Everything You Need to Know About Scholarships

You have a lot of options when it comes to paying for college: financial aid, prepaid college plans, merit aid, student loans, and more. Another way to partially or completely fund your college education is with scholarships. According to the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS), approximately 1,811,500 students received scholarships in the 2011-2012 school year, with an average scholarship amount of about $3,431.

Here’s everything you need to know about scholarships:

1. The basics

Aside from merit-based scholarships offered directly through schools, scholarships come from a wide range of sources; they could be privately funded through businesses, individuals, non-profit groups, and other organizations. Each scholarship is unique and can range from a few hundred dollars to several thousand. Even if you don’t cover the entire cost of your college education, every bit helps. Some privately funded scholarships are sent directly to your school, where the funds are applied to your tuition, room and board, and other billed items. Other scholarships will be sent directly to you, and you’ll be responsible for paying for your education costs with the funds.

2. Where to find scholarships

There are several ways to find scholarships, and a good place to start is at your school, whether you’re still a high school student or already enrolled in college. If scholarship information is not available on the school’s website, be sure to reach out directly and inquire about current scholarship opportunities.

When it comes to local scholarships, it doesn’t hurt to ask around. Your local library and church are two good places to start, as well as your employer (or your parents’ employers), plus any other local businesses or community organizations.

To cast a wider net, be sure to check out the many free tools online, which can allow you to search thousands of available scholarships: FastWeb.com, CollegeBoard.org, and FinAid.org are some good resources on the web to help you start the search.

3. Applying for scholarships

Every scholarship application will have its own requirements. For example, you might have to submit a personal essay along with your application. Some applications are quick and simple, but others might be much more involved. Many scholarship applications have hard deadlines in place, so it’s important to take note of these deadlines and plan accordingly, especially for those time-consuming applications. Additionally, some scholarships are exclusively for high school students who haven’t started college yet. Deadlines for these scholarships will typically be while you’re still a senior – or even a junior – in high school, so be sure to plan ahead.

4. Maximizing your chances

Maximize your chances by focusing your attention on the scholarships that you’re most likely to be eligible for.

Some scholarships are exclusively available to those who belong to specific organizations, such as honor societies. Other scholarships are awarded based on high academic achievement. Some are awarded based on ethnic background or unique interests. With all of the options out there, it’s important to focus your time on scholarships that you’re more likely to win. Don’t bypass a scholarship just because the amount of money available is smaller than others. The more scholarships you apply for will increase your odds of receiving something, and any amount you receive will help lower your overall college expenses.

When you’ve decided which scholarships you want to pursue, take your time and put in your best effort. That includes reading the application terms carefully, taking note of the deadlines, and preparing ahead of time. You’ll want to be sure you don’t make mistakes simply by rushing through the process.

Think about ways you can stand out as an applicant and unique experience you can highlight. Whether it means volunteering for a cause that’s special to you or sharing a personal life experience in your application essay, you’ll want to be creative and make a lasting impression. Finally, don’t be shy about asking others for help – get friends, family, teachers, or counselors to review your submissions and share their feedback with you.

5. Things to keep in mind

Not all scholarship offers you’ll receive or find online are legitimate, so be careful. You shouldn’t be required to pay a fee in order to apply for a scholarship, so if an application asks for money, steer clear. If you’re at all unsure about whether a scholarship is real, do your homework. There are free resources such as the Better Business Bureau available to help you confirm if a company is legitimate.

Be aware that privately funded scholarships could affect the amount of federal aid you’re qualified to receive. You’ll need to report the private scholarship to your school, and your school will consider that money when calculating how much of the Cost of Attendance you still need to cover. If you have any questions about how a private scholarship could affect your aid, be sure to contact your college to discuss your personal situation.

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