Scholarships rarely find you. But hunting them down and landing them is not impossible, either. With a little preparation and good counsel, even a barely-above-average student can rake in the dough.
Below is advice on scoring scholarships from three financial-aid professionals from three well-known American colleges.
• Mary Nucciarone, director of financial aid at University of Notre Dame
Preparation: Good sources of information are the high school counselor, college admissions representative and the Internet. Start gathering information and searching in your junior year so that during senior year, you have identified the schools and organizations to which you will apply. Create a spreadsheet with the name of the scholarship, the organization, required materials and deadlines to track your applications.
Essays and applications: If you plan far enough ahead, you’ll be able to get plenty of feedback from your family, friends and teachers. If possible, ask for advice on the content of your essay, as well as the style and the flow. The essay can often tip the decision if all other factors seem equal among applicants.
Deadlines: Each school or private organization establishes their own deadline, so consequently there is not a common date. Record the application deadline in the spreadsheet you created so you can manage the process and submit your application prior to the stated deadline.
Precautions: Some private scholarship databases include awards that charge application fees. There are a number of very good scholarship search websites that are free. There also are businesses that offer to search for scholarships for a fee, but beware: The organization may be reputable, but if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
• Roberta Daskin, senior associate director of financial aid at Sarah Lawrence College
Preparation: Check with your high school guidance office. They usually know which scholarships are awarded locally. If you decide to do a Web-based search, pace yourself. This can consume lots of time, so as you identify possible scholarships, complete the application before looking for more possibilities.
Essays and applications: The most important part of your scholarship search is to follow the directions of the colleges to which you are applying. Complete the FAFSA and any other required forms or applications before you start looking for outside scholarships. Remember, most of the scholarship dollars come from the government and the colleges.
Deadlines: Deadlines vary by college, but you can’t be too early. Go ahead and estimate numbers on your FAFSA and other forms, then update the numbers or send tax returns to college financial aid offices when returns are ready.
Precautions: Never pay to apply for a scholarship.
If at all possible, ask your parents to file their tax return by April 15. Tax extensions can delay the final decision on your awards.
• Laura Diven-Brown, financial aid director at the University of Mississippi
Preparation: Just remember that to be competitive for scholarships, you should strive for great grades, participate in extracurricular activities and step up to leadership roles in student organizations. You need to be involved. Scholarship committees look for individuals who can successfully juggle other responsibilities with class.
Essays and applications: This is the time to “brag on yourself,” so do it. Have a list on hand of your accomplishments so you can easily reference them when filling out applications.
On your essays, make an impression! Think of the things that set you apart from other students that might have similar academic credentials. Tell your story. Be sure to compose your essays in a Word document first, so you can check your spelling, grammar and word count.
If you prepare an essay, read it out loud to someone else — or even just yourself. There is no better way to identify problems with choppy and repetitive writing. You want your essays to sound concise, smooth and interesting.
Deadlines: The scholarship process is very different from school to school. So it’s critical to find out about timelines from each institution individually.
Take note if there is a priority date for application submission and think of that as your deadline. It is best to make a calendar of deadlines and work on applications in date order.
Precautions: Because applications must be prepared carefully, do not wait until the last minute to complete them.
Submit as many applications as you can, because scholarships are very competitive and, realistically, most students do not get full-ride offers. Instead, you should try to stack as many awards as possible to make the college of your choice affordable.
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