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Financial Aid 101: All About Scholarships

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If you’re like most aspiring college students, you’re hoping to head to campus with a scholarship (or several) to defray the ever-increasing cost of getting your degree. You may be wondering, though, how to get started—where to research scholarships that are available, which scholarships to apply for, and how to stand out from the competition.


Like most college processes, applying for scholarships can be overwhelming--but it doesn’t have to be. With good planning—and a willingness to be inquisitive—you can snag those extra scholarship dollars for your freshman year and beyond. 


What are Scholarships?

In short, scholarships are free money. The good folks at Merriam-Webster define a scholarship as “grant-in-aid to a student (as by a college or a foundation.)” The University of Southern Alabama defines a scholarship as “a grant or payment made to support a student’s education, awarded on the basis of academics or other achievement.”


Unlike loans, scholarships do not need to be paid back and typically are awarded based on specific criteria such as: academic, artistic, or athletic accomplishments, demographics, financial need, and the like. Scholarships can be awarded on a competitive basis (e.g., an essay contest), by nomination (e.g., from your teachers), or via a selection committee. They can range from small, such as a few hundred dollars, to full, covering your entire tuition.


Who Can Apply for a Scholarship?

While specific applicant criteria will differ by the scholarship program itself, most baseline eligibility covers students enrolled full-time at an accredited degree-granting university or college. When researching scholarships, you’ll want to read the fine print regarding eligibility, deadlines, and other specific instructions. For example, if you’re planning to study 18th century British literature, you won’t want to spend time researching scholarships specific to STEM students. (Arts and humanities scholarships, however, are fair game!) Similarly, if you’re a first-in-family student headed to Mizzou, you can skip over scholarships allocated for heritage applicants.


Get comfortable with skimming eligibility requirements quickly, so you can immediately spot which programs are worth your time and energy, and which should be filtered out of your scholarship research.


Where and When Should I Look for Scholarships?

Type “scholarships” into Google and you’ll be inundated with search results. Instead of just closing your laptop and walking away, here are a few places to get started:

When it comes to scholarship applications, the earlier you start your research and applications, the better. The Department of Education recommends getting started between your junior and senior year of high school, but note that some programs will have varying (or even rolling) deadlines. The point isn’t when you start your research, just that you start.

Note, though, that scholarship application deadlines are non-negotiable. If you’re too late to apply for the coming year, file it away for next year. Silver lining—you’ve already got a jump on next year’s scholarship application process!


How Do I Apply for a Scholarship?

When it comes to scholarships, each funder will be different, with a specific set of application instructions. Follow these instructions exactly for each scholarship application you send. When a team is reviewing a stack of applications, it’s easy and efficient to reduce the size of the pile by immediately discarding those who didn’t follow directions. So, for example, if the application instructs you to use paperclips, don’t use staples, or you’ll be relegated to the trash pile. You can have the most compelling personal story and well-written application of the lot, but if you disregard your instructions, you may as well have not applied at all.


Get the Inside Scoop

So you’ve done your research and applied for a few scholarships—but what about schools that have money left to burn? According to SavingforCollege.com, U.S. universities and colleges have more than $100 million in unawarded scholarships each year. This is where being inquisitive can literally pay off. If you’re interested in a particular school (or schools), start networking: Speak to the financial aid team and the deans of programs that interest you. Is there unclaimed money available? If so, how can you apply for it?


Lastly, don’t limit yourself to traditional scholarships—there are a lot of niche scholarship programs out there. For example, if you worked as a golf caddie in high school, check out the Chick Evans Caddie Scholarship. Fascinated by all things underwater? Consider applying for the Our World-Underwater Society Rolex Scholarship. And if you’re a leftie, there are no fewer than 10 scholarships just for left-handed students, ranging from $500 to $5,000.  


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