Jon O'Donnell Updated on August 14, 2017

Ashley Hill started by helping her brother with his scholarship applications. She was so successful that her brother was able to attend Miami of Ohio for FREE. That inspired Ashley to launch the business collegeprepready.com

Today she works with parents and students at all academic levels to help defray the cost of college — by focusing on scholarships. Here are 9 ideas you can use today to get more scholarships:

1.  Get leadership experience

I was a scholarship judge in Cincinnati. We were all looking for that student who is a leader — not just academically. We were looking for a student who is leading outside of the classroom. The best way to get that leadership experience is through volunteering, and I encourage students to focus on quality of experience, not quantity.

2.  Tell your story

You have two great students, both applying for a scholarship solely based on grades: it's a lottery at that point. How can you make sure that you stand out? Through the scholarship essay. Be authentic, share your story — but do show and not just tell. Let's say a student athlete is applying for a leadership scholarship. Maybe you can share 'we lost this game, but this is what I did to encourage my team for the next one.' Or maybe 'someone got hurt in the middle of the game and this is what we did'. Explain how you are a leader through your own personal experiences.

3.  Commit to the work

Applying for scholarships is the best summer job you can have. Think of it like this: if it took you four hours and you were working on a scholarship worth $1000 and you won, you just made $250 an hour! That's a great hourly rate! You're not going to win every one. If you only apply for one or two, it’s a dangerous assumption that you're going to win both. You may not. View this like a job and be committed.

4.  Look for local scholarships

Not only should you start with your school – the school counselors and website resources — but also check with the local Chamber of Commerce. A lot of local businesses do offer scholarships. Most of them tend to have them on their website but the local mom-and-pop may only have a flyer up or a social media page. Since you live right there, stop by or make a phone call and ask to speak with HR and they should be able to quickly tell you if they have scholarships. Even if you don't plan to go to a local college, go to the financial aid section on their website and look for external scholarships. External means that you don't necessarily have to attend there but you may still be eligible for the scholarships.

5.  Do the essays first

I see a lot of students wanting to skip the scholarships with essays. That's a huge mistake because that essay helps you to stand out. If you are only applying for scholarships where you just fill out your name  — it's a lottery pick and you're competing with thousands of students. I'm not saying don't do it, but you should apply for everything with essays first and then when you're done with that, then go to those lottery pick scholarships.

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6.  Follow the directions!

I know that sounds basic, but students submitting incomplete or incorrectly filled out applications — they can be disqualified just based on that. You definitely don't want to do anything upfront to hurt your chances.

7.  Search using specifics

Students often jump into a scholarship search without a strategy or plan. The thing is, once they go into Google, you don't just put in the word scholarship. You're going to get a lot of stuff. Some of it won't fit, some of it might be a good fit. If you live in Rhode Island, and the scholarships are for Rhode Island, someone in Utah would not be eligible. Make sure the scholarship is a good fit. A lot of students don't even think about that. Make sure you meet the requirements.

8.  Know what they want

Be mindful of what you're completing. I get this all the time: "Where can we find the full-ride scholarships from the colleges?" And I tell students that you first have to know what that college is looking for in terms of their student profile. And that should be, from what I've seen, on the admissions section of the college website. Or, with a phone call, they can give you this information.

9.  Connect your experiences to the application

A student I was working with — she's going into social work — was working on an essay that asked what's driving you toward this career? She was going to give that canned answer: "Well, I want to help people and I want to make the world a better place." And that's great, absolutely. But how many other kids are gonna say that? And so I asked her is there something in your childhood? Did you experience something? Did you witness something?  Well, she was the victim of a crime, and that's what led her to this. She overcame that with the benefit of social work services, and now she wanted to offer that benefit to someone else. She shared her story and won the scholarship. At the awards luncheon she asked what made them pick her. They said ‘You shared something really vulnerable that you didn't have to share.’ Find something in your experiences that you can tie into the application. Be vulnerable.

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