3 Ways Parents Can Help Students Choose a Major or Career Path

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One question we are frequently asked in regards to the 8th grade plan in the Iowa Core, which requires students enrolled in the 8th grade to develop a 4-year high school course plan that supports the their postsecondary education and career options, is: “How can you expect an 8th grade student to know what he wants to do with his life.” Our answer to that is “How does anyone, at any age make an important decision?”  You identify your goals, you do research and you take into account your past experiences. An 8th grade student probably doesn’t know exactly what he wants to do as an adult. But by identifying strengths, interests and what inspires them, they can hone in on career possibilities that satisfy their individual needs and interests. From there, they can start planning the steps to be prepared for life after high school.

Here are three ways parents can help their students along this planning journey:

  1. Encourage self discovery – Encourage your student to complete assessments to help identify interests, work values and skills. While they may complete some in school using IHaveAPlanIowa.gov, they can log in at home do further exploration.
  2. Explore resources and create experiences – Take an active role in the classes and activities in which your student is involved. Look at the class offerings and make decisions together. Learn about activities at your school that can create experiences for your child. Has he or she expressed interest in law ? Check into participating in mock trail. Does your child excel in math, science and technology? Have him get real experience through the Real  World Design Challenge. Politics seems appealing? Have him participate in Model UN. Getting hands on experience is the best way for your student to learn what types of work and activities he enjoys. Look into job shadowing opportunities so your student can see firsthand what a career is like.
  3. Be flexible – There is no one perfect career and people change. Some future job opportunities might not even exist now.  Your student’s plan isn’t set in stone – it’s a work in progress and is supposed to be updated as he learns more about himself. Offer your student encouragement and support through the process!

Meet Sloane Murray, AmeriCorps VISTA

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Sloane Murray is Iowa College AId's AmeriCorps VISTA at Southeastern Community College.

Meet Sloane Murray, Iowa College Aid’s AmeriCorps VISTA at Southeastern Community College. Sloane comes to us from Conshohocken, Pennsylvania and is excited to help students realize their dreams of a college education. Sloane has this to say about his journey to get here.

When I finished school at Immaculata University in 2012, I realized that I was no longer interested in a career in my chosen field and I decided to pursue an MBA in management. I knew that I had to build on my communication skills if I wanted to enter into a leadership role in business, but the problem was finding the right opportunity.

Just a few months ago I was studying to get my insurance license and came up a few points short of passing. I decided that it wasn’t the path for me and was frustrated, wondering where I should go from there. In that same week, my best friend told me about AmeriCorps, the opportunities available and how well he was doing in his position. I filled out applications all over the country and interviewed for my current AmeriCorps position three days later. I was offered the position a total of 5 days after applying! I loved that the position was in Iowa seeing as I had been longing for a change of scenery and a fresh start since graduation.

Although there have been plenty of people on my mom’s side of the family with bachelor’s degrees, I was still considered a first-generation college graduate as there had never been a Murray who had finished college. The fact that I had the opportunity to be the first was a huge motivator for me. I also felt like I had a responsibility to show other Murrays that college is possible. My mantra when I graduated was, “I don’t do this just for me, I do it for my family”.

The VISTA position means a lot to me because I was a student who struggled for five years trying to get a bachelor’s degree and I remember every little thing I had to go through to get it. My mother recently asked me if I remember talking about not wanting to go to school on some days, because every time I would speak in class or do a presentation the students in class would laugh and smile at me. I told her that I didn’t forget. I will never forget any of the financial or academic hardships that slowed down my process of getting a degree. And how I refused to allow any of the obstacles that I faced, no matter how big or small, stop me from achieving my goal.

Being a College Access Specialist enables me to be an advocate for education and college success, and I have the opportunity to show people who are struggling how to be successful in college and that getting to where they want to be is possible. Although there are things that can slow the process down for students, I believe that the only thing that can stop them completely from getting to where they want to be with education is themselves. I also see this as an opportunity for professional development. It’s hard for me to think about where I will end up after my year because I know that the window of opportunity will be great!

Tips for an Eye-Catching Scholarship Essay

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Nicole Peterson, a work study student and Writing Center consultant in her senior year at Coe College, suggests the following tips as you sit down to write a scholarship essay.

Research the scholarship:

While this may seem like extra work, tailoring each essay you write to the specific scholarship you’re applying for can increase your chances of receiving an award. Knowing the basics of the scholarship is just the first step; you may also want to research the company or organization that is sponsoring the scholarship and tie in relevant information. Many organizations will want to know why you are applying for their specific scholarship. Often, any information you can link between the goals of that organization and your own dreams can elevate your essay.

Consider your audience:

This works best if you know a bit about the scholarship and the committee who might be reading your application. Even if you don’t have that information, consider this: you’re submitting an essay to a complete stranger, hoping that they read your work and decide to award you money based on your past achievements. In short, you need to sell yourself, and you may need to package yourself differently for each scholarship you apply for. Some may want the focus to be on your academic success, others will be interested in your civic engagement, and still others may want to hear about a specific cultural or personal aspect of your life. Be sure to align your essay to the scholarship requirements.

Put your best foot forward:

While focusing your essay on these requirements also consider leading with your most impressive and most relevant achievement. Consider that the scholarship committee may receive hundreds or even thousands of applicants each year. You want to do everything in your power to make your essay stand out and to make the job easier for your reader. Thus, give the pertinent information up front. Frame your achievements in a way that directly relates them to the goals and requirements of the scholarship committee.

Use personal stories to emphasize your achievements:

A scholarship essay is no time to be humble, be sure to include all relevant accomplishments and awards in your writing. However, instead of simply listing those achievements, try to expand upon a few of them with a personal story. Pick aspects of yourself you are proud of and relate them to your accomplishments. Don’t just tell; instead show what you’ve learned and how you’ve grown. This can work equally well when you need to address a certain lack of achievement, especially one the scholarship committee will receive information on. This can include low GPAs, low standardized test scores, and other statistical information. Instead of dwelling on your shortcoming, address the mistake, explain what you’ve learned, and tell how you applied that knowledge to better your future.

Be creative:

Find your voice. This is your opportunity to sell yourself and convince complete strangers to help you pursue your collegiate dreams. They deserve to hear the real you. Your essay should be well-written and follow standard conventions of English, but that doesn’t mean it has to be boring. Incorporate a memorable story or event, give relevant personal history, and above all else, find a voice that is unmistakably you.

The Essentials of Filling out Scholarship Applications

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Now that you have your essay topic picked out, it’s time to complete those applications! Iowa College Aid’s Tracy Davis shares some tips from her time as Financial Aid Director at Southwestern Community College during which she evaluated scholarship applications.

“Read the directions. It’s a simple, yet often over looked step,” advised Davis. “We would receive essay responses that had nothing to do with the question we asked.  Students had obviously just copied and pasted it from another application without reading what we were looking for.”

If the application requires an essay, focus on having a strong opening. This captures the reader’s attention right away and will ensure your application is memorable.

“Applications that stood out to me were always full of original thought, especially in the thesis statement,” commented Davis. “You could always notice which applicants were good writers.  Also essays are not one paragraph long, be sure it includes an introduction, body and conclusion.”

A scholarship essay is a professional piece of work; make sure that your writing reflects this. Be sure to use proper grammar and spelling.

“Some students would use text lingo and poor grammar,” warned Davis. “I can’t emphasize enough the importance of spell check and having a proof reader, such as an English teacher or counselor.”

Davis also saw some scholarships go unclaimed, such as one that required students be from a specific county and enroll in a certain program of study. While there were students who fulfilled these requirements, they didn’t apply for the scholarship.

Research all that your prospective school has to offer THOROUGHLY, and if you still have questions don’t hesitate to contact the financial aid office.

How to Write a Scholarship Award-Winning Essay

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The most dreaded aspect to scholarship applications: the essay. The first step is one of the most essential: picking a topic. One common mistake made by students is picking a generic essay topic. Reviewers are looking for a unique piece that they will remember in the midst of so many applicants. Two topics that have been seen time and time again are service projects and sports. Marie Schofer, Cornell College Director of Admissions, shares some advice on picking an essay topic.

“Many students choose to write about their participation in a community service project or a church mission trip. These are fantastic experiences that are personally meaningful and reflect on your character. The only problem: Regardless of where you traveled or what type of service you performed, the conclusion is always the same. You like to help people. This is great, but, unfortunately, it won’t differentiate you from other applications,” explained Schofer. “The game winning catch or other sports highlight is another popular essay topic. It is important to understand that the admission counselor reading your essay may not be familiar with your sport and will probably have no emotional attachment to the outcome of the District 5 semi-final game. If you do choose to write about a sports topic, consider an essay that debates the merits of the baseball’s infield fly rule or a descriptive essay of your warm-up routine.”

So what topic will make a memorable essay? While it may come as a surprise, simple topics often make the strongest picks because they allow students to showcase their writing abilities from a fresh perspective.

“I advise students to choose a topic that is interesting to them, and this topic doesn’t have to be a grandiose one. A good essay doesn’t require shock value (like a personal tragedy), but it should be thoughtful and well-written,” stated Schofer. “Simple topics often allow students to show off their writing skills better than topics that are too broad. One memorable essay weighed the pros/cons of facial hair while another described a student’s attachment to her bicycle.”

Don’t forget to have a least one-but preferably several-eyes look over those essays before submitting. For more assistance finding and writing scholarships, visit Iowa College Aid’s website.

November is National Scholarship Month!

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The National Scholarship Providers Association has declared November to be National Scholarship Month, which serves as a time to raise awareness of scholarship opportunities and encourage students to seek those opportunities. Scholarships are a form of financial aid that is completely free and will never have to be repaid by students. November is an ideal time for students to begin searching and applying for scholarships. Each post this month will be dedicated to an aspect of the scholarship process.

Sources for scholarships include: federal and state governments, private companies and institutions, community organizations, non- profit groups, colleges and universities among others. To qualify for government-funded aid, students need to file the FAFSA as soon as possible after January 1 and the Iowa Financial Aid Application.

Iowa College Aid administers state-funded scholarships and grants as well as some that are not funded through state appropriations. These include:



All Iowa Opportunity Scholarship All Iowa Opportunity Foster Care Grant
GEAR UP Iowa Scholarship Education & Training Voucher (ETV) Grant
Governor Terry E. Branstad Iowa State Fair Scholarship Iowa Barber & Cosmetology Arts and Sciences Tuition Grant
Robert D. Blue Scholarship Iowa Grant
Iowa National Guard Educational Assistance Program (NGEAP)
Iowa Tuition Grant
Iowa Vocational-Technical Grant
Kibbie Grant

To find even more sources of scholarships, students should check with their high school counselor and contact the financial aid offices of colleges and universities he or she is interested in, and investigate scholarships from local community organizations, businesses and places of worship.

There are many online scholarship search tools students can take advantage of as well to find private scholarships. Such tools include a scholarship finder in the student’s I Have A Plan Iowa® account, FastWeb, Big Future, College Greenlight and the U.S. Department of Labor’s CareerOneStop.

Begin searching today for scholarships, these are FREE money, and check back each Wednesday this month for more tips on getting scholarships!