When I speak to students about the high costs of attending college or trade schools, it is fairly obvious most are still really hoping that Mom and Dad have a money tree planted out in the back yard. They already suspect that there is no money tree, but they cling to the HOPE. Sadly, I am fresh out of money trees myself, so I do my best to help kids cross over to the reality that it isn’t easy to pay for school.
The very easiest way to finance an education is to save for it, from the time a child is born…or earlier. I have yet to meet many folks who have actually managed that. Scholarships are one of the next easiest ways to help afford an education…BUT (you knew a “but” was coming, didn’t you) they are not a given. Scholarships require some work. I wrote an article called “Paint Your Target” specifically about things students can do to help them qualify for scholarships. Today I want to talk about hunting for them.
There are three distinct levels of scholarship searching I want to tell you about: National, State and local. The National Level is where a student is competing against the entire country. Tiny fish in a huge ocean. You can find these scholarships easiest by signing up with a search engine. There are MANY different search engines, and they all have strong points….but only sign up for ONE. They will ask your student dozens of questions, and then begin emailing links to the scholarships he/she is eligible for. Lots of links, to lots of different scholarships.
Now, before you start, I have a job for you: Pick out a nice binder to put all of your scholarship search/college search/letters of recommendation/Test scores/important passwords/Financial Aid letters and all other things “college” into. One place to keep it all safe and findable. My kids and I played the “where is that one-of-a-kind important Financial Aid letter” game and it isn’t as fun as it sounds. College “stuff” notebook…you really will be glad to have everything in one spot.
Next: Students will be wise to get a scholarship-specific email account. Because even just using it for one search engine, and to communicate with any/all scholarship groups, it is going to be a busy inbox. It may also be subjected to a giant amount of spam. It will need regular checking, but it is very nice to keep all of this type of info in ONE place.
Okay, so now to search engines. Personal preference here, I send most kids to College Board, for their search engine. It does not seem to generate as much spam, and their site has a lot to offer students in addition to a search engine or the ability to sign up for the SAT test. Not to say there are not lots of great search engines, but this one always makes the top ten (so far, out of several lists I have seen). If you don’t want that one, just google “Best scholarship search engines” and I am sure the choices will all be good. Once you choose one, have your student sit down and answer the zillion or so questions. (Sit in a comfy chair, get snacks and water, put on your favorite music…it will take a while).
So here come the emails telling your student about different scholarships. Read through them to choose 1.) which are best fitted to your student and 2.) which are best fitted to the amount of time your student has to work on it. It does you no good to hear about a million dollar scholarship if it requires roughly 7 solid months of work to put together an application. I am hoping students are studying for school (grades!grades!grades!) and being involved in extra-curricular activities as well as getting involved in their community (volunteer!volunteer!volunteer!). Don’t read a 5,000 page book and write a 5 page essay for a $50 scholarship.
Ideally, a student can write an essay to fit that first scholarship application, and after that just tweak that essay to fit others. No need to reinvent the wheel most of the time. As well as essays, scholarships want activities listed and letters of recommendation. Parents, you can help kids figure out that activity list: sports, clubs, jobs, volunteering, and any/all awards since 8th grade. Start gathering those up as soon as applying for scholarships is on your radar.
Be sure to ask for letters of recommendation right away: it can be tough to get folks to write them in a big hurry, so ask as soon as you can. You need at least FOUR. I recommend asking teachers, coaches, club leaders, Sunday school teachers, and especially those who were in the places where the student did any and all volunteering. If they forget, remind them with a batch of home made cookies…bribery is a valuable tool. Once you have those letters, make MANY copies, but keep the original forever. You can use that same letter for all of your scholarship applications. Be aware that some wonderful people don’t always write a wonderful letter of recommendation. Ask a different person to write you a letter if necessary.
When you apply for a scholarship, MAKE A COPY to send, and keep a copy in your notebook. File the scholarships in your notebook by month: work on the scholarships due in December during the month of November. Pick a reasonable number, like one or two a week, tops. MOST KIDS WILL APPLY FOR ZERO. Someone has to win, but no one wins without applying.
Once you are signed up with a search engine, look at your life: where do you shop? bank? eat out? clubs you belong to? where do you work? favorite soda/candy/pizza? Make a nice long list of those businesses/products, and check their websites for scholarships. Especially those businesses which are local to where you live. This is another great resource to look for scholarships. Watch the local paper. Look for posters at the library, and especially ask in the school counseling office! For students already in college, they will want to look in the financial aid office.
Other than national scholarships, the students will want to look for state-level and county-level scholarships. In Oregon, we have the OSAC scholarship application (oregonstudentaid.gov), which links over 500 Oregon-specific scholarships to one application. County specific scholarships can be found by asking in your High School Counseling Office. My rural county has a foundation, which coordinates a large number of scholarships from our local area….very likely most counties have something similar.
Once a student has decided that scholarships will be important to affording school, they are then faced with actually applying. A few words of wisdom from your Mom friend:
- Just set the timer for 2 minutes to start writing that essay. Just 2 minutes. Once you get some words on paper (instead of a blank page staring cruelly at you, mocking) it is easier to go on.
- Plan a set time each week that you will work on scholarships: Do what you can during that time, and then work on studying, enjoying high school and volunteering during your other free time.
- ALWAYS USE SPELL CHECK AND PROOF-READ CAREFULLY. Do not type your essays on your phone. Have at least 3 people read your essays, and two of them need to be people who do NOT know your story. When Mom reads it, she knows what it should say, which makes it harder for her to spot grammatical errors. You might win or lose due to spelling or grammar issues!
- You need to pay attention to character/word limits: don’t go over. Also attend to the rules: don’t apply if you don’t qualify. Be sure you are following the rules and answering the exact question they have asked.
- It is hard to describe who you are or what you plan to do in life with one medium-sized paragraph…but may be all you get. Be sure you are following the format they are asking for. If you go over, your essay won’t even get looked at.
- Don’t be cute, funny or silly. Giving away money is serious business, and they won’t be happy to read a silly essay. Also resist the urge to embellish a sad story…tell the truth, but don’t add any extra touches to try to make it the “best sob story”. Scholarship committees just want the clearest picture of WHO YOU ARE as you answer the questions they are asking.
- Do your very best. Check spelling. Check grammar. Buff it, polish it, string it with twinkle lights. You may never have tried this hard to write something excellent, but NOW is the time for excellence.
Now for the fun part: there are a few really cool scholarships out there. A few years ago, Dr. Pepper wanted kids to shoot their own “Be a Pepper too” commercial. No essay, just fun with a video camera. Last year I saw a $10,000 scholarship for designing a greeting card. Yes, drawing and rhyming! There is always the Duct Tape Prom Dress scholarship …and those are some incredible Duct tape dresses kids are making. If something like this appeals to you, go for it!
The only certain scholarships are awarded strictly based on GPA and SAT/ACT scores. Those are your very best avenues to free money, but the scholarships requiring essays and competing against others are still worth doing. Scholarships are NOT won exclusively by 4.0 students. They are won by kids who show a real sense of where they have been, and where they are going. Throwing a pile of volunteer hours, some job shadow experience or community involvement helps too.
These tips apply to both merit scholarships and those based on financial need. Read the fine print. Be sure to include all the information you are asked for. Don’t forget to apply for all the scholarships you can at the schools you are considering attending…that is another big pile of researching to do, but potentially several more great scholarships that you can try for.
I hope this encourages you to give some scholarship hunting a try. If you find it helpful, please consider passing this on to others, posting it on Facebook or wherever your favorite high school kids might find it. For more Career Center Mom, follow me at careercentermom.com, or find me on Facebook.
photo credit: Fabian Blank on Unsplash