Financial Aid Guide: Scholarships

The point has been belabored, but it’s something every incoming college student should take to heart. College is expensive, incredibly expensive – it’s one of the biggest expenses you, as a Generation Y or Generation Z young adult, will incur in your lifetime. While those four to five years on campus are supposed to prepare you for employment and adulthood, if handled poorly, they can put you in financial ruin, making you a slave to your debt.

Seem like scare tactics? They’re not. According to the New York Federal Reserve, Americans tallied $904 billion in student loan debt at the end of March, an 8% increase from last year. This has occurred as the U.S. populace has focused on steadily reducing its overall debt for the betterment of its financial well-being. So what’s different? You guessed it: the continuously rising cost of college. The Christian Science Monitor recently reported that, from 1999 to 2009, tuition at public four-year colleges rose 73% and tuition at private nonprofit colleges rose 34%. Colleges suffer no penalty for raising tuition. With state budget cuts coming down nationwide, don’t expect to see an end to it anytime soon.

That’s why it’s essential for you to take every measure possible to reduce the cost of college. You should vigorously pursue every scholarship for which you may qualify, and that may be a lot – enough to cover most of your tuition. Remember, scholarship money is entirely yours. You earned it, and you don’t have to pay the money back. A launching point for a scholarship finding mission would be an appointment with your high school counselor or college’s office of financial aid. In the meantime between now and your meeting, you can get a quick primer by reading this guide.

 

Scholarship Scavenger Hunt: Narrowing it Down

By skimming FinAid.org, you’ll discover that there are more than 1.5 million scholarships worth more than $3.4 billion. But wading through the murky waters of the internet can make it extremely difficult to find the right ones for you. Scholarships come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Some are need-based and some are merit-based.

Need-based scholarships are awarded according to financial need, much like Pell Grants, Stafford Loans, Perkins Loans, and Federal Work-Study. Merit-based scholarships are earned by demonstrating academic or athletic prowess. These are the types most people think of when discussing the topic. Student-specific scholarships are given to students of a certain race, ethnicity, gender, religion, or family or medical history. Career-specific scholarships are designed for students pursuing careers in fields in high demand to encourage success.

Scholarships come from a variety of sources. Check with these places when you start your search:

 

Your college

Many colleges, particularly the more expensive ones, offer generous amounts of scholarship money to offset the often ridiculous price of tuition, room, and board. For example, U.S. News & World Report points out that students at Yale who come from families that earn fewer than $200,000 per year pay no more than 10% of their family’s income each year, and much of that is covered with scholarship money. Many smaller, less prestigious colleges are quite generous as well. Here are two standard scholarships found on campuses everywhere:

  • Academic scholarships: If you boasted an excellent GPA in high school, aced your Advanced Placement courses, and were a regular participant in extracurricular activities, then you may be eligible for a merit-based academic scholarship. It never hurts to check with your school’s office of financial aid to see if you qualify. You may also qualify for departmental scholarships offered by the department in which you’re majoring.
  • Athletic scholarships: These are typically pursued early in your high school athletic career when you’ve demonstrated that your talent is head and shoulders above your peers in your sport. National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) athletes receive full or partial scholarships, the coverage and duration of which are determined by the school’s athletic department. According to the NCAA, more than 126,000 student-athletes receive $2 billion each year.

Private organizations

Expanding your search outside of the academic realm will likely yield you excellent results, as there are an abundance of private organizations willing to give money to students who those organizations think deserve it.

  • Your high school: They’ve ushered you off to college, and now they may even chip in for tuition. Some high schools, particularly private ones with handsome endowments, give money to departing students the schools think have earned it. Check with your high school counselor, again, to see if there are any available for you.
  • Private businesses: Never underestimate a company’s desire for good publicity. Some offer money for the positive headlines while others use it to encourage young people to enter the workforce in their field. Companies of all kinds hand out scholarships, though it’s a safe bet to look for one in the field you aspire to join. Fortune 500 companies such as Wal-Mart, ExxonMobil, and Coca-Cola have been lauded for their generosity through the years. Also, note that many companies offer scholarships to their employees or employees’ families as a benefit, so you may need to ask mom and dad to check with their human resources departments.
  • Religious organizations: Always active in the community, religious organizations spread goodwill by making it possible for young people to attend college without financial constraints. If you’re a member of a church or part of a youth group, then you may qualify for a scholarship. One example is the Faith & Education Scholarship fund, which offers $10,000 to members of the Church of Christ who are attending or planning to attend a four-year liberal arts institution.
  • Military: Individuals who plan to enlist in the military but still plan to attend college are eligible for a multitude of scholarships, as specified in the Montgomery GI Bill and the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Family members of military personnel may be eligible for money as well.
  • Other organizations: Nonprofits, chambers of commerce, and unions are among the other organizations that offer scholarships to students. You’d be surprised by the types of organizations willing to give money away for your education and their reasons for giving it away. For example, there is a surname scholarship, Klingon scholarship, and tall people scholarship.

Of course, where there’s money, there are people looking to steal money. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) warns students and their families of scholarship scams, providing resources to ensure you don’t fall victim to them. Beware of telltale signs, such as claims that “The scholarship is guaranteed or your money back.” A little common sense can save you a lot of trouble.

 

Coming out a Winner

Scholarships vary in length and requirements. Some last merely a semester and some can be renewed yearly, with a cap on the overall amount of money used. Some merit-based scholarships are reliant on your high school GPA before you have college coursework under your belt, and then become dependent on college GPA. If you want to maintain your scholarships throughout your college career, it’s essential that you continue to perform well as a student, justifying your worthiness for the award.

Merit-based awards are competitive in nature, and you will likely be one of many students hoping to get a piece of the pie. That means you absolutely must meet the minimum standards specified by the organization giving it away. If you just barely fall short of the minimum GPA requirement, for example, then don’t bother submitting an application. File it away and shoot for it next semester after your grades have risen – if it’s based on your college GPA.

You may be prompted to submit entrance exam scores, complete a project related to your major, or write an essay. The latter two require making time and putting forth a solid effort before the scholarship deadline approaches. Treat it as you would an important class project and pay close attention to the details. However, ideally, you don’t want to push it back to the deadline because some organizations give priority to the first applicants (in rare cases). Here are a few tips for the common things that accompany scholarship applications:

  • Essay: If you aren’t already accustomed to writing flawless essays – whether you did so during the college application process or in your college classes – then read these tips from the U.S. News and World Report. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to writing one. No two prompts – or audiences – are exactly the same.
  • Letter of recommendation: The person who would be writing your letter of recommendation should meet three requirements: they like you, they’re able to gloat about things you’ve accomplished, and they are a good writer. In your case, a teacher or professor should suffice. Ask them like you would ask them for any other favor. Read over these tips from the Illinois Department of Employment Security. As with your essay, the same rules from the college application process will apply.
  • Interview: Many organizations like to interview their applicants to decide if they meet the criteria of a student they wish to support. The best advice is cliché: be yourself. But the process of acing your interview takes a little more work than just self-affirmation. The University of Tennessee-Knoxville offers excellent advice, stressing the importance of practice. Find some common scholarship interview questions, like these, sit down with your friends and family, and have them grill you.

When you’re not too busy proving how smart you are and how much potential you have, don’t forget to pay close attention to the application itself. Treat it like a resume for a job. Do not make errors and do not leave out information. Imperfections can cause automatic elimination by organizations that receive a high number of applicants.

 

Resources

As you may have gathered by now, finding scholarships is a long and complicated process, but it doesn’t have to be painful. These databases provide you with comprehensive lists of scholarships to simplify your search:

  • Fastweb: Merely entering in your email address will provide you with new lists of scholarships that meet your profile via email. And there are lots to pull from in its database of 1.5 million (worth $3.4 billion).
  • CollegeBoard: This scholarship search isn’t quite as extensive – with 2,300 sources worth $3 billion – but it’s nothing to sneeze at. It’s the College Board, so if you have any other questions about scholarships, then it probably has answers.
  • Military.com: You’ve served out country, and now you’re ready to pursue your education. Briefly fill out a form and Military.com will find the scholarships.
  • U.S. News & World Report: You used the website to research college destinations, and now you can use it to find scholarships. It’s another big database from a reliable site.

Several more national scholarship databases exist, albeit lesser known. It doesn’t hurt to take the time to peruse those as well. Also be sure to search any state scholarship databases that may exist in your state of residence or the state of the college you are or will be attending. Keep in mind that local scholarships tend to be rewarded locally.

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