For the 2014-15 school year, nearly $17 billion was awarded to students in private and employer scholarships, according to the College Board. With so much money up for grabs, it would seem there’s plenty of free cash available to cover the costs of a college education.
Take it from members of the class of 2014, who carried an average of $28,950 in student loan debt, according to the Institute for College Access & Success: Scholarships aren’t a silver bullet. But a private scholarship (those that come from outside of your school or governmental sources) can greatly reduce your overall costs — if you can snag one.
To be eligible for federal aid, you’ll need to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, also known as the FAFSA. To increase your chances of getting private scholarships for college, follow these tips:
1. Get a mentor ASAP
Many scholarships require you to have at least one letter of recommendation to apply, and having someone to back up the claims you’ll make in your application is crucial if you want a real shot at winning. This person can be a teacher, school administrator, family friend or someone you’ve volunteered or worked for, and the longer you’ve known your mentor the better.
One enthusiastic letter will trump three lukewarm or formulaic responses any day. Make your mentor’s job easier by providing him or her with proof of your accomplishments, such as a copy of your transcript and a resume.
2. Profile yourself
If you don’t have a resume, create one. Include things such as jobs, volunteer work, classes, club memberships and any other extracurricular activities you’re involved in, as well as any awards you’ve received. The point is to highlight your strengths and to find scholarships that apply to you — preferably ones that have a small pool of qualified applicants.
In targeting your resume for particular scholarships, you may want to list other distinguishing features or characteristics about yourself. These could include:
- Race or ethnicity.
- LGBT identity.
- Income level.
- Location or community.
- Hobbies and interests.
- Civic involvement.
- Immigration status.
- Special circumstances, such as being a parent, an older or returning student, a GED recipient or a home-schooled student.
3. Start locally and look in unconventional places
“Local scholarships are really the best place to start,” says Suzanne Shaffer, an independent college counselor in Corpus Christi, Texas. “Many times those scholarships go unclaimed.”
You should, of course, check out traditional scholarship databases and guidebooks like Cappex.com, the College Board and the latest edition of “The Ultimate Scholarship Book,” but don’t limit yourself to those. Start with your high school and other nearby schools, in addition to scholarship apps like Scholly, to find lower-competition awards. Even Reddit can be a great source for scholarship leads — ones listed there often have gotten a small number of applicants in recent years.
4. Be selective and read the fine print
When scouring Google for scholarships, narrow down your options by adding the current year into your search, and add a month to find scholarships with a deadline you can meet. Focus on renewable scholarships and see what the requirements for renewal are to make sure you wouldn’t be at risk of losing it. If you’re planning on studying abroad, find out if you could use the award to cover that.
Being selective doesn’t mean limiting yourself to big-money scholarships. Even small scholarships add up. Think about it this way: If you spend two hours on an application for a $500 scholarship and win, that’s like making $250 an hour.
And as Jeannie Burlowski, an independent college consultant in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, notes, “$1,000 is $1,000 you don’t have to pay back in loans.”
5. Use your connections
Talk to your family and friends to see what kind of connections they have. Some companies offer scholarships if you’re related to someone who works there, and someone you know may know about a scholarship that isn’t online. For these lesser-known awards, there’s likely a much smaller pool of competition.
That doesn’t mean you should discount scholarships from clubs or organizations you don’t have any connection to, says Monica Matthews, a scholarship judge in Michigan who helped her own son win over $100,000 in scholarships.
“Don’t assume, for example, that because your parents are not part of the Elks club you can’t apply. Anybody can apply for the Elks club scholarships,” she says.
6. Ask for help
Visit your high school career center and talk to a college counselor, or talk to a teacher you trust to help guide you through the process. These experts can also review your essay as you polish your application package.
Another underused resource is your parents. You’ll need to write the essay, but they can help find scholarship opportunities and fill out your basic info fields, such as name, date of birth and address. That’ll come in handy when you’re swamped with college applications and AP exams in your senior year. On that note: Cut down on time even further by reusing your answers wherever appropriate, like on similar application questions.
But Jessica Velasco, a college counselor at JLV College Counseling in Austin, Texas, and a scholarship committee member, advises students not to ignore the optional questions in the interest of time. “If there’s any red flags that might come up in your application, definitely try to explain those things,” she says, citing bad grades or test scores as possible areas to address.
7. Get creative and do your research
If your application requires an essay, remember that it’s meant to persuade the judges to pick you. Try a creative structure to stand out. Don’t be afraid to pause the story to include sensory info, like a smell or sound, if that will stick with the judges. For an extra push, connect your essay to a career goal.
Also do a bit of research to make sure your application reflects the core values of the company or organization that’s offering it. If possible, do some research on the judges as well as past winners to see what you should include or highlight in your application. And don’t forget about presentation: Spell-check your application and make sure it’ll get to the judges looking neat, organized and professional.
“Making good impressions with the decision makers can go a long way,” Velasco says. “If someone stuck out to me that way, it really helped their chances.”
For even more scholarship opportunities, head over to our friends at Course Hero to apply for their monthly scholarships.