Now is the time for incoming college freshmen to start applying for scholarships to help pay for growing tuition costs.
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According to higher education database BrainTrack, more than $3 billion in private scholarships are awarded to college students each year, with the average award amounting to $2000 to $3000 a year.
But “free money” doesn’t necessarily mean easy money--students must make it their job to put in the time and effort required to maximize their chances of winning award money, says Jon Small, vice president of College Prep at Veritas Prep.
“Preparing scholarship applications should become a part of students’ ‘homework,’ including filling out forms, writing scholarship essays, requesting transcripts from the school registrar, asking teachers for recommendation letters, and visiting the post office to mail out applications on time,” he says.
To get a leg up on the competition, here are five insider tricks for students to max out award money and find opportunities to help pay for college.
Tip No. 1: Cast a Wide, but Selective Net
Students should apply to as many scholarships as possible to increase their odds of scoring aid.
“If students apply for a few large scholarships and wait to see if they win them before applying for others, they can miss out on other scholarship opportunities,” says Marianne Ragins, publisher of Scholarshipworkshop.com. “If students prepare an application package that includes two compelling essays and a student resume, they should be well-prepared to apply for every legitimate scholarship they find.”
Small cautions against applying without abandon, as students can end up wasting their time working hard on an application they don’t qualify for.
“Students applying for ‘need-based’ scholarships should make sure they truly are eligible for such awards before submitting an application,” he says.
Tip No. 2: Search Local
Students should search for local organizations and businesses in their community or state that offer award money to residents to increase their probability of winning in a smaller pool.
“Even though local and regionally based scholarships may be for smaller amounts, they can add up, and ultimately wipe out a textbook bill or more,” says Ragins. “Some of these scholarships may be easier to win since the number of applicants is often fewer. “
The best places to find possible scholarships are online search engines, scholarship book directories, and the high school guidance counselor’s office, according to Small.
Tip No. 3: Apply to the Right Opportunities
Students should thoroughly research organizations and sponsors offering scholarships as well as the previous winners to tailor their essay or interview to be more appealing, says Ragins.
“If the scholarship has an interview process, they should find out who the interviewer is, their background, and their connection to the scholarship program and/or the college or university--it may help to establish an early rapport in the interview and shows that the student cares enough to do their homework.”
While students want to stand out from other applicants, they need to avoid being overzealous and pushy when it comes to contacting the scholarship committee, warns Chanel Greene, manager of financial aid at Peirce College.
“The reason why most businesses or organizations create the application is so that everyone has the same chance to express themselves in the same manner,” she says. “Should the committee have questions, they will reach out to the student.”
Tip No. 4: Get Creative with Responses/Essays
Students should use their essays to tell their stories in an interesting narrative way and not repeat the information already provided in their resume, suggests Small.
“Students should focus on the emotions they felt or the personal impact an experience had on them or others in order to better illustrate the meaning of those experiences and to keep the essay readers engaged,” he says.
As long as the student is answering the question the scholarship application is requiring, a little creativity shouldn’t hurt, Greene says.
“The student should always be mindful of his/her audience and use appropriate language when completing the application.”
Tip No. 5: Go Back and Edit
Experts say many applicants automatically disqualify themselves from winning because of spelling and grammar mistakes. It’s also a good idea to review responses to make sure they are concise, clear and accurate.
“I normally advise students to edit and proofread a printed copy at least three times, particularly if the application includes an essay or series of essays,” says Ragins. “They should also let someone else who is proficient at reading and writing essays review their completed application as well.”