Tantalizing rewards, prizes that dazzle with zeroes and promises. Scholarships and contests exert a powerful pull, and indeed there is nothing more satisfying than winning one and padding your art education fund with the spoils. But there are just so many of them out there, especially with the advent of easy internet-submission forms, that the choices can be truly mind-boggling. Should you shoot for the $10,000 grand prize for an essay on The Fountainhead? Or one of the 25 $50 gift certificates for the best pictures of an ice cream cone? Maybe that shoe-design contest that will feature its winners in stores next May? Here are some of the tips to help you narrow down your options and optimize your chances of winning.
Remember, first of all, that you’re playing an incredibly competitive field. If it takes you only thirty seconds to log on to a site like FastWeb and be presented with a list of 152 scholarships, then it’s just as easy for a million other money-hungry college students. With that in mind, it’s a good idea to hold back on the international and national competitions for a moment and take a look at the ones closer to home. There are many smaller competitions that are exclusive to residents of your city, county, or high school. With a much narrower focus, the number of potential competitors dwindles, and your own chances of winning grow exponentially even if the prizes may be smaller. Look into scholarships and contests offered by local community organizations; poke around in places such as the city hall or the community center for prizes available only to citizens and community members; take a walk over to the local art gallery or film festival and talk to them. You never know what kinds of rewards you could pick up thanks to the sponsorship of a friendly local art store or corner church!
ME, ME, ME!
What really makes you stand out from the crowd? Another tactic to cutting down on competition is to pick your most specific personal traits and go with those. And specific means really specific-dig deeper than just your state of residence or the sport you play in high school. You’d be surprised at what kinds of qualifications certain scholarships and contests call for: people with at least one eighth Sioux blood, people allergic to shellfish, people who were former Little League players, people who speak at least three languages and play the French bassoon while having lived on a farm for at least half their life…the possibilities are endless. It’s an even richer field for the aspiring art student, because you already have unique talents that set you apart from the rest of the pack. Put your paintbrush (or camera, or needle, or mouse) to good use!
If you do end up deciding to pursue some of the famous, big-name national and international competitions, remember to play to your strengths and passions. It’s inarguable that the rewards of the largest scholarships and contests are worthwhile as long as you give yourself a fighting chance. Don’t think you can get away with writing a half-hearted essay on that Dickens novel you’ve always found soporific just because there are four zeroes tacked onto the grand prize; what do they matter when your uninspired attempt won’t make it past the judging panel? But perhaps you’re an aspiring film student, and you’ve been lugging your video camera around since the day you bought it five years ago-in that case, use all your drive and your hard-earned experience to create a truly innovative commercial for green energy. Art festivals and competitions immediately come to mind in this case, because they often give out numerous rewards for categories and subcategories. When you focus on that which you excel at, even the biggest competitions can become a viable possibility.
Scholarships come from more than just outside organizations. If you’ve already decided on the campus that you’ll be getting your art education at, then look ahead to your college’s offerings. Many of them have a combination of need-based and merit-based scholarships, some of which you are automatically eligible for simply by turning in your initial application. Other school-specific scholarships have requirements outside of the basics and early deadlines, so always do your research and find out about what your college can give you early on.
In the end, if you’re still struggling to make ends meet even after an exhaustive search of scholarship and contest options, then you could stand in a position to consider some that come with strings attached. The NROTC scholarship program is one example of striking a conditional deal. Hosted by the U.S. Navy, the NROTC scholarship can pay for a student’s full 4-year undergraduate tuition, including books, travel, and a monthly stipend. The catch? You agree to serve in the Navy for a certain period of time after graduation. And if you’re a graduate student with an exceptional academic background, there are companies who will pay for you to pursue your next degree, provided that you join their ranks. These types of give-and-take scholarships exist in many forms, and if they so happen to coincide with your goals, then why not accept the generous offers?
Manage your time. Keep a spreadsheet, mark dates on your calendar, create a fabulous collage-do what ever it takes to make sure that you won’t miss a deadline.
Don’t spread yourself too thin. We can’t emphasize enough the importance of giving scholarship and contest judges quality.
Be leery of what sounds too good to be true-it probably is. If you get calls, emails, or snail mail from organizations congratulating you for winning a competition that you don’t remember entering, don’t be fooled! Read the fine print for hidden fees that can lurk behind the shiny façade of a promised trophy.
Always be on the lookout. Advertisements for the next great scholarship or art contest can pop up in unexpected places-a poster near the bus station or a flier by the checkout line of an art supply store, for example. The internet isn’t your only resource!
Keep to these strategies and sketch out a battle plan for yourself. You can’t possibly pursue every one of those innumerable scholarship and contest opportunities, so make sure that the efforts you do make are worthwhile ones. Put some real hard work and dedication into your hunt for funds, and despite the staggering odds, returns will be anything but unlikely. If you ever feel discouraged, just remember that your art education is something worth fighting for.