When thinking about how to pay for college, many families immediately turn to student loans. But there are thousands of sources of free money your student can utilize—if they put forth the effort to find them.
Students can earn scholarships based on many factors. Academic achievements are the most popular, but other accomplishments, such as leadership, community service, athletics, or other special talents, are just as important. You don’t have to be a straight A student to get this funding.
Scholarships can range from a one-time award of a few hundred dollars to full tuition for all four years of college. While the latter is certainly more appealing, both are valuable opportunities. Larger scholarships might be a better return on investment in terms of time spent applying (if the student is selected), but smaller ones are often less competitive and can quickly add up to a significant amount.
While most merit aid comes directly from colleges, students can apply for more scholarships through outside sources—their high school, community organizations, employers, local businesses, nonprofits, and more. In addition to directly asking these entities about scholarship opportunities, students can search online. There are many search engines, like FastWeb, that students can use to expand their searches.
To increase their chances of earning outside scholarships, students should spend a few hours every week, starting as early as junior year, searching and applying. They should cast a wide net and treat it like a part-time job, even while they’re in college! Scholarships aren’t just for high school applicants—some are available only to current college freshman, sophomores, or juniors.
But with tens of thousands of scholarship applications readily available via the Internet, how can students use their time effectively to find the right ones?
The key to choosing scholarships is looking for narrow applicant pools: smaller applicant pools means less competition. There are multiple ways to identify these scholarships, so find scholarships with specific eligibility criteria, like location, personal background, or intended major. To the dismay of many students, scholarships for narrower applicant pools can sometimes mean longer and more difficult applications. Even if the criteria do not limit who can apply, fewer people will bother completing longer applications, thereby increasing the chances of those who do put in the time and effort.
Keep an eye out for scholarships scams! Do NOT provide personal information, like a social security number or banking details, unless you have: 1) already won the scholarship; 2) vetted the sponsoring organization thoroughly; and 3) discussed the safety of doing so with a parent or guardian. Students should also steer clear of any scholarships that require a fee to apply or that do not list the sponsor’s contact information. Remember: if it seems too good to be true (like being an automatic winner), then it probably is!