College scholarships can be the answer to the question every parent should be asking about paying for college.
The question that’s usually asked is something like “What’s the best way to pay for college?” What people should be asking is “What’s the best way to not pay for college?”
My college choice was heavily influenced by scholarship offers. I applied for and was granted numerous local and one-time scholarships and was awarded a four-year Robert C. Byrd Honors Scholarship good for $1,500 a year.
When the University of Minnesota offered a full-tuition scholarship on top of those, I told some pretty good schools like Duke and Vanderbilt to take a hike. The value proposition offered by my home state’s flagship university was too good to pass up.
Your child doesn’t have to be a valedictorian or superstar athlete to receive scholarships, but you have to know where to look, how to qualify, and how best to help your child stand out.
This post was written by my friend Jocelyn of The Scholarship System and the Debt-Free Degree Roadmap (a free live workshop for parents starting next week!).
I first became acquainted with Jocelyn from her interview snippets in the Playing with FIRE documentary, and I expect I’ll get to know her better as my own children inch closer to the age at which we’ll be looking to score some scholarships for them.
How to Find College Scholarships to Help Your Child Graduate Debt-Free
College can pave a person’s way into the workforce. It’s an opportunity for teens and young adults to hone critical skills and gain expertise in their chosen field, setting them up for future career success.
While going to college is often viewed as vital, it’s typically expensive. As a result, students commonly turn to student loans to handle the cost, leaving them in debt long-term.
But what if there was a better way? What if your student could have a stellar college experience, earn a
valuable degree, and leave school completely debt-free? Luckily, it is possible with scholarships.
Scholarships can be the difference between graduating with a mountain of debt that may take decades to pay back or starting a new career without a massive financial burden hanging overhead. That’s why they are so crucial to the equation.
If you are wondering how you can help your child go to college debt-free with scholarships, here’s everything you need to know.
Preparing for Scholarship Success
While it may come as a surprise, finding scholarships that are accepting applications isn’t the best first step. Instead, spending time getting organized is the way to go.
Most scholarship applications have similar requirements, including a list of documents your student needs to submit and specific pieces of information. Ideally, your student should gather as much of this in advance as possible. That way, when it comes time to send in applications, they’ll have everything they need on-hand.
Here is an overview of what your student may need to provide when they apply for a scholarship:
- Picture ID
- School Transcript
- SAT or ACT Scores
- Proof of Awards
- Volunteer Work Hour Records
- Letters of Recommendation
- College Acceptance Details
Not every one of those items may be available ahead of when it’s needed. For example, your student may have to review the essay requirements before crafting one or talk to a teacher about a letter of recommendation that speaks to a specific point.
However, some documents may be reusable. If your student wrote Common App essays or requested recommendation letters, they should gather them in case they can be used for scholarships as well.
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Resources for Locating College Scholarships
There is actually a slew of scholarship resources. In many cases, tapping as many as possible is the best approach. After all, the more scholarships your student can track down, the more applications they can submit, increasing their odds of getting some form of award.
If your student doesn’t know where to look, here are some of the best resources for locating scholarships.
Colleges and Universities
If your student already knows where they are going to go to college, then why not use the school as a resource? With a quick call to the financial aid office or a visit to the financial aid section of the college’s website, your student may be able to find out about a range of opportunities.
Typically, institutional scholarships are listed openly, along with any application instructions. However, financial aid offices may also point students toward outside opportunities, giving them a direct line to additional options.
High School Guidance Counselors
When it comes to reputable scholarships, guidance counselors are often in the know. Plus, they have access to your student’s file, so they know what your student brings to the table. It’s part of a guidance counselor’s job to help students succeed, so reaching out and asking for their input is a great idea.
Ideally, your student should request an appointment with their guidance counselor and let the counselor know in advance that they’d like to discuss scholarships. That gives the counselor a chance to gather information and prepare for the conversation.
Community and Professional Organizations
Two often overlooked resources are community and professional organizations. Many local businesses offer their own scholarships, as well as professional associations and unions.
At times, eligibility is limited to people who live in a particular area or who have a direct connection to the organization. For example, unions often stipulate that either the applicant or the student’s parents have to be members. As a result, competition is typically lower, which works in your student’s favor.
In some cases, a quick trip to an organization’s website will let your student find out if scholarships are available. It’s also wise to sign up for any newsletters, as those may contain information about scholarship options as well.
In today’s digital world, it shouldn’t be a surprise that online searches can help students find scholarships. The internet is an excellent resource, both for finding options and applying.
If your student wants to track down scholarships, they should run a variety of searches. Dumping the word “scholarship” into Google might work as a first step, but there’s a decent chance the results won’t be ideal.
Instead, your student should try to refine their search to increase the relevancy of their results. In-state students may want to search for their state and scholarships. For example, if your student lives in New York and will be attending college in New York, then searching “New York scholarships” could be smart.
At times, searching based on demographics is a wise approach. There are specific scholarships for women, for example. Along the same lines, you can find options for students from various backgrounds, like scholarships for Native Americans.
It is important to note that there are a surprising number of scholarship scams out there, many of which are online. Often, when an award markets itself as a no-essay scholarship or only requires a short form to apply, that’s a red flag. Similarly, if the application requires unnecessary personal details, like bank account numbers, or charges students to apply, that’s a horrible sign.
Additionally, some sweepstakes masquerade as scholarships. While a sweepstake isn’t technically a scam, it isn’t a traditional scholarship either. Plus, competition for these can be incredibly high, and there’s a good chance your student’s data will be used for marketing efforts, including potentially by unknown third parties.
If you want additional information about how to identify legitimate college funding offers, join us for this free LIVE training by registering here for the Debt-Free Degree Roadmap.
Tackling College Scholarship Essays
If one particular part of the application is likely to make the most significant difference, it’s the scholarship essay. It’s how scholarship committees get to know your student on a more personal level, which makes them critically important.
Writing a standout scholarship essay may seem daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. As long as your student uses the right approach, they can tackle it with ease.
The formula for handling scholarship essays starts with reading the instructions and then rereading them. Failing to address the topic, missing the required word count, or otherwise not following the directions could be an automatic disqualification. If your student could only do one step perfectly, this needs to be the one.
After that, your student should take a moment to define their audience. By thinking about who’s reading the essay, they can make sure the content speaks directly to that kind of person.
Next, it’s time for brainstorming. Students should toss around a few ideas that align with the requirements. That way, they can identify one that they connect with, which makes the essay easier to write.
The next step is writing a draft. Your student should begin with a compelling introduction that draws the reader in, followed by body paragraphs that each outline one critical point. Follow that up with a firm conclusion, and they have a solid first draft.
Then, it’s on to the editing phase. Along with reviewing their own essay, it’s wise to ask someone else to take a look. Fresh eyes can spot issues that the essay writer accidentally overlooks, increasing the odds that mistakes will be identified and, ultimately, corrected.
Once that’s complete, it’s ready for submission. Your student should also save a copy for later use. Not only can they reread it if they are invited to participate in a scholarship interview, but they can also refer to it if they need to cover the same topic again for another scholarship.
If your student gets stuck, reading scholarship essays that won money can be a good idea. It’ll let them see what a winning essay looks like, potentially helping them get past their writer’s block.
Standing Out During Scholarship Interviews
While not all scholarships require interviews, many do. If your student is invited to take part, that’s a fantastic sign. At a minimum, they’ve made the short-list, so they should be proud of that.
However, getting that invitation can also be anxiety-inducing. The experience isn’t unlike dealing with a job interview, and it’s normal for students to have limited experience in that arena.
Luckily, it is possible to prepare in advance for the experience. First, your student should review their application, submitted documents, and essays they sent. That refreshes their memory regarding what they told the committee, decreasing the odds that the interviewer’s knowledge will catch them off guard.
Next, it’s wise to review common scholarship interview questions. After all, practice makes perfect, and that’ll give them a chance to rehearse their answers.
Selecting great scholarship interview attire in advance is also a must. That way, they can make sure that their outfit conveys the right message, is comfortable enough, and is in good repair before the big day.
If your student is participating in a video scholarship interview, they should also get their tech squared away. A few minutes spent testing the camera, microphone, speakers, lighting conditions, and everything else increases the odds that everything will run smoothly.
Finally, taking a little time before the appointment to relax is always a great idea. Encourage your student to do something they find enjoyable and soothing before the interview, increasing the odds that they’ll be at their best.
Ultimately, the scholarship process can be lengthy. But, by digging in as soon as possible, your student’s odds of graduating debt-free go up dramatically, making it all worthwhile.
If you are looking for ways to find debt-free money to pay the college bill, join Jocelyn for a free LIVE Debt-Free Degree training by registering here.
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