Paying for college can be very intimidating. With tuition rates likely to rise drastically due to the changing economy, students preparing for college now are looking at paying an average of over $6,500 per year for a state-funded school.
For a private school, that cost soars to $25,000 per year. None of this accounts for room, board or text books.
Students without large amounts of savings are forced to choose between either costly student loans, which put them deep in debt at graduation, and skipping school altogether.
Fortunately, there are college scholarships and opportunities that can help students pay for some, if not all, of their college costs. These scholarships reduce the costs of college either by reducing the required tuition or by providing money to pay tuition costs.
According to the U.S. government, currently there is over $80 billion in financial aid being awarded every year to students. These scholarships and grants range from need-based ones, which are given out on the grounds of financial hardship, to merit-based scholarships given for academic excellence. There are also sports scholarships and even unusual ones for things such as being left handed or extremely tall.
The end result is that nearly every student qualifies for at least some scholarships and, as such, can have a sizable portion of the college financial burden removed. However, qualifying for and obtaining those scholarships are two different things and many students miss out simply because they don’t know where to apply or don’t wish to put in the time.
However, with just a few hours of work and some patience, it is easy to search through thousands of scholarships, find those which are a fit for your situation and apply to them.
For most students, the place to begin applying for scholarships is the Department of Education’s Free Application For Student Aid (FAFSA).
The FAFSA is a lengthy and detailed applications that pours over your financial information of yourself and, if needed, your family. This information is sent directly to the schools to which you are applying to qualify you for their scholarships and financial aid as well as to qualify you for Federal financial aid, such as Pell Grants, which make up the lion’s share of financial aid available to students.
However, in addition to those programs, many scholarships, in particular need-based ones, also require a copy of a FAFSA to apply. Fortunately, filling out the FAFSA is relatively simple if you follow these steps:
- Gather the required documents.
- Determine your dependency status.
- Apply for a PIN and have your parents do the same if needed.
- Look up the desired school codes.
- Fill out the FAFSA form online.
- Make corrections and updates every year or as your situation changes.
Once you have done that, your application will be sent to the colleges you select and will make you eligible for financial aid through the Federal government. Also, you’ll be given a printable version of your forms that you will be able to send to scholarship awarding organizations as part of their application process.
In addition to completing a FAFSA, you may wish to complete a PROFILE application as well. Though it is not as widely used as the FAFSA, many scholarships do require it in lieu of a FAFSA and many colleges accept it for determining financial aid.
You should be careful though not to send both a FAFSA and a PROFILE to the same school as it may slow down your financial aid processing.
Searching for Scholarships
Once you’ve got the FAFSA finished, you can then begin to search for scholarships that apply to you. Previously, this task meant pouring over pages of books to find a few scholarships that may apply, however, with the Web, it is almost trivial to locate scholarships that you may qualify for.
Currently, there are three major resources for finding scholarships on the Web:
- FastWeb : The most popular and the largest resource, FastWeb has an index of over 1.3 million scholarships worth over $3 billion. The site also has information about colleges, internships and jobs that can help pay for college.
- College Board Scholarship Search : College Board, the organization behind the SAT, has put together a database of scholarships worth approximately $3 billion.
- Scholarships.com : Boasting a database of 2.7 million scholarships worth over $19 billion, Scholarships.com has the largest database and focuses heavily on local scholarships in addition to larger well-known ones.
Though the sites have different databases and different ways of collecting information, they fundamentally work the same.
They start by having students create a profile, which includes detailed information about their academics, athletics, background and intended schools/major and then matches them with scholarships that may apply to them. These searches then give students the information they need to apply for those scholarships and, hopefully, receive the needed funds.
All three sites are completely free and there is no harm in trying out all of them. However, it is important to keep track of which scholarships you have applied for and which you have not to avoid double-sending applications or skipping over good possibilities.
No matter which site you use, you should have a lengthy list of scholarships to consider and start applying to.
Applying for Scholarships
When applying for scholarships, it is important to remember that every scholarship is different both in terms of the requirements for applying and criteria upon which it is judged. As such, it is important to take a moment to thoroughly read every scholarship’s requirements and make sure that you are both eligible for them, remember that these searches are not 100% perfect, and that you complete the requirements.
Some of the typical requirements for scholarships include the following:
- Standardized test scores
- Financial aid forms (FAFSA)
- Tax returns
- Letters of recommendation
- Proof of eligibility
For items that may be required by many different scholarships, it is best to have them scanned into your computer. That way, if a scholarship allows you to apply online or via email, you can attach the files. If a scholarship requires a mailed copy, you can print it out.
The best advice for completing an application is to follow the instructions to the letter. Do not leave any blanks in the application, file it well before the deadline and include all needed supporting materials.
Likewise, if a scholarship requires an essay, it is important to stay on the essay’s topic and remember your basic rules for essay writing. Also, doing a little bit of research on the topic can help give your essay an edge over others that don’t invest any significant time into it.
However, the most important thing to remember is that you will not receive every scholarship nor, likely, a large percentage of them. As such, it is important to apply to as many scholarships as practical and to not shy away from smaller ones.
Scholarships in the $2,000-$500 range tend to be less competitive and more plentiful. Though you might be passed over for a $5,000 scholarship, you may be able to obtain multiple smaller one that equal it in value.
However, even by themselves those scholarships can make a huge difference.
The bottom line is to apply broadly (focusing first on scholarships that are the best fit for you), follow the rules closely and remember that every penny counts.
Just twenty years ago, applying for scholarships was a tremendous ordeal that involved pouring over hundreds of pages of information and in the hopes of finding one that fit you. However, with modern search engines, the scholarships almost seem to find you.
With so many billions of dollars of scholarships and grants available, there is no reason to not apply and try to make college as affordable as possible. The more money you’re able to collect from scholarships, the less you’ll have to either borrow or spend from your savings.
On that note, every little bit helps. A few dollars here and there can go a long way in the big picture, especially if you are forced to take out student loans.
Best of all, you don’t need to actually have the FAFSA filled out or even apply for college to see what your options are. Anyone can fill out the profiles and look for scholarships today to see what possibilities they have waiting for them.
Even if you are only considering going to college, it is worth taking a few moments to see what your options are, you may find out that college is more feasible than you thought.