Tips to Get a Summer Headstart on Your Scholarship Attack Plan

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As the old saying goes, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” But while college students receiving scholarships and grants might not get a ham sandwich, they get something even better: money for their education that does not have to be repaid after graduation (as opposed to private or federal loans). It’s as close to free money as a student can get.

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The reason scholarships and grants aren’t “free” money is that students and families have to put in the time and effort to find the best opportunities to get their share. Each year, though, millions of scholarship dollars go unclaimed, because students don’t apply for them. Creating a realistic approach to scholarships and grants starts with understanding what they are and how to best prepare now to take advantage of financial aid and scholarship options down the road.

Be active

A good piece of advice for life, not just scholarship applications, students who are involved in their community either as a volunteer, participating in sports, traveling or just doing something that interests them, will help lay the groundwork for college applications, as well as scholarships down the road. They don’t give out scholarships for staying home and watching TV all summer, so use vacation time to experience the world and be active in it. It’ll make for a more interesting life, and a more interesting student when it comes time for applications.

Scholarships are earned, not “won.”

Some families might look at scholarships like the lottery, signing-up for each and every opportunity like an “enter-to-win” giveaway. While some scholarships offer a break from the rigors of other applications, skipping requirements like essays or teacher recommendations, students are counting more on chance than talent to win. Targeting scholarships that speak specifically to a student’s interest or experience will not only narrow down the number of other applicants competing for the same award, but give the student a chance to highlight what makes them unique.

Many scholarships are offered from schools directly

It isn’t just star athletes or school leaders getting scholarship offers from colleges. Institutional grants (a fancy way of saying “scholarships given by schools”) are the biggest chunk of scholarship and grant money awarded each year and they aren’t even that competitive. Rather, students can qualify for scholarships simply by meeting specific criteria as an incoming student, such as GPA, ACT score or through financial information reported as part of the FAFSA. The FAFSA is an important tool for school financial aid as many schools include scholarships and grants based on FAFSA information in their initial acceptance letter to prospective students.

Supply and demand applies to financial aid, as well.

Every student is unique and colleges are looking to create student bodies that reflect a wide array of students. Finding a school that appreciates that uniqueness can mean a less expensive education thanks to scholarships and grants. Racial and economic diversity, excellence in sports and outstanding community service are just a few of the things that can make a student stand out. If a students doesn’t bring anything interesting to the table, schools will be less interested in enticing them with grants and scholarships. That’s why it’s important for students to be involved in activities throughout their education and become the unique person that will make colleges take notice.

Private doesn’t always mean less expensive than public.

Just like cars, homes and high fashion, college is one of those situations where the old saying “nobody pays retail” rings true. Private colleges may comes with costs of attendance that might cause sticker shock for families, but, in many cases, those same schools will offer financial aid packages to accepted students that make the actual cost of attendance much lower. It isn’t rare for students to see private schools assumed to be “too expensive” end up costing less than “affordable” public schools when grants and scholarships are taken into consideration. Researching the financial aid options available from both the school and the state will help give a better picture of what to expect and how to compare.

Not all financial aid is the same

When looking at scholarships and grants, it’s important for students and families to understand the details of their award. Very few scholarships can be applied to a student’s entire education, as most awards are one-time lump sums to help students start on their education. Other grants might require reapplication each year or will only be awarded in future years if students meet certain criteria. Understanding what is available, and for how long, will help prevent financial surprises down the road.

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