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Hidden Treasures - Finding College Scholarships

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Hidden Treasures - Finding College Scholarships

From the MCG 2012 Sophomore edition
By Wendy Burt-Thomas

 

TIMES ARE TIGHT and the cost of a college education is higher than ever. If you want to help your family's quest to make college more affordable, nothing can beat scholarships. Unlike loans, which need to be paid back, most scholarships amount to free money! And don't assume that only valedictorians can qualify. If you know where to look, there's something for everyone.

Types of Scholarships

Did you know there is more than $3 billion in scholarships available to college-bound students? The awards range from a few hundred bucks to a full ride for all four years! So what's out there for you?

According to Sallie Mae's director of college bound outreach, Stacy Wriston, scholarships can be awarded based on merit or a student's community involvement, ethnicity or religious affiliation. "Scholarships are typically awarded on an annual basis," explains Wriston. "While the federal and state governments award some scholarships, the majority of funds are awarded by the institution in which students enroll and by private organizations."

Need-Based Aid

In addition to merit-based scholarships, there is also need-based financial aid in the form of grants, loans and work-study.

If you're trying to avoid (or at least lessen) student loans, grants are your best bet. They're available from the federal government (such as the commonly awarded Pell Grant), at the state level (e.g. the Colorado Student Grant), from individual colleges (the University of North Carolina, for example, sponsors a number of grant opportunities), or from businesses and nonprofits. Once you've selected a major, you can begin applying for industry-specific grants. The National Society of Accountants, for example, provides "financial encouragement to promising accounting students."

Unlike grants, student loans need to be paid back, though most offer very low interest rates and can be spread out over many years. The most common federal loans—the Perkins Loans, Stafford Loans and PLUS Loans—are low-interest loans that can be used to pay for higher education at a four-year college or university, community college or trade/career/technical school. There are also private loans—like those through banks and credit unions —which can offer alternative or supplemental funding.

The Federal Work-Study Program will require more than just paperwork. You'll earn a paycheck through a part-time job on campus or through a private organization. Funds are allocated on a first-come, first-served basis at most schools, so apply early.

"Colleges and universities offer merit-based scholarships that recognize a student's academic, athletic or artistic talents; some even offer full tuition scholarships, often called trustee or presidential scholarships," explains college admissions expert Dr. Katherine Cohen, CEO and founder of IvyWise, an internationally recognized college admissions counseling company. "Heritage and professional organizations, corporations, community businesses, churches and civic groups all offer scholarships too. Each scholarship fund has different criteria and uses a different evaluation process. Often, they will look at your GPA and test scores, and many may require an activities resume, essay, recommendation letters and an interview."

Cohen advises students to apply to as many "good fit" scholarships as possible. "Remember, every little bit counts," she says, "and it all adds up!"

How to Find Them

There is a multitude of ways you can learn about different scholarship opportunities available to you. Consider the following:

  1. Get online and check out some of the free scholarship search engines. Wriston says that online search tools, like Sallie Mae's free Scholarship Search (SallieMae.com/scholarships), are some of the easiest ways to find scholarships. "Find one that's free," she says, "and never pay anyone to find them for you. It takes some of your time, but a paid service will not locate scholarships that you aren't able to do yourself, so never pay to find free money." Other sites to consider include CollegeBoard.com, Scholarships.com and FastWeb.com.
  2. Reach out to your high school guidance counselor, who often can nominate students on behalf of your school for certain scholarships.
  3. Tap into your parents' network, as scholarships are often available through their place of employment and other organizations to which they belong.
  4. College websites can also be very helpful—look for scholarship information on their admissions and financial aid sections available to incoming freshmen.

How to Apply

Once you find scholarships to apply for, create a calendar to keep track of all the deadlines. Review the details of each scholarship carefully and tailor your application to the criteria. "Don't use the same essays for all your applications," advises Cohen, a former reader in the Yale University Office of Admissions. "And be sure to submit all components of the application. Read the fine print and follow directions carefully and meet all deadlines. Ask someone to proofread the application."

Wriston adds that it's never too early to start planning. "Many scholarships are just for senior and enrolled college students, but high school juniors can still plan ahead by seeing what will be available for the following year, so start your search early," she says. "Also, compose practice essays. Writing about yourself is sometimes difficult, so practice, practice, practice!"

To increase your chances of winning a scholarship, Cohen recommends applying to a greater number of scholarships that offer less money (rather than fewer scholarships with big awards). Although the amounts may be less, a smaller applicant pool will increase your chances. Your best bet? "Local scholarships," says Cohen, "or scholarships that have a number of unique requirements."

In most cases, when you apply to colleges, you're automatically eligible for scholarships offered through the school.

Avoiding Scams

While it's easy to get caught up in the idea of people giving you money, there are also people looking to TAKE your money. Scam artists often target unsuspecting students with promises of guaranteed money. These "services" often include application fees and can result in identity fraud if the criminal obtains your private information. Watch for phrases like "redemption fee," "disbursement fee" or "processing fee." According to CollegeScholarships.org, "Legitimate scholarships do not ask a student to pay for an award."

Be wary of people that contact you out of the blue via phone or e-mail for "scholarships" for which you never applied. The same goes for free financial aid seminars off campus; many are just sales pitches for investment or insurance products. When in doubt, ask what organization they're representing, if they charge any fees, and if they're willing to sign your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Legitimate financial aid consultants understand that they need to sign your FAFSA if they prepare it for you. If the rep won't sign it, run away. FAST.

Once You Get a Scholarship

Assuming you've done your research, applied for some scholarships and received a few, what's your next step? "Don't assume the scholarship will be awarded for all four years of college," says Cohen. "Many scholarships require you to reapply each year and satisfy certain criteria, like maintaining a certain GPA." So keep your grades up, mark the reapplication deadlines on your calendar and be sure to thank the sponsoring organization—verbally, in writing, or with your time.

For more information go to mycollegeguide.org and type in "scholarships."

Wendy Burt-Thomas is the editor of My College Guide.
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