Duck calling. Skateboarding. Creating a prom dress and tuxedo out of duct tape. What do these skills have in common? Believe it or not, talent in any of these fields can earn you a college scholarship.
Not all scholarships require such unusual talents. How can you get a scholarship? Most scholarships sponsored by colleges, corporations or civic organizations have more typical selection criteria, such as outstanding academic achievement or personal contributions in an area such as music, art or community service.
Like your parents have probably told you a hundred times, there are thousands of these scholarships out there, and they can be a wonderful way to pay some or all of your college costs. Seeking and applying for these scholarships is not for the faint of heart, though. The process requires time, patience, and the willingness to fill out a lot of applications.
You will also need to avoid falling victim to some common assumptions. Let’s debunk a few of the myths you may have heard about college scholarships and show you how to get scholarships the right way!
Myth 1: Merit scholarships (world-class flutist, perhaps?) are the only way to pay for college
The largest source of student financial assistance for college is actually need-based aid.
Need-based financial aid is awarded by federal and state governments, as well as by each college and university, based on your family’s financial situation.
Need-based aid can include scholarships, grants, loans or work-study. To be eligible for need-based aid, each student must complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (fafsa.ed.gov) and may be asked to complete additional applications (such as the College Scholarship Search Profile form at collegeboard.com) depending on each college or university’s requirements.
Submitting those applications to the colleges to which you are applying will ensure that you are considered for any scholarships that require the recipient to demonstrate financial need, as well as any grants, loans or work-study opportunities for which you might be eligible.
Myth 2: Scholarships are only offered by colleges and universities
Though colleges and universities are the largest sources of scholarship funding, a number of corporations, foundations, civic organizations and nonprofit groups sponsor scholarships as well. If you receive an award from an organization independent of the college you choose to attend, ask your college’s financial aid office about its policy on outside scholarships. It might impact the need-based financial aid you might receive.
Myth 3: I should start looking for scholarships only after I’ve been admitted to college
It’s never too early to begin looking for scholarships. There are even some scholarships designated specifically for students under the age of 13!
The Web site finaid.org has comprehensive listings of national, state and local scholarship awards and is a great place to start to give you an idea of what is available and for what you might be eligible. Check out nextSTEPmag.com/Scholarships for another great scholarship search site that matches you with appropriate scholarship listings.
You will find information about scholarships at the colleges to which you’re applying on their Web sites or through your school counselor.
Most college-based scholarships have application deadlines in early to late fall. Start your scholarship search in the spring of your junior year so you don’t miss out on any opportunities simply because you missed the deadline.
Myth 4: All colleges offer merit scholarships
Many colleges and universities do sponsor their own merit scholarships. But a large number of schools, particularly those that have highly selective admission processes, offer only need-based financial aid. Do your research on each of the schools you’re interested in to discover what kinds of financial assistance they provide.
Myth 5: If I work hard in high school, I will be rewarded with a scholarship
Though it seems like receiving a scholarship is a reward for hard work in high school, you may be surprised to learn that recognizing hard work is not a college’s primary goal in making scholarship awards.
The vast majority of students who apply to college have worked hard in high school, so it’s impossible for colleges to honor all of those accomplished students. Colleges use scholarships as incentives to encourage certain applicants to attend their school because they would bring unique talents or gifts to the student community.
The specific talents valued by each school will vary. Some will seek students with exceptional academic records, while other schools need those with strong musical ability or those who will contribute to athletic teams or lead community service initiatives. Research the scholarships available at the colleges to which you are applying to see if your skills and talents align with the characteristics they seek in their scholarship recipients.
Myth 6: My college tuition bill is $15,000, so it’s not worth it to apply for a $500 scholarship
Every little bit helps! That $500 scholarship may cover the cost of books for your first semester or the cost of your plane ticket home for winter break. And if you apply for and receive several of those smaller scholarships, they can really start adding up to big savings for you and your family.
Myth 7: This scholarship is for students of Norwegian descent with a 3.5 GPA. My family is from Denmark and I have a 3.3, so I should apply
Unfortunately for you, there are plenty of students out there who are Norwegian and do have a 3.5 GPA, so your application may be dismissed immediately because you do not meet the requirements.
Most scholarships have specific criteria because the donor wants to benefit exactly the kind of student stated. Focus your scholarship search and spend your valuable time applying for only those scholarships for which you are eligible.
Myth 8: Searching for scholarships seems hard, so it’s a good idea to pay someone to do it for me
Yes, searching for scholarships can be time-consuming, and writing the required essays can be a daunting task. But no one else can do it for you.
There are thousands of scholarships that you can research for free on your own. It is unlikely that any organization has exclusive access to scholarship listings that you do not have via the Internet.
You should never pay to get a scholarship. Nor can anyone guarantee that, for a fee, they can get you a scholarship. If you suspect a scholarship offer may be a scam, contact your school counselor and the Better Business Bureau in the city where the scholarship service is located.
Now that you know the truth about scholarships, you’re ready to start searching. Good luck, and keep practicing those duct tape dressmaking skills!
Heather Shows is director of scholarships for Vanderbilt University (vanderbilt.edu).