With college costs continuing to rise, a successful scholarship application is crucial, often doubling as a first step toward students presenting themselves as the professionals they may become.

Not the time to use your new multi­colored gel pen.

That's one bit of advice from Minnesota Masonic Charities (MMC), one of the many groups ready to disperse money to deserving students this time of year.

After surviving the rigors of the college application process, you might think that the strategy of presenting yourself has been mastered.

Not necessarily.

"You get all sorts of scented paper," said Kelly Johns, director of communications at MMC. "Applicants try to gain an advantage with anything they think will set them apart."

What will draw the right attention is an application with a sense of authenticity, especially concerning the essay.

"The assumption by candidates is that it's better to write what they presume we want to hear, rather than something that genuinely comes from them," Johns said.

"What you find is that some really have had to search deep to come up with an essay," she added. "You can see how they've really thought about the question and determined what their values are, where they're coming from. Not all kids have the capacity to do that."

Letters of recommendation are another potential hurdle. In many cases, it may not be so much what a letter says, as what it doesn't say.

"While we've never seen a poor recommendation, what we do see are the form letters: 'So-and-so took my class. They received an A. They put in all their assignments.' What stands out for us is when there's clearly a personal relationship with the writer," Johns said. "The recommender knows this kid well, has watched this kid develop and their recommendation is based on a true understanding of the candidate."

Such letters can make the difference for a student who might not have a stellar GPA or an incredible ACT score. "We do get some kids who can be somewhat average in a lot of areas, but the recommendation says, 'This kid is the best kid I've ever met. This kid is a leader.' "

This is prime season for scholarship consideration. Minnesota Masonic Charities anticipates receiving thousands of applications from the public, via www.mnmasoniccharities.org. (No Masonic affiliation is required for most scholarships.) It also offers aid for high school seniors interested in entering vocational/technical schools and who may have few resources for support.

Johns' bottom line: You have one shot at submitting the best scholarship application you can. "There are no do-overs if you forget something," she said.

That's advice that can last the rest of your life.