Top Ways Parents Can Help Students Win College Scholarships

While it is ultimately up to a student to pursue the best grades and SAT scores possible to position for college admissions and scholarships, there are a number of things parents can do to help their students succeed.

Get informed and active early- Parents and students need to know that they cannot wait until the senior year to try to become that perfect candidate for scholarships. Starting in 9th grade students should track their activities, awards, community service, job shadowing experiences, summer camps and other activities while also keeping their grades as strong as possible. When applying for scholarships and admission, colleges want to see a student’s length of history in these areas; not that that they just started being engaged in them the other day! Parents need to provide students with a notebook and pocket folder by 9th grade to track all of this information. Keep it in an accessible place like the family’s home office or by the computer where it can be checked and updated often. As parents and students set up id’s and passwords on some of the many sites they’ll use throughout this process, they need to log them all in this book for easy retrieval later. (ex. to register for the SAT, to register for the ACT, to register with the NCAA clearinghouse to be eligible for sports scholarships)

Know which types of scholarships and aid will probably fit the student best and position for those- Most people assume that scholarships are only for the best and brightest. That’s not necessarily so. There are certainly many academic merit scholarships for the gifted student but there are other types of scholarships the more average student can pursue. Parents need to help their students identify their options for scholarships and equip them to pursue them.

Here is another resource for searching for the types of Scholarships that are available:

Community Service Scholarships– For example, many corporations give out generous scholarships for students who have good grades (not only straight A’s, though) who have shown a real commitment to community service while in high school. Coca Cola, Toyota, Kohl’s and many others award substantial sums to students who have actively participated in community service as a youth. Recently even universities have started factoring in community service into their scholarship considerations and some now give full rides based almost solely on that qualification alone. So, good students who want to increase their chances for college money should get involved early. There is even a network of colleges who participate in the Bonner Scholars network ( which awards generous sums to students who are willing to continue community service throughout college.

Ethnic heritage-based scholarships- Students from minority backgrounds can benefit from scholarships awarded to students sharing their ethnic background. Parents can assist students by doing some of the research into scholarship funds that match the family history. (, (Bill Gate’s scholarships),,)

Career-based scholarships- There are scholarships available to students wishing to pursue a variety of majors such as engineering, health care, teaching and more. Do a web search for ones that you can pursue even while in high school and also inquire at your future college about scholarships within your major. Sometimes students fare better in pursuing scholarships within their majors as they become further accomplished in their major, perhaps into their junior or senior year of college. There are especially generous scholarships for women pursuing science or engineering. (For example, I already had a full ride to college but was still awarded another full ride for my junior and senior years because I was the top student who was majoring in business. I had to give the money back but I kept the other perks that came with it.)

Military scholarships- Often overlooked ROTC scholarships can be a tremendous asset for students who want to avoid loans and who are willing to fulfill the requirements that come with this scholarship. There are also scholarships which don’t necessarily require active duty, such as National Guard scholarships. The army’s HPSP scholarships will fully fund the cost of medical school, dental school or veterinary school while also paying a generous living allowance. The service academies (West Point, the Naval Academy and Air Force Academy) offer some of the highest ranked educations in the country and cost nothing for those who attend. If a student is interested in considering an ROTC scholarship, encourage them to talk with a college student currently in the program and with someone who is actively in the military. Perhaps schedule a tour of a service academy.

These are only a few types of scholarships out there so there is still plenty of reason for the B student to be hopeful!

Choose challenging courses but be realistic– Some parents and students think it’s better to have all A’s than to take the harder courses and get the occasional B. Not true. Any college admission rep will tell you they are much more impressed by the student who continues to challenge him/herself throughout high school by taking honors and AP classes. Colleges have on hand a profile of each high school and they check to see how many honors and AP courses a student took and compare their choices to how many were available at the high school. However, play to your strengths and don’t sabotage your transcript by taking AP courses that are far too challenging. A student gifted in English but mediocre in math should take AP Language or Lit but perhaps stick to Honors Algebra. Parents need to be actively involved in their student’s course choices each year and attend the meeting with their guidance counselor.

Learn to communicate effectively- The big scholarships are often won or lost in the interview. Before the interview, identify the most unique or meaningful things about yourself that you want to convey to the judges and think of ways to work those facts into the conversation. It’s not the judges’ job to ask you the right questions; it’s your job to give them the right answers. So if a student wants to make sure they bring up their trip to Madagascar last summer, then they could be ready to answer a question such as “Tell us about a time you had to face a fear.” with a response like, “I’m deathly afraid of needles but last summer, when I was planning to do a marine biology project off the coast of Madagascar, I had to learn to give myself malaria shots in the leg every day.” Now she’s directed the conversation to that experience. Students should practice interviewing with someone outside his or her family who can give them good advice and honest feedback. There’s no substitute for good eye contact, a firm handshake and a genuine smile. If a student has poor communication skills, parents can encourage them to join the teen chapter of Toastmasters (called the Gavel club) to learn public speaking, suggest they pursue a part in a school play to overcome fear of being in the spotlight and especially encourage them to get on the school’s debate team. At home, parents should encourage their students to converse with them using complete sentences, not with one-word answers. For example, in our house it is not allowed for any child over the age of 5 to answer us with one word answers. We want them to converse with us. So, when we ask my 12 year old son, “Hi Nate, how was your day?”, we get an answer like, “I had a great day, mom. Thanks for asking. How was your day?” rather than the typical 12 year old’s response of “Fine”. We made a game of it when they were little but now full sentences flow naturally and conversations with adults are not as painful for the Hartley kids as for some of their peers.

Maximize your SAT and/or ACT scores- Don’t just role in and take these tests, hoping for the best. For most colleges and scholarships, these scores equate to opportunity and, in many cases, money. Use some good practice guides from your bookstore, access the SAT practice questions and free practice tests on and/or use the free online tutorials available on Eat a protein-heavy breakfast the morning of the test to help you stay focused and alert. Don’t hesitate to take either test 2-3 times if needed. Princeton Review and Kaplan, the two leading companies in the country for helping students prepare for these tests, offer prep courses but also offer free practice tests and feedback. Look them up in your area and take advantage of their free offering. Books that use cartoons to teach SAT vocabulary words are fun and effective ways to boost the critical reading score. If your SAT scores remain less than remarkable, look into colleges who have agreed not to ask for them. Visit for a complete list of these four year schools. Parents need to equip their students with the right resources to get their scores as high as possible, beginning in the 10th grade or in the summer leading into their 11th grade year.

Know yourself and your goals- Students who explore their interests early and identify their goals early can truly endear themselves to scholarship committees. When I’m interviewing students for a scholarship, I often have an applicant who claims an intent to become a doctor. However, when I ask him why he wants to be a doctor, I typically get the forgettable response of, “Well I’m good at math and science and I like to help people.” This does not make me think he’s really given it much thought. However, a student who says, “I was alarmed when I found out that in the USA we represent 5% of the world’s population but we consume 85% of the world’s drugs. However, when the World Health Organization ranks the health of all the industrialized nations, we’ve fallen to the bottom of the list. My kids, when I have them, can’t expect to live as long as I do. This tells me that in the last 50 years or so we’ve lost track of what real health is and how to obtain it. I want to be a doctor so that I can help steer my patients back into a true state of health and well-being.”: At that point, it does not matter to me one bit if this second student’s SAT scores were 100 points lower than the guy who was good at math and wants to help people. I want to invest in this guy. Know not only what you want to do but especially why you want to do it. Parents can help students explore career options by discussing ideas over dinner (but not dictating to the student that they are going to be a doctor or lawyer), allowing students to explore various careers yet change their minds as their interests evolve, help them set up job shadowing days or internships in different fields, encouraging them to interview people in various professions by networking with friends and even by allowing the student to attend a summer academic camp hosted by a college. Clemson University, among many others, offers a variety of engineering camps for high school students who want to explore that field. Sewanee University offers a camp in Enviromental Science and also in a variety of writing specialties. Appalachian State offers an in depth anatomy camp for would-be doctors. Exposing students to career options early can help them enter college with more defined goals and greater focus.

In the end, there is no reason for a student to not have an assortment of options and (hopefully) scholarships by the time they must commit to a college. To have the most options, however, planning early is essential. If parents use some of these tips, they can help prepare their students for college success.

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