Dos and Don’ts for College Scholarships

Federal and state governments, colleges, and private third-parties offer grants and scholarships to help pay for college. Unlike other parts of the financial aid package, grants and scholarships are free money that do not have to be repaid like loans or earned such as a work-study award. 

Grants are typically awarded based on calculated financial need. High school seniors may become eligible for need-based financial aid when they file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).  Colleges most often award scholarships based on merit, usually provided without a separate application, for academic excellence, athletic ability, artistic talent, and many other reasons, including geographic diversity, as a way for colleges to round out their freshman class.

In addition to need and merit-based financial aid from the government and colleges, third-parties such as employers, national foundations, local charities, and others, offer free money to college-bound students. Each year, industrious students as young as grade school compete for billions of dollars in contests, prizes, and scholarships offered by private third-parties.

 Here’s what to do to find third-party contests, prizes, and scholarships:

  1. Check with the high school college counseling office. School counselors are a particularly rich source of information for local and state scholarships. They know the sponsors, criteria, and the student’s profile to quickly direct students to applicable scholarships.
  2. Use a free online scholarship search service. In addition to this free scholarship search tool, you will find others online. Be aware that some require an email address to “register.” Often, they will send regular scholarship updates that can be helpful but may also bombard your in-box until you unsubscribe.

Once the search has been narrowed to a workable list of scholarships, it is crucial to stay organized and be aware of any deadlines. Students will likely need to collect transcripts, records of awards/honors, and/or letters of recommendation.  To make the process more efficient, students may sift through each of the application requirements to find similarities among them.  Sometimes the core of one essay may be modified to address multiple applications. 

Here’s what not to do:

  1. Pay a third-party to do the search. With the abundance of free resources, there is no reason to pay a third-party to search for private scholarships. 
  2. Pay a fee to file a scholarship application. Those who set-up legitimate third-party scholarships are motivated to help students and will not charge a fee to be considered for their scholarships.  Scholarship “entry” or “administrative” fees often signal a scam.  Steer clear of them.
  1. Assume a student will not be eligible. Each year, some estimate that many millions of dollars of third-party scholarship money go unclaimed. Usually, the unclaimed money is offered by sponsors with very specific criteria, perhaps an ethnic or religious background majoring in a specific discipline or the children of military veterans with other criteria. It may pay to shop around to find sponsors of scholarships that fit a student’s unique background and interests.

While searching for free money, be creative and inquisitive. There are prizes, contests, and scholarships for just about everything from serious endeavors such as winning a national spelling bee to the fun and creative such as making prom attire out of duct tape.

Third-party scholarships can help offset the rising cost of college. Knowing how to find them, what to avoid, and how they affect financial aid in advance will give you a leg-up when it’s time to get started.