The average high school senior anticipates graduation day with the zeal of a prize-winning thoroughbred looking forward to the Belmont Stakes. If a student has fantastic grades, terrific extracurricular references, and smashing SAT scores, then paying for a college education must be the Triple Crown, right?
Then why are parents mumbling about second mortgages, taking on a second job, and looking worried as high school graduation day draws nearer? And why are students with less-than-stellar grades looking glum as their senior year draws to a close?
Everyone agrees that it’s vital for a student to obtain a good education in order to earn a good income. Parents want their offspring to be able to support themselves, so that they can enjoy their lives. At the same time, young people are eager to fly from the nest and prove themselves as adults. But the daunting $$$$$ of college funding have parents and their kids worrying that a degree and the accompanying debt are forever bonded together.
According to statistics, a typical graduate from the Class of 2017 faces the prospect of $39,000 in student loan debt. In fact, 44 million Americans overall owe over $1 trillion in student loan debt, which is a mind-boggling $620 million more than the total amount of debt Americans have accumulated on their credit cards.
Student debt may be a fact of life for many Americans, but it’s important for students to be savvy about the financial aspect of their college education. That’s why knowing how to apply for scholarships is so important. Any financial help that you’re eligible for can alleviate that burden of debt that seems to come with a college degree. The reason that scholarships are such a welcome source of funding is because they’re free money. You don’t have to pay the money back, unlike student loans, which come due all too soon after graduation.
Being alert to what’s offered in the scholarship field is a lot like a major research project. You need to investigate the topic thoroughly in order to be confident that, when you’re adding up the bills for your tuition, books, dormitory, meals, etc., you’ve applied for the resources that are particularly suited to your abilities and your needs as a student.
A 2016 report from CNN Money breaks down the typical sources of funding for a college education:
- Scholarships and grants—34%
- Student income and savings—12%
- Family and friends other than parents—5%
Applying for scholarships can be a very promising way of obtaining funding for your college education. There are so many scholarships available that you can be sure you’ll find ones that match your abilities and your needs. Here are a few things to remember as you embark on your quest on how to apply for scholarships.
1. Don’t forget the FAFSA.
The FAFSA isn’t a scholarship, but every college student is eligible to apply for it, not only students who come from lower-income households. Applying for the FAFSA is the first step to receiving grants and scholarships you qualify for. Because the FAFSA is accepted at all schools, you don’t need to choose your school based on FAFSA funding.
2. Start applying early.
Believe it or not, there are some scholarships that are available to students in grade school! It’s not all about recess, you know! Parents can begin thinking about college funding as soon as they go shopping for that kindergarten backpack. Applying for scholarships is as much an ongoing process as midterm exams and all-nighters during your college years. Even after you’re already in college, keep submitting applications throughout your college career.
3. Take advantage of online tools.
The Internet is a treasure trove of scholarship information. You can find out much more by making use of the Sallie Mae scholarship search tool, which provides free access to over $5 million scholarships worth $24 billion. Other scholarship searches at Scholarships.com and FederalStudentAid will also help you broaden your search for scholarship dollars.
4. Get to know your neighbors.
Or, rather, your neighborhood organizations. Small towns and big cities alike have organizations that offer scholarships for local students. You can see if your church, American Legion or other veteran groups, service organizations such as the Lions Club, Rotary, or other civic groups provide funding. The amounts might be smaller, but the scholarships might be easier to get because there are fewer applicants.
5. It’s not all about academics.
If you’re thinking that the typical scholarship awardee is the valedictorian or the high school quarterback, think again. There are scholarships available for the entire gamut of student demographics, and some of them are designed for the gamer, the chess player, the environmentalist, the vegetarian—no matter who you are, there’s likely a scholarship that matches your interests and hobbies.
6. Pay attention to details and deadlines.
When the applications give you a submission deadline, they mean it. Treat your submission process as if it’s a job. Allocate time for conducting the scholarship search, and then block out time to fill out the forms, write the essays, and obtain the reference letters you need. Proofread everything and remember that spellcheck isn’t always your friend. Typos that you miss are likely to show up as glaring errors for the scholarship reviewers, so have someone else look over the application to make sure that you’ve spelled everything correctly. When you seal and stamp the envelope, you want to be certain that everything inside is accurate and complete.
7. Be smart about scams.
If the scholarship database you’re searching is legitimate, it’s also free, with no upfront fees. Government agencies, such as the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education, as well as the Federal Trade Commission, are on the alert for fraud. You should be too.
Go into the scholarship search as if you’re looking for buried treasure, because unlike Blackbeard’s gold which has never been found, scholarship money is out in the open, waiting for you to claim it.