College Scholarships: Start Early and Aim High

As a scholarship coach and consultant, I am often surprised at the misconceptions parents and students have regarding scholarships and who receives them. With $24 billion available each year, there are scholarship opportunities for students of almost all abilities, achievements, backgrounds and aspirations. The key is to separate fact from fiction early on so you can make strategic decisions right from the start.

Myth 1- My child’s college placement counselor will decide which scholarships to pursue. College placement counselors are typically spread so thin that it is unwise to expect them to unearth all of the opportunities your child should pursue. It is true that some scholarships require that applicants have their school’s nomination but there are thousands of opportunities a student can pursue independently. It’s important that the counselor knows your student’s qualifications but the counselor should not be a scholarship hopeful’s primary resource.

The best starting point in a scholarship search is the internet. There are many websites that allow a student as young as 14 to fill out a free profile which is then compared against a database of scholarships for the ones that are qualified matches. The search results will list the amount of the awards, deadlines and links to the primary website. Schoolsoup.com and Scholarships.com are two of the most popular and dependable sites for free scholarship searching. Be careful. Some sites run scams that guarantee scholarship awards if you pay them a fee. Stick with the tried and true sites. Do not give out a social security number in any of the search profiles.

Myth 2- The best time to look for scholarships is the senior year. At this point it is important to differentiate between the two types of scholarships. Full, four-year merit scholarships, such as the Morehead-Cain to UNC and Park Scholarship to NC State, are awarded during students’ senior years and must be used to attend their respective universities. However, there are thousands of non-renewable scholarships available as early as seventh grade which can be set aside for use at any college or university. These individual scholarships are usually awarded through essay competition or creative video or audio submissions. Civic clubs and veterans clubs are typical sources for the one-time awards.

Myth 3- Scholarships are only for students with financial need. Today’s scholarships have become about more than finances. Many full scholarships often include educational travel, laptop computers, unique internships and job opportunities. For example, Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson’s foundation provides full scholarships to Wofford College in Spartanburg and then allows the recipients to be involved with the team’s travels and activities. His scholars also get to network with leaders of the industries in which they want to work. (Students cannot apply for this scholarship directly but are chosen to compete for it when they interview for other funding to Wofford.)

Adventure-minded students should explore scholarships too. For example, in addition to having all of my undergraduate and graduate school expenses funded through scholarships, I won scholarships to spend a summer studying coastal erosion at the Outer Banks, a winter tracking humpback whales in Hawaii and a year living in Canterbury, England studying law. These are opportunities that I never would have encountered otherwise. There are many other, equally exciting, scholarships available to those who are willing to go after them.

Myth 4- Only the very top students get scholarships. Most scholarships do expect the applicants to have strong academic records. Other factors play a role too, such as leadership, civic responsibility, athletic achievement and personal aspirations. A well-rounded, ambitious and articulate student with a 1300 SAT will fare just as well, if not better, as the 1600 SAT student who has few outside interests.

Aside from academic-based scholarships, there is an emerging genre of scholarships available to students based on their community service activities. Major awards are available to students who have shown particular commitment to a cause or outreach, especially if the student saw a need and created a service project to meet it. Fastweb.com and Scholarships.com will provide information on the service-based scholarships as well as the academic ones.

Other scholarships are available based on heritage, financial need, career aspirations, parents’ employment or union membership.

A word about interviews: Most major scholarships will require an interview in addition to the written application. It is very important that a student prepare and practice for the interview before the big day. A scholarship coach or counselor should conduct mock interviews with the student to build confidence and presentation skills. Parents frequently make the mistake of trying to be their child’s coach but it usually works much better to have a different adult in that role. Students should study the background of the funding foundation and university, become knowledgeable on current events and think through common interview questions ahead of time.

Scholarships can open a world of funding and opportunity for ambitious students willing to put in the effort to pursue them. Planning ahead and keeping a strong academic record will help the student make the most of this exciting time in their life.

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