by Claire Yezbak Fadden
Yes, the time passed quickly. You always meant to start a savings account for your child’s college education. But now he’s a high school senior and those plans for a college nest egg never happened. So what do you do now? Start your scholarship search!
College costs are on the rise and even the thriftiest of families can’t keep up. There is money available to qualified, detail-oriented and tenacious applicants. All it takes is a time commitment and attention to detail.
Will My Child Qualify?
Your student wasn’t captain of the debate team, an all-star football player and your family heritage isn’t considered a minority. Can your child still qualify for scholarships? The answer is a resounding yes! No matter what the income level, ethnic background or grade point average, your student can qualify for a variety of scholarship opportunities. For example, scholarships awarded on merit do not factor financial need into their award decision. Other scholarship awards do not always go to the students with the highest GPA.
“Some scholarship programs are known for selecting students who do not necessarily have top grades,” says Ben Kaplan, author of How to go to College Almost for Free (HarperCollins). “Most scholarship programs aren’t myopic. They take into account that applicants have much more to offer than simply the sterile grades that appear on their official transcripts.”
The real key is to apply for as many scholarships as you can. Don’t eliminate any of your options by narrowing your search. The more applications you have out there working for you, the greater your odds of receiving award letters.
When Do I Start?
“It’s never too early to start finding out about what kinds of scholarships are available,” advises The Scholarship Handbook (The College Board). Start researching scholarships that you qualify for in your sophomore or junior year of high school. Most high school counselors will provide students with a list of scholarship opportunities. These can change every month with new ones being added and others dropping off because the deadline for applications has passed.
“You might have missed the window for one scholarship,” says Ernie Williams, community college scholarship specialist, “but there will be another and those deadlines come around the next year, too. So be prepared.” It’s important to get organized early. Request scholarship information now. You can file it away for future use and be certain not to miss the deadline again.
Where’s the Money?
Kaplan figured out the scholarship game early in his quest for higher education. “By the time I headed off to college, I had applied for about three dozen merit scholarships and won more than two dozen of them,” says Kaplan, “and amassed nearly $90,000 in scholarship winnings – funds that I could use at any school I desired. Corporations, associations, organizations, institutions and community groups can’t wait to give away college money.”
There are many ways to find out about scholarship opportunities: at school, online, government agencies, community business, family and friends. “Cast a wide net by pursuing scholarships that most students can apply for,” says Kaplan, “yet narrow the focus by seeking scholarships open only to students with your unique personal characteristics.”
“Think of it as a job,” Williams says. “It may take you three hours to properly prepare an application. Take the time to fill out all the paperwork, make sure your references are appropriate and accurate before you submit it. Then if you get a $500 scholarship, it’s worth it. No job is going to pay you that much per hour. Of course it’s a time investment, but it can be a very lucrative one.”
Where most students fall down in the scholarship application process is that they don’t pay attention to details. “I repeatedly tell students to make sure that they completely understand the instructions,” says Williams. “Read the directions carefully. If the instructions say typed or black ink, don’t turn in something handwritten in red ink!
“Many applications don’t even make it to consideration because they’ve been filled out in a hurry with inaccurate or incomplete information,” says Williams. “Take the time to do it right. It will be worth it.”
Because college costs continue to rise, many families are looking to alternative funding sources. Unfortunately, a growing industry of scholarship search services is also on the rise. Some do a responsible job; others border on fraud. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) provides scholarship and financial aid scam information on their website as a means to alert parents about potential rip-offs and how to recognize them. According to the FTC, unscrupulous companies guarantee or promise scholarships, grants or fantastic financial aid packages. Many use high-pressure sales pitches at seminars where you’re required to pay immediately or risk losing out on the “opportunity.”
There are six basic telltale signs that the FTC cautions students to look and listen for:
1) “You can’t get this information anywhere else.”
2) “The scholarship will cost some money.”
3) “We’ll do all the work for you.”
4) “The scholarship is guaranteed or your money back.”
5) “May I have your credit card or bank account number to hold this scholarship?”
6) “You’ve been selected by a national foundation to receive a scholarship.” or “You’re a finalist” in a contest you never entered.
If you suspect that a scholarship search service isn’t operating inside the law, or you just want more information about scholarship swindles, visit www.ftc.gov. With some advance planning, organization and a commitment to financing a college career, your student’s scholarship search will be well on its way.
Claire Yezbak Fadden is a freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter @claireflaire.