With college costs at an all-time high and continuing to rise, it makes sense for high school students to apply for as many scholarships as possible.
“Applying for scholarships may seem like a daunting process to students, especially for those already busy getting applications together for college. But for students willing to put in the time and effort, there are many scholarship dollars available," explains April Bell, director at the College Board.
Is Your Student Eligible for a Scholarship?
College scholarships can be broadly divided into two categories: Financial need-based and merit-based.
Many families assume that to receive a merit-based scholarship, a high school student needs to be a top athlete or have stellar academic achievements. But in fact, scholarships are available to students based on a wide variety of eligibility factors. Sean Castillo, Community Strategist for Zinch, says, “There are many scholarship opportunities that do not heavily rely on GPAs and instead focus on unique skills, talents, or interests that may not be evident on a student’s transcript.”
Plus, scholarships are offered by numerous sources including big corporations (Coca-Cola, Dell, Burger King), private foundations, and colleges themselves. Eligibility criteria can range from religious affiliation to community service to proposed college major. From the International Star Trek Fan Association to the National Potato Council, Chris Long, president of Cappex, adds, “You name it, there’s probably some scholarship out there for your student.”
How to Find Merit Scholarships
Students can start their search by going to websites such as College Board, Cappex, Zinch, and Scholarships.com, all of which offer free access to peruse the many opportunities. On these sites, students set up a profile with their information (GPA, interests, activities, etc.), and the sites will generate a list of potential scholarships that directly connect with the student.
Another great resource is a college’s own website. Every college will have a section on financial aid, where they will list scholarships available through the school along with eligibility criteria and deadlines for applications.
Some colleges automatically consider students for merit aid who apply by a specific deadline. Ally Weissenberg, a high school senior, received this type of college-offered scholarship. Robbie Weissenberg, Ally’s mother, explains, “There was no additional paperwork. She just had to have her regular nonbinding application completed by the deadline. Based on her application, she was accepted by the college and offered a substantial monetary scholarship toward her tuition.”
Guidance counselors, independent college advisors and teachers can also be helpful in finding scholarships, especially those offered by local businesses. It was Carly Pancer’s art teacher that submitted her portfolio to a number of scholarships, several of which Pancer went on to win. Her mother, Debbie, credits the initiative taken by her art teacher: “Her teacher supported Carly and encouraged her. We would not have known about several of these opportunities without her.”
Pancer received two of her scholarships from local businesses—an art dealer and the town art council. Long continues, “It is always good to look locally for scholarships. Big corporations may offer a lot of scholarship money, but they will also have a lot of applicants. But community organizations, rotary clubs, etc., offer scholarships just for students in their geographic area, which means less applicants and better odds of receiving the award.”
Lindsay Maron also got a college scholarship through a local community theater that she worked at during high school. Her mother, Abbe Maron, remarks, “We had no idea when she began working at the playhouse that they offered this type of scholarship to two seniors every year. It was a nice surprise.”
Additionally, many companies offer scholarships to children of their employees; it behooves parents to check with their Human Resources Department.
When to Apply
Nancy Paul, founder of Three Wishes Scholarships, suggests, “Every student can qualify for merit scholarships. The trick is taking the right steps to do so and beginning that process early.” Experts recommend students begin their search during their junior year of high school.
Although many scholarships are geared toward incoming freshmen, there are ones for upperclassmen and graduate programs, too. Bell articulates, “Students may think they missed out by not applying for scholarships as a high school senior, but they can continue to search and apply for scholarships throughout their college years.”
Although there are many legitimate college scholarships, be wary of scams. Scholarships should not require students to pay a fee to apply or to gain access to information. Other red flags include being asked for confidential information such as a social security number.
Maximizing Merit Scholarship Opportunities
Students should approach the scholarship process similar to the way they approached the college application process. Be meticulous when submitting college applications. Read through the eligibility requirements, proofread essays, submit before the deadlines, etc. Students should not apply for every scholarship offered. Instead, they should focus their efforts solely on scholarships for which they meet the requirements.
Nathanael Stover approached the scholarship process methodically by continually searching for scholarships throughout his senior year of high school. Stover says, “About once a month, I would look through the applications that were coming due and then focus on putting my best work into a few of the most promising ones.” This diligence paid off. He was recently awarded a $4,000 scholarship. In addition, because Stover found this scholarship opportunity through a Zinch search, he became eligible for the Zinch-sponsored “Double Your Money” scholarship, and he won that, too.
Unlike loans, scholarships are gifts and do not need to be paid back. Even small dollar amount scholarships can help students pay for discretionary spending, books, housing, plane fare home, etc. There are also nonfinancial benefits derived from winning a scholarship, including a sense of pride and accomplishment. But Paul reminds students, “If you don’t put yourself in a position to be considered for merit scholarships, you can't win them!”