, that shows they not only understand the essence of the question but also can make the kind of connections college demands of them. That said, typos undermine everything.

As with other educators, Inman also thinks that students who limit their college search to just one application are putting themselves at a disadvantage.

There are benefits from filling out multiple applications. There are lots of amazing schools out there where students will have a great experience, learn amazing things, and grow as people. I might be in the minority here, but I don’t feel there is one perfect school for any student. So apply to the schools you feel comfortable at, provide you the opportunities and experiences you want, and work for your family.