Need cash for college? A student loan may be the first thing that pops into your head, but now that you’re starting to think about financing a four-year school, you should start looking for scholarships first. Also called “gift aid,” a scholarship is free money that doesn’t need to be repaid.
Though some scholarships are reserved for students with special skills and qualifications, you don’t need to be a star athlete or talented artist to qualify for free money. Awards also can be based on your hobbies, organizational affiliations, career goals, geographic area, ethnicity and financial need, just to name a few. There are also many “offbeat” scholarships out there, such as one for left-handed students or for designing your prom attire using duct tape! The bottom line is: Don’t assume you’re ineligible for scholarships. If you start your search early enough and search often enough, you have an excellent chance of finding free money.
Scholarship search and application tips
The scholarship search and application process can be overwhelming. Thousands of scholarships are available, and you’re not going to be eligible for every single one. But if you start looking as early as possible (now is perfect), stay organized and keep on searching even when you feel like you’ve exhausted all your leads, you have a better chance of scoring a scholarship.
Prioritize awards by how closely you meet the applicant requirements. Put the deadline and priority of each award on a calendar so you know which applications to complete first.
Request scholarship information as early as possible, and be sure to include a self-addressed, stamped envelope with your requests.
List the materials you will need to apply for each scholarship so you’ll know upfront how many transcripts and letters of recommendation you will need.
Make your application stand out. Scholarship committees (and college admissions officers) look favorably on candidates who participate in extracurricular activities or do volunteer work. Get involved in your school and a club that represents your major if you aren’t already.
Include a cover letter with your application that highlights your college plans and career goals, as well as any personal information you want considered during the scholarship committee’s decision process.
When it’s time to submit your completed application, be sure to send all required documents attached to the application. Otherwise, your application could be considered incomplete. Also, you might want to send it via certified mail so you can ensure the documents were received.
Make copies of every application you submit for your records.
Send a thank-you note once your application has been received. This gesture can only better your chances with the committee.
How to be scam savvy
Be wary of scholarship scams. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is! Here are a few common examples from the FTC.
1. Sketchy free seminars
Although some of the hosting organizations are legitimate, a number are just disguised sales pitches for fee-based scholarship tips and searches or high-interest-rate loans.
2. Fee-based scholarship searches
Be wary if an organization asks for an up-front fee for scholarship tips, matching, or searching services. Many of these companies will just take your money and disappear without helping you. Paying fees to get an edge over other scholarship seekers doesn’t work. Diligent searching, good organization and use of free resources does. We do recommend one fee-based scholarship service, www.ScholarshipExperts.com. The fee is nominal and is used to keep their extensive database updated.
3. Scholarships that require an application fee
Multiply a $10 fee times 2,000 applicants for just one $1,000 scholarship, and companies requiring you to pay for a chance at a scholarship have already made a huge profit. There are thousands of legitimate scholarships available each year that don’t cost a dime for you to apply!
4. Random scholarship prize
Exercise caution if someone contacts you and says you’ve won a scholarship for which you never applied. And if these organizations request a redemption fee or bank account information in order to hold your scholarship money, exercise extreme caution and alert the FTC.
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Scholarship tips by Audrey Rutherford. Audrey is marketing communications manager for Chase Education First, exclusive marketing representative for federal education loans made by JPMorgan Chase Bank.