The increasing cost of college has more families exploring all possible avenues for funding their children’s higher education. For many families, that means using a combination of savings and loans, but they may also be leaving an important source of money on the table: Scholarships.
Some students believe that scholarships go only to those with athletic promise, exceptional scholastic achievement, or some other talent. The pool of students who win scholarships, however, is far broader than that.
While it is rare to get a full ride to college, one in eight college students used private scholarships to pay part of their tuition last year, with an average scholarship valued at just under $4,000. While that may seem like just a drop in the bucket at a pricey, private school, it’s still money that you will not have to borrow or take out of your savings account. Multiply that by four or five years, and it’s a sizeable sum.
Follow these steps to win as much scholarships money as possible.
1. Know where to look. Start with a scholarship search engine like Cappex or Good Call to get an overview of available scholarships and what qualifications are required. Those sites will let you filter by things like gender, ethnicity, location, and major. Don’t use any scholarship search tool that requires you to pay money to use it.
Also, check with your high school, religious institution, or local community groups to see whether they offer smaller scholarships that aren’t listed on those sites.
2. Send out as many applications as possible. While big, national scholarships that offer a $10,000 or more toward college tuition can be appealing, they are also the most competitive, which means you have a lower shot at winning money from them. While you should apply for a few of those, you shouldn’t rule out smaller scholarships, which may have lower awards but offer far better odds to applicants.
You’re more likely to nab five $1,000 scholarships than to win one $10,000 award. While the prospect of sending out dozens of applications may seem daunting, once you’ve done the first five or 10, you’ll only have to tweak the materials you’ve already created, says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher and VP of strategy at Cappex and author of Secrets to Winning a Scholarship.
The more niche you can get, the better your shot. For example, there are scholarships specifically for cancer survivors, Mayflower descendants, and for knitters. Trade organizations also often offer scholarships to students in specific majors or fields.
3. Start early. Many students don’t think about applying for scholarships until their senior year of high school, but many awards are available to any high school students. If you win as an underclassman, the money will go into an escrow account until you need it for school. The earlier you get started, the more scholarships you’ll be able to nab. Plus, you may have more time to get applications out when you’re not dealing with the stress of SATs and college visits junior and senior year.
4. Double-check your application. Read the eligibility requirements carefully and then fill out the entire application, including optional questions, and proofread all of your essays (or have someone else do it), before sending it in. That may seem like common sense, but a Good Call survey of scholarship providers last year found that 15 percent of applicants did not meet scholarship requirements and were immediately disqualified. “One of the biggest mistakes we see is students not taking the time to apply completely or correctly,” says GoodCall’s Carrie Wiley.
5. Request merit aid from your school. Some schools will give out merit aid, which doesn’t need to be paid back, to students as part of their financial aid package. Many schools require applicants to have filled out a Federal Application for Student Aid form to qualify for merit aid, so be sure to do that even if you don’t think you’ll eligible for need-based aid. Many financial aid offices also have a scholarship coordinator whose job it is to work with students to find scholarships.
6. Clean up your online presence. Organizations want to give their money to upstanding students who will reflect well on them, so make sure that your online photos or posts convey that. Start by Googling yourself and removing any questionable posts or images on your social media accounts and setting up a professional-sounding email handle. A quarter of scholarship givers requires applicants to connect with them on Facebook. You’re going to have to do this once you start applying for internships in college anyway, so this will just give you a head start.
7. Let your college know about outside scholarships. Your total aid package‑including grants and loans from the school and the government as well as outside scholarships—can’t be more than your calculated need. If a private scholarship puts your package over that threshold, the school gets to decide how to adjust the package. Most schools will reduce the amount of loans your receive, which is good for students, but about a fifth of schools will reduce their grants to that student.
Repeat the process every year. Just as there are scholarships available to younger high school students, there are also scholarships specifically for upperclassmen in college as well as graduate students. Spending some time throughout the school year getting year applying for scholarships for the upcoming years can help offset the expense of rising tuition.