It has been determined that paying for a child’s college education represents a big threat to retirement for parents today. That is especially true if their efforts of setting money aside for college expenses fall short, which is the case for many families. The good news is that financial aid through federal and school grants is more widely available than ever, making it possible for many students in need of college funds to attend a postsecondary school. However, where financial aid falls short – and it can for families with higher incomes, or when the student has too much money in his or her name – the landscape for scholarships is lush with plenty of options. The key is to know well in advance what scholarships are available, how to find them, and how to apply for them.

What Exactly is a Scholarship?

Scholarships are essentially free money provided by various organizations or individual benefactors to assist worthy students in pursuing higher education. They can be quite large (although these are harder to find or qualify for) and they can be small, just a few hundred dollars. Small scholarships should not be overlooked, because it’s possible to qualify for several and they can add up.

Grants are also free money, but they are provided by the federal and state government as well as directly from certain schools. Grants are usually need-based and there is no requirement to repay them. Another form of federal aid is work-study, where you are provided a job earning at least minimum wage and your earnings are applied to college expenses.

Types of Scholarships

There are more scholarships out there than you can imagine. While fewer kids can qualify for the full tuition scholarships (although you can’t rule it out if your kid is an exceptional student), there are lots of smaller scholarships to be had. The most common misconception about scholarships is that only the smartest, most talented, or most athletic students need apply. That is far from the truth. There are literally thousands of scholarships available through local community organizations, national associations, churches, ethnic organizations, private companies, and individual benefactors. Some scholarships are awarded based on achievement, while others are awarded just for applying. There could be a dozen with your name on it. You just need to know where to look and how to apply for them.

While many are merit-based awarded for academic or athletic achievement, others are more interested in the quality of your character and vision for the future. In searching for potential scholarships, you will find a seemingly unlimited number of options – some very unique. Here are some examples of what you will find:

Community service scholarships: Available to any student who actively participates in community services activities. Check with your local community organizations.

First in family scholarships: Many organizations seek to encourage students who are the first in their family to aspire to college.

Special scholarships: Students with special or creative talents or interests can find a plethora of scholarships available. There are even scholarships available for students interested in duck calling, or those who can speak “Klingon”.

Military scholarships: Dozens of organizations award scholarships to students with family members, including fathers, mothers, siblings, grandparents, who have served in the military.

Writing Scholarships: If your student has average grades but a knack for writing, there are hundreds of scholarships awarded based almost entirely on a written essay.

Searching for Scholarships

Because of the number of different scholarships that are available, and the fact that they are not all widely advertised, it’s important to be proactive in locating opportunities and applying early on. Begin your search with Sallie Mae where you can complete a questionnaire and then use their service to match your child with dozens of potential scholarships. The next place to start looking is in your community. Tap into your associations with fraternal organizations, heritage organizations, employers, and community leaders. High school counselors can be a good resource for finding local scholarships as well.

Your first course of action should be to list potential benefactors starting with local community organizations, affiliations with religious or ethnic groups, employers of your family members, social organizations to which family members belong, and non-profit organizations in your area. You should also make a list of the colleges you are considering as they may also have resources. With your list, meet with your school guidance counselor to enlist their help in mapping out your search.

Your best search tool is the Internet, but don’t ignore networking and word-of-mouth. The more people who know of your determination to earn a scholarship, the more opportunity you have of finding the diamond in the rough. Be prepared to complete lots of scholarship applications.

Learn to Write Effective College Scholarship Essays

Essays are not just required by writing scholarships. Nearly all scholarship providers require an essay as part of the application process. Scholarship providers are interested to learn more about applicants through thoughtfully written essays that reveal more of their character and ability to communicate. Students who are able to write a quality essay stand a better chance of catching the attention of scholarship committees, so it is important to put the effort into writing a scholarship-worth essay. To ensure that you submit a winning essay every time, follow these tips.

  • Make sure you clearly understand the writing assignment. Read the instructions several times.
  • Give a lot of thought to what you want to write. Do a brain-dump of your thoughts on paper and then organize them around a theme.
  • Create an outline of the essay, making sure it touches on all of the elements stated in the instructions.
  • Begin writing your essay by expanding on the key points in your outline.
  • Write clearly with concise and simple language.
  • Pay extra attention to your grammar and spelling. It is the one time when you should be shooting for perfection.
  • Read the instructions again and then read your essay out loud to see if it covers the essential points.
  • Ask someone with strong writing skills to proofread your essay.
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Getting a Letter of Recommendation

Next to the essay, the most important part of your scholarship application is a letter of recommendation. Who you choose to provide you a letter of recommendation is just as important as what that person might have to say about you. Having your Uncle Ned or the person who baby sat you when you were young will carry no weight, regardless of all the good things they say about you. In fact, the scholarship committee will consider the “quality” of the person recommending you in their decision.

The person recommending you should not only be very familiar with your background and qualifications, his or her own background and experience should be relevant to the scholarship for which you are applying. For example, if you community service is a part of the scholarship’s criteria, you should ask a past supervisor from the organization where you participated. In other words, be sure to choose a person who is appropriate for the scholarship you are seeking.

To help your letter writer, you should give them all of the information they need about the scholarship. You could take it a step further and provide them with a sheet of bullet points of things you've done in high school. Just be sure the bullets don’t state anything about you that they wouldn’t agree with. You will also want to have the letter printed on their letterhead.

Finally, make it really easy for them to comply by providing a large mailing envelop and postage. Throughout your interaction with them, make sure you show your appreciation and remind them of the important role they are playing in helping you pay for college.

Avoiding Scholarship Scams

Scholarship search services are a big industry for parents who are desperate to land a scholarship for their students. So naturally the industry attracts its share of scammers and fraudsters. It is estimated that more than 350,000 students and families fall prey to these scams every year. The legitimate scholarship search firms can be very effective in widening your search, but as you begin to look into these types of services, keep your eye out for these popular scams:

Upfront Payments: Never pay an application processing fee or send any money upfront. And most definitely do not provide any bank or credit card information. It doesn’t cost money to submit a scholarship application, so if you are asked for upfront money, it is probably a scam. Do your due diligence. There are plenty of free scholarship search organizations you can work with that don’t require any fees.

Guaranteed Results: There are no guarantees when it comes to winning scholarships. If you are offered a refund if a scholarship isn’t granted, it is probably a scam. Remember the previous rule – no upfront payments.

We do the work for you”: Yes, there is a lot of work involved in researching and applying for scholarships, so an offer to take that off your hands is tempting. It doesn’t matter though, because you must still apply for scholarships yourself.

Do the Necessary Financial Planning for College Funding

It should be noted that, while scholarships are a great source of college financing, the amount of scholarship dollars you receive will reduce the amount of financial aid money you can obtain. So, they should first be considered as an option if your financial situation might preclude you from receiving need-based grants, subsidized student loans, or even private student loans. If you are eligible for need-based grants, you will need to work with your school counselor or a financial aid specialist to determine if the offset would reduce your overall financial aid when both grants and scholarships are included.

Don’t Give Up

There are literally thousands of scholarships available. It takes a lot of work to find and apply for them. It also takes a lot of perseverance, because you could get turned down for all of them. But, you can’t give up trying, because it is a numbers game. In addition, your qualifications can change over the course of a year. Any change in your academic or personal circumstances could make the difference on any of the scholarships for which you have already applied. Also, new scholarships are being created all the time. To win the scholarships game, you simply need to persevere – continue to search, follow up, and reapply as warranted. Somewhere, there is a scholarship with your name on it.