Every college student knows they should apply to more scholarships. Scholarships reduce students’ debt load, save money for parents, and cover the gap between what a student can afford and what college costs. However, there are two big problems. First, it can be hard to find high-percentage scholarships — the scholarships that you have a high likelihood of obtaining. Second, unforeseen problems can arise when you earn new scholarships or other forms of college funding because of the varying eligibility rules for each type of financial aid.
Vanessa, a member of the US Army for six years, discovered some of these intricacies the hard way.
“I was receiving public assistance (welfare & food stamps), along with financial aid that qualified me for childcare. I lost all that when I began working. Because of my work hours, I would need to attend school at night. I don’t have anyone to watch my son and I can’t afford anything else. I hope to continue my education with Saturday classes & online.”
How to Find High-Percentage Scholarships
First, fill out the FAFSA even if you think you will not qualify for federal aid. Many other scholarship applications require information from your FAFSA to apply. Additionally, many students (undergraduates only) do qualify for Pell grants and for federally-backed student loans, which have lower interest rates than private loans.
After filling out your FAFSA, go to your financial aid office and meet with a counselor. If you attend an online college, you can communicate with a counselor over the phone or through email. The great thing about your college’s financial aid office is that they have a file about your current financial aid package (you’ll find out why that’s so important in the next section) and they know every scholarship offered through your college. There is no better way to form a plan for increasing your scholarship awards than by creating it with a counselor.
Once you have applied to the scholarships offered through your college start searching for private scholarships with few possible applicants. Your chances at winning these scholarships will be much greater than if you apply to large, national scholarships. Following are three steps to finding scholarships that you are likely to win. The scholarships you will find in each subsequent step will have an increasing average competition so do not move on to the next step until you have applied to every high-percentage scholarship you found in the previous step.
1. Visit your college’s financial aid office and meet with a counselor. Your college counselor will know the scholarships offered through your college like the back of their hand. Typically, you are most likely to win the scholarships offered through your college. Have your counselor give you a list of all the scholarships they recommend. Then ask them which scholarships you aren’t eligible for now, but may be eligible for with a little work. You might become eligible for more scholarships if you join a student group, declare a major, improve your grades, or enter a competition.
In addition to scholarships offered through your college your financial aid counselor may know of some highly targeted third-party scholarships that you should apply for as well.
2. After pursuing every good opportunity with your college financial aid office, expand your search to local nonprofit and governmental organizations. Start with a search engine. For example, if you perform a search for “Washington scholarship” and “Seattle scholarship,” you will quickly find www.TheSeattleFoundation.org and www.TheWashBoard.org. Both websites have great lists of local scholarships for Washington state and Seattle students. When searching for organizations in your state, it will be most helpful to look for nonprofit (.org) and governmental (.gov) websites.
Keep in mind that some websites are scams. Never pay money to apply to a scholarship or to gain access to a scholarship database. All legitimate scholarships are free to apply and information about scholarships is also always available for free. Paid scholarship databases are not better than free databases.
3. After identifying and applying for local scholarships, you can move on to national scholarships. There are many free scholarship databases and lists of scholarships out there. We recommend using a database like Cappex or FastWeb that provides a customized list of opportunities based on your attributes. The more information you give, the more niche scholarships they can find. Once you get a list of scholarships, sort them by the number of applicants a scholarship will have. Put the least competitive scholarships on top. One drawback to large, free scholarship databases is they make money through advertising that can be quite intrusive.
But wait! There may be scholarships you should avoid…
How Outside Scholarships Affect Other Student Aid
Remember Vanessa’s story from earlier? She had financial aid and free child care, which she lost once she became employed. That is because many financial aid benefits are contingent on your financial need. A student’s financial need is defined by the Federal Government’s calculation which includes tuition and an estimate of room, board, books, supplies and other expenses. If 100 percent of your financial need is met through scholarships, grants, work-study, and loans, then winning a new outside scholarship will reduce your current aid by the same amount. Your college determines which type of aid they will reduce first so it is very important to coordinate with your college’s financial aid office before applying to outside scholarships. You should know how much of your current financial need is unmet, and which type of aid they will reduce first if you win an outside award.
If you stay in close communication with your financial aid office, you should never be in a situation where, because of winning a scholarship, you end up with less total financial aid.
Finding and applying for scholarships will be a time-intensive process but can drastically reduce the cost of attending college. If the entire process seems overwhelming, start by filling out your FAFSA and talking with a financial aid counselor at your school. Just completing these two steps can lead to quick wins that will provide motivation to continue your scholarship search.
Do you have any questions about finding scholarships? Let us know in the comment section.