Scholarships Tip #4: Six common scholarship mistakes and practical solutions

Kimberly Stezala, President, Stezala Consulting, LLC

Kimberly Stezala, The Scholarship Lady, President of Stezala Consulting, LLC

As a consultant to scholarship providers, I often have behind-the-scenes access to scholarship application and selection processes.  In addition, I’ve been a scholarship judge; I’ve trained pre-college advisors on how to help their students be more successful in the scholarship process; and I’ve worked directly with students in scholarship “boot camps” where they learn how to become better candidates for scholarships.  In all these scenarios, I have noticed common mistakes made by students, that if left unchecked can hinder their chance of winning a scholarship.

Here are six common mistakes, and suggested solutions, to improve your scholarship applications.

Mistakes and Solutions:

Mistake #1: Applying for scholarships that do not match who you are and what you represent.

Solution:  Write down everything about yourself, your family, your history, etc.  Use this to do research about who you are and what you’ve accomplished before you look for scholarships.  Only apply for a scholarship if you match the criteria.  Some students mistakenly think that they should apply for a scholarship even if they don’t match the criteria “just in case” the scholarship provider doesn’t have any matching candidates and they might win – but that rarely if ever happens.


Mistake #2: Burdening the people who can help you with last-minute, vague requests.

Solution:  Plan ahead and be clear about what you are asking people to do.  Need letters of recommendation?  Provide the mailing address or website for submissions, key points about yourself, and specific instructions and deadlines (with ample notice) to your counselor, mentor, coach or anyone else who has agreed to support you.  It will be easier for people to help you if they know exactly what you need and you give them time to do a good job.


Mistake #3:  Ignoring the instructions and questions.  One of the most common complaints I hear from scholarship providers is that students don’t answer the question they were asked.  You increase your chances of winning scholarships if you follow the instructions and answer the questions that are asked.  Judges often use points in assessing applications and if they do, you will lose points if you can’t provide the information they want in their requested format.


Mistake #4:  Cutting and pasting an unoriginal essay into all of your applications.  Keep key phrases about yourself and your skills in a main document.  Borrow from that to build a new essay that is specific to each scholarship.  Personalize your answers or essay for each scholarship provider to the degree that is possible.  Recycling is good, but exact replication is not.  Make sure you change the introduction and closing – don’t embarrass yourself by having the name of a previous scholarship in the new essay.


Mistake #5:  Not proofreading properly and thoroughly.  If you proofread your application once, that is not enough.  I encourage students to read everything three times with a critical eye and preferably ask someone else to read it, too.  It’s amazing what you will find if you come back to the application at different times of the day, or on different days.  We all make mistakes but try to catch them before you send in the application.  Your application is your first impression to the judges.


Mistake #6:  Shortchanging yourself and your accomplishments.  Students who brag all the way through their application are rarely appealing.  However, students who conceal information about their fabulous accomplishments have little chance of winning.  Some students are excellent scholarship candidates but they are very humble and may even be uncomfortable documenting all of their accomplishments. If you need help thinking of your accomplishments ask a friend, family member or coach to brainstorm with you.  The judges only know you by what is written or expressed in the application.  Remember to include everything about yourself that is compelling and relevant to that scholarship. 

Whether you are a student, parent, counselor or advisor, you may consider using this as a handy checklist to review before anyone submits a scholarship application.  Good luck to you!


About Kimberly Stezala

Kimberly Stezala, M.S., is President of Stezala Consulting, LLC, a company that assists scholarship providers, schools, foundations, and educational organizations to improve their outcomes through objective analysis and consulting.  Clients partner with Stezala Consulting on program planning, design, and growth; data analysis, research and evaluation; content development/writing, and general program improvement.  Ms. Stezala earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, as well as a professional certificate in nonprofit management.


Ms. Stezala is also known as The Scholarship Lady®, based on her scholarship expertise, which is shared at  She has been a speaker for the National Scholarship Providers Association, TRIO/Upward Bound programs, and many state and local groups.

Scholarships Tip #3: TG’s Charley Wootan Grant Program

Jenny Achilles, Program Officer, Philanthropy, TG

Jenny Achilles, Program Officer, Philanthropy, TG

As college access and success professionals nationwide work diligently to improve the success rates of our students, we know that our services must combine financial, academic and social resources to support our students.

In order to couple our scholarship dollars with strong institutional supports, TG redesigned our long-standing scholarship program to build intentional retention services into the program design. Starting in 2015, TG’s Charley Wootan Grant Program uses a competitive process to select schools that agree to provide financial literacy education and robust retention supports to cohorts of 15-20 TG Scholars for two-year scholarships.

Knowing the majority of Texas students start their post-secondary education in community colleges, TG is partnering with public and private technical and community colleges in Texas on the redesigned scholarship program. Each school sets the selection criteria for their scholars and designs the retention program that best fits with its institutional practices, resources and student needs. The institutions agree to provide student-level data to TG and ensure grant dollars will not displace existing grant and scholarship aid for students. In addition, the program structure allows the scholarship to follow students if they transfer to another school.

This model was designed to provide specific benefits to both the student and the institution. Through the structure of the grant program, TG hopes to support institutional learning and capacity as well as support increased student success.

Institutional capacity:

  • Support key populations: We allow schools to choose the target population they most prioritize for the funding at their school. While TG stipulates that students must have an EFC no higher than the average for Pell-eligible students at the school (i.e., must have financial need), further refinement is left to the institution. This has led to specific scholar cohorts focused on several characteristics, including: former dual enrollment students, homeless or aged out of foster care students, health science majors, and incarcerated students.
  • Leverage points/pilot opportunities: We encourage institutions to use the grant funding to pilot new initiatives or for leverage to advance institutional goals to promote student success. For example, Houston Community College’s Coleman College is using the grant’s retention support component as an opportunity to pilot financial coaching as a scholarship requirement. The campus currently offers financial coaching to any interested student; TG Scholars, however, are required to meet with a coach to discuss budgeting, loans and other key financial literacy topics to support their success in school and career.

Student resources:

  • Retention support: We know how important robust retention services are for student success, but students will often not voluntarily utilize services that are optional. By requiring certain supports as part of the scholarship program, students receive proactive resources that will help them to succeed.
  • Financial literacy education: In order to receive their second year of scholarship funding, students must complete two of TG’s financial literacy modules. Modules take about 15 minutes to complete. Thus, they do not represent a substantial time commitment for busy students but do provide key information on topics that will help students both to navigate their post-secondary financial needs as well as provide a foundation for financial management during their careers. Topics range from identifying needs versus wants, to understanding credit reports, to comparing employment benefits.

While we are only in the second semester of implementing the TG Scholars program, we have already identified key learnings that inform minor adjustments to the grant structure and also inspire intentional conversations with our partners at the colleges.

What we’ve learned:

  • Balance: We have found that requiring too many activities from students can dissuade them from applying for the scholarship. While retention activities are key to student success, they must be carefully designed in order to demonstrate their important to students and to avoid over-burdening students, particularly students balancing work, family, and academics.
  • Expectations: Because of the toll that this balancing act can take on students, TG does not set a minimum GPA requirement for students (beyond institutional policies); we also encourage schools to limit application steps. Through focus groups during the program design process, students discussed their struggles to maintain high GPAs, due to extensive work hours. While they indicated confidence in their ability to raise their GPAs if scholarship funds helped them reduce their work hours, they expressed concern at their ability to do so with their current schedules. In addition, students mentioned that essay requirements often dissuade non-native English speakers from even applying for scholarships, as they assume their essays will not fare as well as those of native English speakers.
  • Ripple effect: During these focus groups, students also voiced the tremendous psychological benefit they felt from receiving a scholarship. Even though scholarships are not awarded based on merit criteria, students reported a boost in their confidence. They also discussed the positive effect this has on their children, extended families and communities, providing confidence for others to apply for college and other scholarships as well.

As the Wootan program matures, we at TG look forward to increased understanding of supports that help our community college students succeed. The lessons learned from varied cohorts provides nuanced understanding of the distinct challenges of specific populations as well as the creative solutions colleges can employ to address these needs.

Application information for eligible institutions are available on the Charley Wootan Grant Program website. The Request for Proposals is typically released in November for the following academic year and awards are announced in April. We are currently in the final stages of the review process for the 2016-18 program cohort.

About TG

TG promotes educational access and success so that students can realize their college and career dreams. As a nonprofit corporation, TG offers resources to help students and families plan and prepare for college, learn the basics of money management, and repay their federal student loans.

TG’s direct-dollar philanthropy leverages community partnerships, builds organizational capacity, and strengthens policy and practice in the higher education field to support increased post-secondary education attainment. To that end, TG focuses its philanthropy on supporting students who are from low-income families, first-generation college students, or students who are from other groups that are traditionally underrepresented in undergraduate education, which may include nontraditional or adult learners.

About Jenny Achilles

Jenny Achilles has served as the program officer for TG’s philanthropy program since May 2013. Previously, she worked as a study abroad advisor at the University of Texas at Austin, with a focus on Latin America. She has a Master of Journalism and a Master of Public Affairs, with a focus on nonprofit management, from the University of Texas at Austin and a Bachelor of Science in Communications, with a focus on journalism, from Lamar University.



Scholarships Tip #2: Three things that count in college completion program models

Oscar Sweeten-Lopez, Portfolio Director, Scholars, Michael & Susan Dell Foundation

Oscar Sweeten-Lopez, Portfolio Director, Scholars, Michael & Susan Dell Foundation

My job requires that I quantify many things. Some are more difficult to count than others.

There are three core principles of the Dell Scholars Program: 1) Know each individual Dell Scholar; 2) Adapt our strategies to the needs of each student; and 3) Measure our effectiveness. Supporting 1,500 scholars per year in their pursuit of a college diploma has required us to explore countless roads less traveled by other college completion programs and scholarship providers and implement the most innovative and flexible ideas to best assist students.

As the program matured, we found that there wasn’t an existing case management model to allow our lean staff to provide high-touch support. In order to efficiently and continuously offer students the right help at the right time, support them through graduation and track our progress, we’re forced to work differently than a traditional caseload model in which individual staff are assigned a specific subset of students to shepherd through their college careers.  Our approach, referred to as collective case management, is a hybrid of traditional practices—students are assigned to a primary program contact—and techniques that ensure any team member can engage with a scholar and pick up where the last contact left off to provide necessary assistance without delay.

3 benefits of collective case management

The benefits –the things that count most – of our collective case management approach are threefold:

  1. Efficiency – Our centralized scholar admin platform, based on proprietary technology developed by the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, provides immediate access to scholar information and staff interaction records. With a secure, clear view of the student’s academic performance, financial situation and personal challenges, any of our trained staff can address the scholar’s specific needs without sifting through mountains of papers or relying on a single staff person who might be unavailable at that exact time.
  2. Individualization – Easily-accessible student information gives our staff the power to respond to a scholar’s specific needs, whether the student needs comprehensive support, resources or information for academic, financial, personal or work-life issues.
  3. Scalability – Our collective case management model enables us to effectively support more than 1500 active Dell Scholars each year.   It’s an advancement that will continue to meet our needs in the years to come, as well as support other innovations to best support the scholars through graduation day. More important, this scalable solution that has been critical to the success of the Dell Scholars Program can be leveraged by many of our college readiness partners that are struggling to provide individualized assistance to their students.

Piloting a program for positive change

Our team is energized when we witness transformational change, particularly when the impetus for such improvement is an original idea or unique model.  The collective case management model is helping to ensure Dell Scholars adjust to life on campus and graduate with a college degree in hand.  Meanwhile, a pilot project with charter school partners is leveraging our approach and implementing their own collective case management platforms in response to the exponential growth in the number of their own college-bound students.

The goal of the pilot project with YES Prep Public Schools, Mastery Charter Schools, and Cristo Rey Network is to implement our program approach and leverage our technology to better prepare their students for academic success.  Together, these schools are already supporting more than 5,000 college attending students and will eclipse 15,000 students by 2018.   For these organizations, collective case management is the only approach that gives them the power to provide exceptional student support while keeping staffing and administrative costs low.

Our commitment to uncovering better, faster, cheaper ways of meeting the needs of our scholars and their families is unwavering.  Our hope is that our enthusiasm regarding the advancements we can share with our college completion and college readiness program partners will be contagious.  The more pathways we can clear for students and the more risks we’re willing to take, the more students will graduate with a college degree.

We can quantify the number of students to advance through our individual programs, but the long-term benefits of a college degree to those students and families are infinite.


About the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation

For more than 15 years, the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation has worked relentlessly to help children living in urban poverty. In our early years, we focused our efforts on improving education and children’s health in Central Texas. But within a few short years, our reach expanded, first nationally and then globally. And in that time, one important lesson that we’ve learned is this: progress doesn’t come in giant rolling waves; it’s earned, one child at a time.


Twitter: @MSDF_Foundation


About Oscar Sweeten-Lopez

As the Dell Scholars Program leader, Oscar oversees the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation’s comprehensive college persistence services to improve the college graduation rates of high-risk, low-income students. Prior to joining the foundation in 2005, Oscar was director of student retention and workforce development for the Oregon Council for Hispanic Advancement. Other past experience includes work with the Oregon Human Development Corporation and with AmeriCorps. Oscar has a bachelor’s in political science and Spanish from the University of Oregon and is a leadership fellow at the Institute of Nonprofit Management at Portland State University.

Scholarships Tip #1: Lessons from Greater Texas Foundation Scholars: Make your college credits count

Leslie Gurrola, Strategy Manager, Greater Texas Foundation

Leslie Gurrola, Strategy Manager, Greater Texas Foundation

In 2008, Greater Texas Foundation engaged a consulting firm, FSG, to help us examine how funders and others could design scholarship programs to improve postsecondary persistence and completion. Based on the research and resulting reports, in 2010, GTF developed Greater Texas Foundation Scholars (GTF Scholars) for graduates of Texas early college high schools (ECHS) to successfully transition to a four-year institution of higher education and complete a baccalaureate degree.


Based on our research with FSG, the GTF Scholars Program was based on the premise that scholarship programs should:

  • provide simple, transparent and predictable awards;
  • make scholarships easy to monitor for participating institutions;
  • avoid displacement of other grants and scholarships in students’ financial aid packages;
  • help students avoid the need for loans; and
  • provide incentives for full time enrollment and timely completion of a baccalaureate degree.


Current participating universities are University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, University of Houston, Texas A&M University, and University of North Texas. GTF Scholars will ultimately reach approximately 500 students with scholarships and non-financial supports.


Students who attend ECHSs have the opportunity to earn college credits, and even the possibility of earning an associate’s degree, during high school. There are now more than 150 ECHSs (39,000 students) in Texas, and the majority of students who attend ECHSs are under-represented in higher education based on traits such as family income level, race or ethnicity. Because of their early college experience, the foundation believes ECHS graduates have the knowledge, skills and confidence to succeed at four-year institutions.


The foundation also believes the GTF Scholars program – the first of its kind focusing solely on graduates of ECHSs – can serve as a microcosm to help GTF Scholars institutions, ECHSs, and others continuously learn what works best for this growing student population. To that end, the program includes a comprehensive external evaluation designed and conducted by a team of evaluators selected through a competitive process: Barbara Goldberg, Barbara Goldberg & Associates, LLC, and Kim Stezala, Stezala Consulting, LLC. The evaluation is both formative and summative. The ongoing evaluation has been vital to the implementation of the program as well as for identifying areas for improvement that may have implications far beyond GTF Scholars.


Overall, we are learning the early college movement is incredibly promising: ECHS graduates are earning college credits in high school that provide a major head start and can significantly accelerate time to degree at their four-year institutions. Still, like with any innovation, there is room for refinement.


For example, we learned from the evaluation that, for GTF scholars, there is some disparity between credits earned in high school and credits applied to their four-year degrees. Again, the trend is promising – on average, 48 of 66 college-level credits earned at ECHSs for both Cohorts 1 and 2 in the program were applied to degree programs at their universities – but the credit disparity, among other reasons, may have implications for time to degree. Of 83 scholars from the first cohort who consented to the evaluation, seven earned a bachelor’s degree in two years.  (Because of this, the foundation added a third year of support for students in partnership with three of the four participating institutions.)


What lessons can we draw from this finding?


  1. Earlier, more nuanced degree advising is essential at the ECHS level to expedite time-to-degree and maximize credits earned. ECHS advisors can help by making sure students know what their “end goal” is and that the courses they take at the ECHS support that goal. Specifically, advisors can help students understand the difference between credits that will transfer to their next institution and credits that will apply to their degree.
  2. Likewise, students and parents should have an idea of what the student’s ultimate goal is for education and also what four-year institution they would like to attend. Exploring options is good, but students should keep their end goal in mind and think about how their courses help them reach that goal. Students and parents should talk to their ECHS counselors and also reach out to advisors at their desired four-year institution to be sure they are on the right track.
  3. Advisors at four-year institutions can help by catching the ECHS graduates early on – even perhaps through a special orientation – to help them understand how to make the most of their credits already earned. Because the most efficient path can accelerate time to degree, this is a win-win for the student and the institution.


We at the foundation are continuing to learn and are excited to use GTF Scholars to help us and others understand what works for this student population. ECHS graduates – and other students enrolling at four-year institutions with significant college credit – are a student population on the rise. We can all work together from high school through postsecondary completion to be sure they select courses that best support their desired academic path.



Greater Texas Foundation supports efforts to ensure all Texas students are prepared for, have access to, persist in, and complete postsecondary education. We put particular focus on helping underserved and disadvantaged populations. We pursue our mission by forming partnerships, supporting research, sharing knowledge, and making grants.

Click here to visit the foundation’s website and learn more about our work.

Click here to read the reports that informed the design of GTF Scholars

Click here for contact information for institutions participating in GTF Scholars.

Follow GTF on Twitter: @Gr8rTXFdtn


Leslie Gurrola began working for Greater Texas Foundation as its first project associate in 2007. In 2010, Leslie took the position of the foundation’s first strategy manager, assisting with implementation of the foundation’s strategic plan to ensure all Texas students are prepared for, have access to, persist in, and complete a postsecondary credential.  She has a Master of Public Service Administration and a Bachelor of Science in Journalism, both from Texas A&M University. Leslie is married and has a son, a daughter, and two spoiled dogs.

Follow Leslie on Twitter: @GTF_Leslie