By LOUIS DENICOLA
A scholarship is like free money. Sure, it takes time and effort to find and apply for scholarships, but you may receive hundreds or thousands of dollars if you're awarded a scholarship.
According to The College Board, the average cost of in-state tuition and fees rose to $9,410 for the 2015-2016 school year (and that's not factoring in the cost of attending an elite private university, which can knock you back over $40,000 per year).
So you might need all the financial help you can get. Here's how you can find scholarships and prepare for and complete your application.
Where you can find scholarships
There are millions of scholarships and free grants available to students.
You may want to start by looking for local opportunities before expanding your search. Here are some ideas on where to begin.
- Your high school. Guidance counselors or teachers may be able to recommend local scholarship opportunities, and some schools have a scholarship fund for graduates of the school. Check whether your school's website has a directory of local scholarships.
- Local companies and nonprofits. Consider checking local newspapers, libraries, associations and community organizations for additional directories and opportunities.
- Online. Use online databases to help sort through scholarships based on your personal information, interests and affiliations. You can find millions of different scholarships through The College Board's Scholarship Search, Scholarships.com, Fastweb and Unigo.
- Large organizations. National and international for-profit and nonprofit organizations may have scholarship funds.
- Your university. Once you send your acceptance letter to a university, you may be eligible for school-specific scholarships. These scholarships can depend on your college, major or financial need. You might be automatically entered for scholarships and get awards if you filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and a school-specific aid application (if it's required). Check with the college or university financial aid office to see if there are additional opportunities.
- Professors. Some scholarships are open to current undergraduate and graduate students. Your professors may know of opportunities within your field of study.
What might make you eligible?
Need-based scholarships are awarded based on your financial situation, while merit-based scholarships often depend on your individual achievements, interests or grades. Some scholarships take both your financial needs and accomplishments into consideration.
There may also be a particular focus for a scholarship, often related to the sponsor's business or interests. For example, a technology company may have a scholarship for students who have declared a science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) major.
Read a scholarship's requirements closely before starting to work on an application -- you don't want to waste your time.
Potential criteria could include:
- Religious affiliation
- Personal interests
- Community involvement
- Military connections
- Where you live
Your age, grade, high school and where you're going to college can also affect your eligibility. For example, there are also scholarships specifically for students who will be attending vocational or community colleges, and others for students in four-year undergraduate programs or those pursuing a post-secondary degree.
If you're applying for a multiyear scholarship, your award could be rescinded if you no longer meet the criteria -- if you drop out of school or your GPA falls below the requirement, for example.
There may also be ways to reduce the time it takes for you to prepare and submit the application. Having the standard documents collected and ready to go can shorten the time it takes to submit an application and help you meet last-minute deadlines.
Preparing to apply for scholarships
Start searching and applying for scholarships as soon as you can, or you could miss some of the application deadlines. Depending on the scholarship, you may need to send copies of the following documents with your application.
- Official high school transcript.
- SAT or ACT test results.
- Student Aid Report (SAR) as proof you completed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
- Your parents' financial information and/or yours.
- A personal essay or short-answer responses to questions.
- Letters of recommendation or references' contact information.
You may also need to verify your eligibility by submitting proof of your association with an organization or proof of your work, such as a video or documentation, if the scholarship is tied completing a project.
Completing your application
When you apply, fill out the entire application, or your application might be disqualified. You may be able to mark "not applicable" where needed, but don't leave a space blank. If you're unsure about a question or section, contact the organization and ask for clarification.
One key component to some merit-based scholarships is a personal essay -- it may be how the judges determine who will receive the money.
Pamela Toney, vice president of student operations at Colorado State University-Global Campus, recommends "spending some time writing a well-thought-out essay about who you are (and) what accomplishing this education goal will do for you."
You can use this piece as an outline for others while also weaving in personal anecdotes that are relevant to a particular essay's topic.
Try to finish your application essay early so you can ask someone else to review it, perhaps a parent. Ask for feedback and try to incorporate the changes into your next draft and subsequent essays.
John Paul Engel, a lecturer of entrepreneurship at the University of Iowa, says, "Ultimately, the scholarship committee is looking for someone who they can feel good about giving the scholarship to. Someone who will appreciate it and make the most of it."
He also suggests writing and sending a thank-you note to the scholarship's sponsor if you win.
When you receive a scholarship, you'll either receive a check or the money will be sent to your university, in which case you'll need to share the school's contact information. Double check with the university to find out which department should receive the money.
You also need to let your university know how much you'll receive. Your scholarship amount will affect your cost of attendance and could have an impact on your financial aid package.
If you're pursuing a degree, there's almost certainly a scholarship that could help pay your expenses. Put in the time to find scholarships and complete the applications, and you could receive hundreds or even thousands of dollars for your efforts.
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