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How to Find College Scholarships

As news reports continue to paint a stark picture of rising college tuition rates, increasing textbook prices, and ballooning student loan debt, it has never been more important to figure out how exactly you will be paying for college.

If you are among the students whose parents or relatives will pay your college tuition and fees, then consider yourself quite fortunate. If not, there are still ways to mitigate the damage to your current and future finances.

In other words, today you will learn how to find ways to make college a little bit cheaper.

First, some financial aid and scholarship terms...

The federal government’s Student Aid website defines the following terms, which I think will be helpful to know:

Financial aid can be based on merit or need:

  • Merit-based: Based on a student's skill or ability.

  • Example: A merit-based scholarship might be awarded based on a student's high grades.

  • Need-based: Based on a student's financial need.

  • Example: A need-based grant might be awarded based on a student's low income.

Financial aid usually comes in the form of a grant, a loan, a scholarship, or work-study:

  • Grant: Financial aid, often based on financial need, that does not need to be repaid (unless, for example, you withdraw from school and owe a refund).

  • Subsidized Loan: A loan based on financial need for which the federal government generally pays the interest that accrues while the borrower is in an in-school, grace, or deferment status, and during certain periods of repayment under certain income-driven repayment plans.

  • Unsubsidized Loan: A loan for which the borrower is fully responsible for paying the interest regardless of the loan status. Interest on unsubsidized loans accrues from the date of disbursement and continues throughout the life of the loan.

  • Scholarship: Money awarded to students based on academic or other achievements to help pay for education expenses. Scholarships generally do not have to be repaid.

  • Work-Study: A federal student aid program that provides part-time employment while you are enrolled in school to help pay your education expenses.

Financial is often bundled to form an offer/package:

  • Financial Aid Offer/Package: The total amount of financial aid (federal and nonfederal) a student is offered by a college or career school. The school's financial aid staff combines various forms of aid into a “package” to help meet a student’s education costs.

For our purposes, we are only going to learn about scholarships, but hopefully now you have a better understanding of the different types of aid. As you now know, the great benefit of scholarships is that they usually do not require repayment. You are given money for college. Free money. What could be better?

Since the allure of scholarships is hard to resist, people have gone out of their way to corrupt the process and take advantage of people who are just trying to find as many ways possible to reduce the cost of college. Because these people are preying on your anxieties and hopes, they are able to get vital information from you and sell it to others. Or, they deceive you into purchasing unnecessary and possibly illegal services.

So, where do you find scholarships?

Let’s review how you should approach your search for scholarships, and how to avoid getting yourself into some serious trouble with “financial aid consultants.”

1. Only use legitimate sites.

Do not give any identifying information until you can verify that the website is legitimate (usually has “.org” or “.gov” at the end or is sponsored by a U.S. government agency). Some sites will ask students to fill out a free profile in return for selling students’ information to marketers. Read the terms and conditions carefully before giving out personal information.

2. Be aware of companies claiming to get you more scholarships and financial aid.

You should never have to PAY to find scholarships or financial aid. There are many companies out there that claim that they can get you more scholarships and aid and will fill out the FAFSA and CSS Profile for you.

They may be able to point you to colleges that historically offer greater scholarships (which you can easily find by a simple Google search) and complete all the financial application forms as a tax preparer would, but they can NEVER get you any more than you would naturally qualify for.

The only way they can get you more money is if they are manipulating the income information and other numbers on these financial aid/scholarship forms. This is ILLEGAL and could actually jeopardize not only your chance of getting any financial aid or scholarship at all, but also your admission chance.

Here is a REAL example of how “financial aid consultants” can hurt you:

Susie (not the student’s real name) was persuaded by a tax preparer that he will not only help with getting Susie more scholarships and aid but also help with college applications and essays. Susie’s parents, not knowing any better and thinking it’s a good deal despite the service costing thousands of dollars, agreed to receive help from the tax preparer.

The tax preparer told Susie to just hurry up and write something for her essays and submit her application as soon as possible, because the sooner she applies, the more aid she will get. Susie, pressured by the tax preparer, submitted her application with an awful essay. Susie was an auto-admit to the school, so the awful essay didn’t jeopardize her admission, but she couldn’t gain admission to any honors programs, and in the end, she didn’t receive any more scholarships than she would have naturally, had she not used the service and just used FAFSA, which is free.

This was a total scam that fed on Susie’s and her parents’ ignorance of how financial aid works. If Susie had done her application the right way with an impressive essay, that could have actually given her more financial aid based on the merits illustrated in her essay.

If you are ready to search for scholarships, start with these places first:

1. Check out the financial aid website of the particular college you are applying to.

Though FAFSA and CSS Profile will screen you for available scholarships offered by the college you are applying to, there may be other ones to which you would need to apply to separately.

For example, UT Austin’s Texas Exes scholarships are something you have to apply to separately from the UT Austin’s general scholarship application and the FAFSA.

2. Check with your school counselor.

School counselors should have a list of scholarships available at their office. Ask for the list and ask if they would recommend any particular one.

3. Check with your parents’ workplace.

Many corporations and government agencies have scholarships available to children of employees. Ask your parents if they have one at their workplace.

4. Check with your place of employment or volunteering.

These corporations or organizations may offer scholarships to their employees, even part-time employees or volunteers.

5. Check with your place of worship.

Many religious or cultural organizations offer scholarships. Ask the leaders of these organizations.

Now, if you are ready to look for additional scholarships, here are some credible websites you can check out:

  1. Fastweb: You create a free profile and get a personalized list of scholarships that match your profile.

  2. (U.S. Department of Labor): You select the selection criteria (select “high school” for the scholarship type) and can see a list of scholarships that match your criteria.

  3. College Board Scholarship Search: You create a free profile and get a personalized list of scholarships that match your profile.

  4. No login required. You can search for scholarships by various criteria.

  5. Additional scholarship sources:

There is no guarantee that you will get a scholarship, and in many cases, the competition can be quite fierce. But there are plenty of resources -- legitimate ones -- that can help you narrow down your search and give you the best options.

In a perfect world, college would be free. But for now, do your best to find the resources that will reduce the price of admission. One scholarship may not seem like a lot, but just think, something is better than nothing, and it will add up.

Not sure which scholarships are best for you? Need help with filling out scholarship applications and completing scholarship essays? Let our college admissions counselors and essay specialists help you!

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