Applying to scholarships take time, but it’s an investment well worth the effort! Before you begin to apply for scholarships—yes really, before you even begin to search for scholarships—you’ll want to get a few things in order first. Follow this guide to start out on the right foot.

Let’s get started. Grab a folder or binder and start collecting the following:


You will need official and unofficial copies of your transcripts. Your school should be able to provide you with copies.

Test scores

It might be an optional field on the application, but in some instances you will need to provide your test scores. You’ll want copies of your test scores (ACT/SAT), in case they are requested. (If you still have to take or retake tests: these 11 tips can help raise your score.)

A list of possible recommenders

You may not end up asking anyone for a letter of recommendation, but if you have to it’s good to have a list of people you might ask. There are three kinds of recommendations you might be asked for: academic, non-academic, and personal. Make a list with three columns and come up with a handful of names for each:

  • Academic: this is the most common kind of recommendation. This could be your teachers or any teacher you’ve worked with on an academic project. Some scholarships may ask for academic references or request that two out of three recommendations be from academic sources.

  • Non-Academic: these could include your supervisor at work, your sports coach, principal, drama instructor, guidance counselor, pastor, piano tutor, etc. you get the idea. Basically any professional or semi-professional who has seen you do things outside of the classroom.

  • Personal: this kind of recommendation is less common, but can be a nice supplement if needed. Personal references can come from mentors, family connections, sometimes a friend.

Try to ask your recommender at least two weeks before the deadline so they have plenty of time to write you a stellar recommendation.  It’s okay to give a friendly reminder a few days before the deadline, just keep it polite. Make sure to use our complete guide to getting a stellar letter of recommendation.

Resume (often optional)

If you don’t have a resume yet--don’t sweat it. If you do have one, make sure it’s up-to-date and looking good before you upload it. If you’ve had any full-time jobs, part-time jobs, or even internships, make sure to include them.

Photo (often optional)

These days it’s not as common for a scholarship to request a photo of you. If a scholarship organization is asking for a photo of you, it’s most likely that they want it for promotional purposes. Give them a nice photo of just yourself wearing nice clothes, without sunglasses or a hat. Keep the focus on you, don’t send a photo that includes other people in it. You should probably avoid any distracting photo filters, too (#nofilter.)

Essay (not always required, but can be your best tool if requested)

You may be asked to write an essay on a certain topic or based off specific questions related to the scholarship (or yourself). Although you will encounter a diversity of essay questions, you will likely notice some overlap or similar themes across the various essays you may write. You may find that you can reuse some of the materials you’ve already written. That being said, be sure to edit your materials so they are relevant to the prompt for each scholarship application (and follow all guidelines related to word count!). If you need help crafting it, here are 8 easy tips to help you write an awesome essay.

Before submitting, ask a few people to review your final draft for a second opinion (friends and family members are good, but ask a teacher or staff member at your school as well). As with asking for letters of recommendation, you’ll want to give enough time for someone to give feedback on your essay--don’t ask someone to help you the day before it’s due!

All of the items listed above are here to help you start the process and get you prepared for the search. Not feeling ready just yet? Check out the short scholarship search survival guide.

Authored by Caleb Westberg

Caleb started at community college before transferring to UC Berkeley. Now, he helps students achieve their dreams the same way. He writes about honors programs and scholarship opportunities.