Researching Scholarship Opportunities

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The Savvy Student's Guide to College Education—Chapter Five

The Big Picture

College scholarships continue to be one of the most important parts of the college application process, especially since a scholarship can make the difference in helping make any student's college dreams come true. When looking for scholarships, it's important to remember there are other kinds of funds that are also available to help pay for college—scholarships are money for college that's given based on a particular talent the student has. Scholarships break into two categories—the kind offered by companies and organizations, and the kind offered by colleges. It's harder to be selected for a nationally-known private scholarship than it is to receive one offered by a local group or by a college, but there are some ways to increase your chances—and part of that has to do with the student's interest in writing more essays for scholarships, on top of the essays they've already written for college. Some scholarships require students to prepare an audition or portfolio rather than an essay, while athletic scholarships have their own special requirements that are constantly changing. No matter what kind of scholarship the student receives, it's important to know the conditions the student is committing to when they agree to take the scholarship, and to understand how long the scholarship lasts.

There's something pretty great about going to college, but there's something even better about going to college on a scholarship. Whether it's based on the hard work you've done in the classroom, the talent you've made the most of as an athlete or artist, or just because somebody believes in you and your plans for the future, the feeling you get when someone appreciates what you're doing, and gives you a chance to do even more at college.

Since everyone likes to be recognized, and everyone likes something that's free, it isn't always easy to find scholarships for college, especially since more students are going to college than ever before. But if you know where to look and how to apply, you can make the most of a scholarship search by building it around your interests and needs—and by looking in places where other people don't.

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What is a Scholarship?

There are all kinds of resources out there to help students pay for college. In this chapter, we're going to focus on scholarships, or money for college that is given to a student based on a demonstrated talent. This talent can really be just about anything---strong work as a student, impressive performance as a dancer, being a good athlete, or even being a great yo-yo artist. Chances are, if you have a particular talent, there's a scholarship out there for you.

It's important to keep this definition in mind, since scholarships are different from grants. A grant is like a scholarship, since it's money given to a student to attend college, and, like a scholarship, it doesn't have to be paid back. But grants are usually given based on some kind of demonstrated financial need, while a scholarship is given based on a particular talent. It's easy to confuse the two, especially since some local community groups offer students grants for college, but call them scholarships. This is also true when most students get money for college from the US Government. Students who attend US Military Academies, or veterans who have their education paid by the GI bill, are going to school on a scholarship. Students who receive a Pell Grant or other grant are receiving a grant. We'll discuss grants more in the chapter on Financing a College Education.

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Kinds of Scholarships, and Where to Find Them

Private Scholarships

The easiest way to look for scholarships is to break them into two basic types. Private scholarships are the scholarships that get the most attention. These scholarships are usually paid for by a private company (like the Coca-Cola Scholarship and the KFC Colonel's Scholars Program), and each company sets up the rules for who can apply, how to apply, and how recipients are selected. The amount of money available in private scholarships is easily billions of dollars, and that leads students to wonder—if there's so much money out there in private scholarships, why is it so hard to find?

To be honest, private scholarships aren't that hard to find, but they are pretty hard to get. Before the Internet was in wide use (ask your parents about this), finding private scholarships was pretty hard. Unless you happened to know someone who worked for the company offering the scholarship, or unless you camped out in your school counselor's office, there was no way to let everyone know about all of the private scholarships out there.

That all changed with the Internet. Thanks to scholarship sites like Fastweb, Chegg, and Cappex, students can search for scholarships, organize them by subject, add their due dates to an online calendar, and register to get e-mail notices of new scholarships that are added to the website, all for free.

This change has really improved the connection between companies offering private scholarships and the students who need money for college—in fact, the connection is almost too good. With millions of students knowing about the private scholarships that are online, the number of students receiving scholarships is at an all-time high, but so are the number of students applying for the scholarships. This means the chances of any one student receiving the scholarship is usually smaller than ever before. Like those highly selective colleges that only admit a small percentage of students who apply, private scholarships run out of recipients before they run out of great applicants, since there's only so much money to go around.

What can you do to increase the chances you'll earn a private scholarship? Try these steps:

Register on more than one scholarship search site

Most students will only use one of the three websites I've mentioned to search for scholarships. Don't limit yourself; register on all three, and look up other search engines for scholarships, too. There may be some overlap, but this is the best way to find the scholarships listed by only one search engine.

Set time aside to do your own searches

Most of these sites will give you a list of scholarships you can apply for, based on the answers you provide to a few questions. That's helpful, but those hard-to-find scholarships can usually only be discovered by setting aside an hour a week just to search through the scholarship lists directly.

Think local

All of the national and international competition for online scholarships is leading more students to go back to the pre-Internet strategy of looking for scholarships in their own communities, where there are fewer students applying for college cash. Community groups like Kiwanis usually offer scholarships, as do local businesses, unions, and foundations that give college scholarships to honor the memory of former community members. Ask around, and look closely.

Be ready to develop a new hobby

You may not have a yo-yo—in fact, you may not even know what one is—but if it meant getting $500 for college, would you figure out where to buy one and practice for a few weeks? That might be all it takes to win a scholarship that isn't well advertised for a hobby that's kind of unusual. Remember, the scholarship doesn't go to the most talented person; it goes to the most talented person who applies for the scholarship.

Another thing to consider when applying for any scholarship are the conditions of being selected. Some private scholarships require the recipients to update the scholarship's sponsor on their college progress, while other company-based scholarships might require you to be included in their advertising, and some community scholarships may have you come back and make a presentation to their organization. Even a yo-yo scholarship may have some strings attached to it; make sure you read the scholarship conditions carefully.

Institutional Scholarships

The second kind of scholarship is institutional scholarships, or scholarships that are given based on the college you attend. When comparing the amounts of money available with each kind of scholarship, there is much more money available through institutional scholarships, with fewer students applying for them, since you can be eligible for the institutional scholarship from the college you attend. The qualifications for institutional scholarships are made by the college, and so are the application process, the selection of the recipients, and any other conditions you have to meet if you receive the scholarship.

One of the most popular types of institutional scholarships is the merit scholarship, a scholarship that is awarded based on the student's academic performance in high school. One of the reasons these scholarships are popular is because it's usually easy to determine if you're eligible for them. Most merit scholarships are awarded to any student who earns a specific GPA in high school, or earns a minimum score on the SAT or ACT. These scholarships can run anywhere from a few hundred dollars to covering the entire cost of tuition, books, room and board. Some merit scholarships even include a laptop computer and a research stipend, where the student is paid to go to college.

Finding these merit scholarships has also become easier, thanks to the Internet. The scholarship and financial aid page of any college's website describes their merit aid scholarships in detail, and Cappex has a list of colleges by state that offers merit scholarships. It's always good to double-check the college's website, and make sure they're still offering the merit scholarship described on Chegg. But Chegg is a good place to begin your merit search, since these lists most likely include colleges you've never heard of—and they may have money for you!

Another reason merit scholarships are so popular is because they are usually easy to apply for. In most cases, every student who applies to a college is automatically reviewed for a merit scholarship. The college looks at the student's GPA, test scores, or other information on the college application, compares it to the requirements for the merit scholarship, and then lets the student know if they are eligible for the scholarship. In some cases, this will require the student to complete an extra essay, but it's well worth it, since very few students will bother writing the extra essay—even if it means getting a scholarship.

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Scholarship Essays

There are some private and institutional scholarships that require students to complete an extra activity to be considered. In most cases, this extra activity involves writing an essay on a topic related to the scholarship. Many veterans' groups will offer a scholarship to a student who writes the best essay on what America stands for, while a History scholarship offered by a college may require the student to write an essay on the historic event that means the most to them.

It may be hard to believe, but many students who are eligible for scholarships choose not to apply, simply because they don't want to write another essay. Most scholarships essays have a January or February deadline, so students won't apply for them until they're done applying to colleges. Since so many students don't like writing college application essays, the idea of writing even more essays for a scholarship is just too much to think about—so they don't do it.

It's easy to understand why students may get burned out on writing essays. On the other hand, it doesn't do much good to get admitted to college if you don't have the money to pay for college—and that's what the scholarships are for. The best way to avoid essay burnout is to follow the writing tips in the chapter on Writing an Effective College Application Essay. That will keep you fresh to use these writing strategies when tackling scholarship essays:

Don't be afraid to recycle your college essays

In the chapter on college essays, we said it was more than fine to use the same essay on different college applications, as long as the essay answered both questions effectively—and as long as you change the name of the college. The same is true with scholarship essays. If the scholarship committee wants to know about something that's of value to you, using all or part of your college essay on an experience that had meaning could take care of this scholarship essay. With a few tweaks here and there, you could find new value in that old essay.

Understand what the scholarship essay is looking for

Scholarship prompts often ask the student to do more formal research and writing than college applications—in other words, they may ask for more “head” than “heart.” “Pick an historical figure and explain their importance in our world today” is a topic that's commonly used, and a strong answer to this prompt is going to be based on good research of what that person stood for, the contributions they made while they were alive, and how those values are demonstrated today. If it's appropriate, try to personalize the essay at the end by talking about what the historical figure means in your life, but if the prompt wants you to stick to the facts, focus only on those.

Research your scholarships by topic

If you have to write a new essay just for scholarships, make it worth your while. Doing an online search by scholarship topic could help you find a dozen scholarships where the topic is current trends, global warming, patriotism, or our world today. Applying for those scholarships allows you to make the most of your time, and most likely allows you to write the same basic essay that would have to be modified just a little to meet the requirements of one or two of the scholarships.

Consider your audience

The chapter on college essays talked about the importance of writing your essays with a conversational tone. That may not always work with scholarship essays, especially if the essay is expected to have a more academic structure. On the other hand, if this is a local scholarship, and the essay asks you to write about something of meaning to you, there's a good chance you may know members of the community who are on the scholarship committee. If that's the case, write the essay as if you were talking directly to that person. You still want to keep the tone somewhat formal, but if you write you keep that person's interests and knowledge of your life in mind as you write the essay, you'll have an essay that's likely to get more attention.

Emphasize your future plans

Private scholarships—especially local private scholarships—are usually very interested in what you plan to do when you're in college. This is the perfect time to build on the ideas you used in your “Why Us” college application questions. Use specifics to talk about what you plan to study, or why a particular college excites you, or the special program you plan on pursuing, if only you have the money to go to college. Private groups create scholarships so they can help students create futures. If you give them a strong, detailed picture on what your future looks like with their help, your essay is more likely to get noticed.

Proofread, proofread, proofread

It's important to do your best work on any essay, but members of local and private scholarship committees are much more likely to disregard your application if it has a spelling mistake or a typo in it. A good trick to apply here is to read your essay, correct any errors, and then read the essay again—backwards. Since you're seeing the words in a new order, you're much more likely to spot mistakes this way.

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Scholarship Auditions

Students who are hoping to earn a talent-based scholarship are usually used to putting together the presentations they'll be judged by, since many colleges require arts majors to prepare auditions and portfolios for admission to the college. Still, applying for a college can add another layer of stress to the student, since they know this review is for the money they need to go the college they've already been admitted to.

Since scholarship auditions and admission auditions are similar, the best way to prepare for both is to follow these simple guidelines:

Read the requirements carefully

Every audition has its own specific requirements for the kind of music to be performed, the length of the dramatic piece to perform, or the kind of dance moves they'd like to see. Unlike college essays, it's harder to use the same set of pieces for two different auditions or portfolios. Read the directions carefully, and if there's a requirement you don't understand, call the college.

Ask about an advanced tryout

A growing number of colleges are offering artists of all kinds the opportunity to “practice” their audition with feedback from a member of the faculty. Whether in person or through video, these first tries allow students to get some idea on what they should work on before the big tryout— and that first attempt could make a good impression if the real tryout doesn't go as well.

Schedule your auditions wisely

Many colleges will offer more than one set of audition dates, especially for musicians. This leads some students to schedule their audition later, giving them more time to prepare—but if the college makes scholarship decisions on a “first come, first serve” basis, the college could run out of money before the second group of students even has a chance to try out. Ask about this.

Be flexible

If you're about to be the third straight singer at the audition to perform a piece by Adele, you may want to consider doing something else. That only works if you and your accompanist have worked up another song ahead of time. Plan ahead.

Read the conditions of the scholarship closely

You should do this with every scholarship, but it's especially important to do this with a talent scholarship. There may be a certain number of required performances you have to complete that might not fit in with your other plans, or you may have to audition for the scholarship every year. That's good news if you don't get it the first time, but if you do, it's something to keep in mind.

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Athletic Scholarships

The world of college sports is so competitive, it's easy for a talented athlete to find themselves in the middle of several interested colleges, well before high school starts. Combine that intense interest with the fact that high school players get injured, and college coaches get fired, and it's hard to determine just what a talented athlete should pay attention to first when thinking about their college scholarship opportunities.

It's best to take this one step at a time. Nearly every college is a member of some kind of league or association that has rules about how, and when, scholarships can be offered. Athletes and their parents should read these recruitment rules carefully, since violating any one of them could make the student ineligible for athletics, and athletic scholarships, at any college. They should also read them every year, since the rules for recruitment, including the kinds of grades and classes high school students must complete, change every year. If you have any interest in college athletics, reading these requirements starting in seventh grade isn't too soon. If you haven't read them before a college coach contacts you, make sure you read them once they do. You'll also want to work closely with your team coach, who can offer advice on how to work with college coaches.

Recruited athletes will receive invitations to special summer camps and programs, where they will be observed working with other talented athletes of the same age. This is one way athletes audition for a place on the college team, and the best way to prepare for those invitations is to give your best to your sport and to your teammates, no matter where you're playing.

If these invitations lead to a scholarship offer, remember that you must first apply to the college and be admitted before you can accept a scholarship. Also keep in mind that any kind of verbal offer a coach or college makes is never official. The only way you know you've officially been offered a spot on the team, and perhaps a scholarship, is when they give you an offer in writing. Too many coaches make a verbal commitment, only to withdraw that commitment, once they find a player that better meets the needs of the team. If that happens, there's nothing the student can do, unless the offer was in writing.

Finally, remember that nearly every athletic scholarship is good for one year only. That means a scholarship that looked like a sure four-year full ride can be over at any time, due to injury, a change in the coaching staff, or the inability of the student to meet the demands of the coach and the team. And if you aren't recruited for a team, don't worry. Just like many students earn academic scholarships by finding schools they hadn't heard of, it isn't unusual for non-recruited athletes to walk on, find a spot on the team, and end up with a scholarship the following year. It doesn't happen often at big-name schools, but smaller programs and non-recruited athletes make a perfect fit more often than you think.

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More Resources

Fastweb private scholarship search site

Chegg private scholarship search site

Cappex private scholarship search site

Merit scholarships

Playing your best: College music auditions

Art scholarships and internships

Rules for athletic scholarships

Top 10 Tips for Writing Effective Scholarship Essays

How to Write a Winning Scholarship Essay

Avoiding scholarship scams

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