Although earning a college degree has always been a dream of mine, one thing has always stood in the way: cost. Unfortunately, this is true for many students. But rather than solve this problem with an even bigger one (student loan debt), I decided to try my hand at applying for scholarships…a lot of them. As I applied for scholarships by the dozen, I learned what did and did not work in scholarship applications, how to organize them, and (the topic of today’s post) how to create a scholarship application portfolio that would allow me to apply to scholarships with less time and stress.
But before we begin, let’s rewind a little bit and face the facts: When students initially apply to scholarships, the process can feel very overwhelming, time-consuming, and to some students, even worthless; after not receiving any during the first few tries, many students give up and never attempt to apply again.
However, this is the wrong way of thinking; over my college career, I’ve received thousands of dollars in scholarships and I’m going to tell you right now that I don’t win every scholarship that I apply to. In fact, I only receive about 10% of scholarships that I apply to. While that may not seem like much, when you consider that each scholarship is worth somewhere between several hundred to several thousand dollars, it adds up very quickly to make a HUGE difference. After a while you begin to focus on the ones you’ve won, rather than the ones you’ve lost.
In my quest to finance my college education through scholarships, I’ve learned how to organize a scholarship binder (I have a full post on that here, which includes free printables!), my process of applying to scholarships (the right way!), where to find scholarships, as well as what to do after you’ve won that hard-earned scholarship.
In the post on how to organize your scholarship binder, I mentioned that you should have a section of your binder dedicated to your scholarship portfolio; however, I only gave a brief synopsis about what it was, rather than how to create one.
So let me explain it in more detail: a scholarship portfolio is like an expanded resume of everything you’ve ever done. Every. Single. Thing. For most students, you should begin your portfolio starting at the high school level (unless you earned something at the state or national level before the 9th grade) and then continue to add to it as you go through college.
The reason why you start your portfolio at the high school level is because most colleges and scholarship organizations don’t really care what you did in elementary or middle school, unless it was something pretty major.
How to Organize Your Scholarship Application Portfolio:
1. Extracurricular Activities
This first section is where you list any extracurricular activities that you have been in throughout high school and/or college.
It’s important to not only list the name of the activity itself in the portfolio, but rather a full description, because many scholarship applications will give you the option to describe what the activity was. When this option is given (even if it’s optional) you need to do it. This is your opportunity to brag about yourself, and it’s not the time to be humble or be lazy and skip over it. In fact, a strong description is what can help put you ahead of the competition.
For example, let’s say there are two very similar candidates for a scholarship and they both list multiple extracurricular activities on their application. One applicant just lists the name of the organization and a brief description of the activity, like this:
- Beta Club (Grades 9-12)
- I was a member of Beta Club, a service-based honor organization where I maintained a good GPA and performed community service around the city.
The other applicant lists something like this:
- Beta Club (Grades 9-12)
- I have been a member of my school’s Beta Club chapter since the 9th grade, and it has truly been an honor to participate in it. Beta Club has not only pushed me to maintain a high GPA and serve in my community, but it has also given me the opportunity to grow as a person through the lessons that I have learned when interacting with my fellow Beta Club members and the non-profits that I have volunteered my time with. Some of the organizations that I have volunteered with through Beta Club are the Humane Society, the food pantry at a local church, and after-school tutoring for elementary school students.
Based on the description, which student do you think is going to get the scholarship?
How to Write a Successful Description for an Extracurricular Activity
When your write descriptions for extracurricular activities, it is important to note these items in your description:
- How much TIME was put into the activity.
- Ex. 1 meeting/week, 4 hours/month, etc.
- How LONG you participated in the activity for.
- Ex. 1 semester, 4 years, etc.
- WHAT the activity was.
- Was it an extracurricular activity where you developed a specific skill (such as Spanish club) or an activity where competed academically (like academic club)?
- What were your RESPONSIBILITIES?
- Did you have any LEADERSHIP POSITIONS?
- Whether you were president, activities coordinator, or something else, any position where you held to be an authority figure can be considered a leadership position. Make sure you note this in your description, as scholarship organizations are often looking to sponsor students who display leadership skills/potential.
- What did you LEARN from it? How did you GROW?
- It’s fair enough to say you participated in such-and-such club, but tell us what you gained from it. What did you learn? How did that affect you? Maybe it gave you better insight into who you are as a person, or helped define your career goals. Whatever it may be, make sure you note it in the description for each activity, as this part alone will help you stand out from among the crowd.
While these descriptions may sound tiring, they will help you stand out from other applicants and will make it worth it in the end.
I recommend writing a thorough description for each activity, then copying and pasting it into your scholarship applications, making adjustments as needed. This means that you do the majority of the work only once, saving you a major amount of time in the long run.
2. Volunteer Activities
Scholarship organizations LOVE to see students who get out into the community and volunteer. Volunteer work develops character, while also showing that you enjoy giving back to the community.
But if you haven’t volunteered with a major community organization, don’t start worrying. Volunteer activities can be considered any act of unpaid kindness, such as shoveling snow from an elderly person’s driveway or tutoring a kid from your neighborhood.
How to Write a Successful Description for a Volunteer Activity
For the description of volunteer services, be sure you note the following items:
- The TITLE of your role and the RESPONSIBILITIES.
- Were you a dog bather at the Humane Society? Did you wash dishes for the soup kitchen? Give them the details of everything you were responsible for!
- WHERE you volunteered.
- This doesn’t always have to be super-specific, but if it’s a major non-profit you’ll want to mention it by name.
- How many HOURS you volunteered.
- Whether it’s 1 hour per week or a one-time volunteer activity, you’ll want to note how much time you spent volunteering.
- How volunteering affected OTHERS.
- This is a major point you’ll want to discuss in your description. Let them know how important your role and responsibility was and the positive affect it had on others.
- How volunteering affected YOU.
- Describe how you felt during/after volunteering. Maybe you discovered something new about yourself/your community, or maybe it re-defined your career goals.
For example, in a volunteer activity where I picked up trash at a riverside park, described by title (trash picker), my responsibilities (cleaning up trash from the area around the river), where I volunteered (the Ohio River), and how much I volunteered (2 hours total).
In addition to the basics, I then continued on to write about how much trash I had found, how my actions positively affected the others and the environment, and how volunteering in the river clean-up gave me more awareness of the need to take care of our environment.
Once again, after creating a thorough description for each volunteer activity, it becomes something that I can just copy and paste into each scholarship application that I apply to.
3. Honors and Awards
In this section you’ll talk about the honors, awards, or recognitions you’ve earned throughout high school and college. It is also the section where you can list something you earned before the high school level, as long as it was at least at a state or national level.
How to Write a Successful Description for a Honors and Awards
With each honor/award you earn, you will want to list the following basic info:
- The NAME of the award
- WHEN you earned it
- Year and/or grade level
- WHO was it was from?
- Was it presented by your school, a local non-profit, etc.
- The recognition LEVEL
- Was the award at the school, community, state, or national level?
After listing the basic info, you’ll want to give a description. It is okay to repeat the basic info you listed as an introduction to your description, and then list what the award was and why it is important.
For example, I might list something like this in my portfolio:
“Academic Achievement Award in Science (9th Grade, presented by North High School)
I earned my school’s Academic Achievement Award in Science in the 9th grade due to my strong work ethic, great class participation, and hard work throughout the year. This award is extremely meaningful because it is only given to one student in my entire school each year, and I was the student chosen that year due to my display of interest in science, as well as my dedication to learning more about the field, including my participation in the science fair.”
When you write your description, be sure to write why you earned it and it’s importance. It would be easy for me to list Academic Achievement Award in Science on my scholarship application and leave it at that, but for all the judges who are reading over my application know, that award could have been given to every student who passed the science class. That being said, always include a description for honors and awards, especially since awards with the same name can have entirely different meanings between schools and communities.
4. Leadership Positions
Scholarship organizations are looking for many qualities in their applicants, but one of the main qualities they’re looking for is leadership; they want to fund a student who is going to make a positive difference in the world. What this means for you is that you need to tell them any and all leadership positions you’ve had in the past (or are currently holding), because this can give you a huge leg up in the competition.
How to Write a Successful Description for Leadership Positions
When you are describing the leadership position, you’ll want to first list the following info:
- The NAME of the position
- Ex. President, Vice-President, Service Project Coordinator, etc.
- The YEAR you held the position
- This can be listed as a year (2019), a semester (Spring 2019), or as grade levels (9th-12th grade)
- The ORGANIZATION you held the position with
The description of a leadership position is much like that of the previous ones, but this time you want to focus on the responsibilities you had, how you helped others, why your position was important, and what you learned.
Although saying you learned something for any of these categories is good, it is especially good for leadership because it shows that you not only earned your leadership position, but that you continued to grow and learn when holding the position.
This part of your scholarship portfolio is where you want to keep track of your GPA (weighted and unweighted), what honors/AP classes you’ve been in, if you’ve participated in any dual-credit classes, etc. You will also most likely need to list your standardized test scores, such as the ACT, SAT, and AP tests.
Scholarship applications will only ask you to list this information, making it one of the easier parts of an application. I recommend keeping several copies of these items this section for easy access.
However, although this information is part of your scholarship portfolio, I actually recommend keeping your academic information in a separate area of your scholarship binder. You can find out more about that here.
Final Notes on Creating a Scholarship Portfolio
Although I’ve given you a lot of information on how to create a scholarship application portfolio, there are a few last details that I want to touch on:
Occasionally, You Can List It Twice
On some applications, you can list the same honor, award, activity twice, as long as it’s in two different sections. For example, I often list my community service in one category, and then the extracurricular activities that I did them through in another. Similarly, you can count having a leadership position as an honor, and therefore list it once in the Honors/Awards category and another time in the Leadership Positions category.
The reason that you can sometimes do this is because there might be multiple judges looking over a single application, with each judge looking at a different section. This means that an judge in charge of scoring the extracurricular activities section of your application may not know that you did Beta Club , even though you put it in the Community Service section, because s/he is only looking at the section they were assigned to judge.
Since some items can fit into two different categories, it is definitely something to consider.
However, if you’re unsure about whether you should do this on your scholarship application, just reach out to the organization and ask.
Use ADJECTIVES and ELABORATE
If it wasn’t already clear enough, you need to give the scholarship judges as much information as possible when you’re writing your descriptions. For example:
- Description without adjectives: Through this position, I grew as a person.
- Description with adjectives: Through this incredible leadership position, I have not only grown as a person, but I have also grown as a friend, student, and global citizen.
See what I mean? You need to become a storyteller on your applications, rather than a robot reciting one thing after the next. Believe me, when judges are looking through dozens of applications, hearing the same basic information over and over again gets old quickly. However, if you tell a story, they will remember you, and that will work to your benefit.
Your scholarship application portfolio is a major step in being successful when applying to scholarships, and although it may seem like a lot of work at first, it is well worth it in the end. To help you out, I created a free printable which contains a simplified version of everything I just taught you! You can find it by clicking here. This printable allows you to have an easy checklist to look off of as you create your scholarship portfolio.
If you have any other questions about creating scholarship application portfolios, or any other questions in general, just let me know down below or send me a message here.