written by Kate Buikema, Class of 2021
For many high schoolers and their parents, the words “college admissions process” are the three most overwhelming words in the English language. Speaking as a junior in high school who has actually spent a lot of time researching colleges and admissions, I can attest to the fact that the whole affair is Byzantine at best.
Out of all the overwhelming parts of the college admissions process though, the part that tends to terrify parents and students the most is paying for it. According to the website valuepenguin.com, public 4-year institutions average around $40,940 per academic year, and private 4-year colleges average around $50,900.
If you didn’t know those statistics before, chances are you’ve dropped whatever device you’re reading this on; and if you already knew those statistics, chances are you’ve been having trouble sleeping at night.
Thankfully, there are a few different options to help you avoid paying that tear-jerking sticker price. These options include, but (thankfully) are not limited to: grants, work-study jobs, and private scholarships.
While students can’t apply for grants and work-study jobs until late in their senior year, they can apply for scholarships throughout their high school career. And, if you have the patience and know-how, scholarships are an invaluable source of financial aid.
What are scholarships?
There is a difference between scholarships and grants. The two are easily confused because they both are “gift aid” (meaning they don’t need to be repaid). However, grants are awarded according to a student’s financial need, whereas scholarships are awarded based on a student’s merit in academics, athletic ability, essay writing, or in a specific talent.
What are the types of merit scholarships?
There are two branches of merit scholarships. The first one includes scholarships awarded by the college a student is admitted into; these are the best sources of merit scholarship money. A lot of colleges have charts or calculators on their website that gives the amount of scholarship money a student could earn, when you plug in factors like GPA, test scores, and class rigor. At many colleges, students can even receive full-rides if these factors are high enough.
The second, lesser-known type of scholarships are micro-scholarships, which are awards of small amounts of money for individual achievements. For example, I logged into the website RaiseMe.com, and received $1,000 from DePauw for an A in AP Human Geography, $200 for taking an honors class, and another $300 for getting an A in a science class.
These bad boys add up fast.
However, some schools give more merit aid than others, and some don’t give any at all. So, if you’re still in need of more money, there are private merit-based scholarships given out by private foundations, non-profits, for-profit corporations (like Taco Bell), local and state governments, and philanthropists. These private scholarships vary widely in the amount of money awarded — some can be $50 and others $30,000. Most of these scholarships involve writing an essay, but there are a lot of different subjects in which students can compete. Here are the main types:
- Academics: Students can compete via their GPA, test scores, and class rigor.
- First generation college students: If you are the first one in your family to attend college, then there are a whole host of private scholarships (collegescholarships.org/scholarships/first-in-family.htm) that will award money for that. .
- Underrepresented groups: Minority students and women can earn scholarships for having certain GPAs, talents, test scores, and major interests. For example, the Gates Scholarship (yes, as in Bill and Melinda Gates) is an incredible scholarship for minority students who exhibit academic achievement and motivation.
- Career, major, industry: Some private organizations award scholarships to students interested in a specific career, major, or industry. Here’s a full list of scholarships by major: raise.me/scholarship/majors
- Fine Arts: There are scholarships where students can compete via poems, songs, visual art, creative writing, playing an instrument and more. These are becoming increasingly common. The Scholastic Art and Writing Awards are an excellent example of this and offer scholarships in photography, poetry, prose, visual art, and much more. If you’re an artistically gifted individual, check them out: artandwriting.org/
- Crossover: A lot of scholarships involve a mix of all of the above. For instance, there’s the AISES Google Scholarship that awards $10,000 to American natives who are interested in computer science and engineering and have a GPA 3.5 and above (aises.org/)
There are many, many other kinds of private scholarships, however. I’ve seen ones for students planning on going to Christian college (top10onlinecolleges.org/scholarships-for/christian-students/), one scholarship that is an audio essay on patriotism (vfw.org/community/youth-and-education/youth-scholarships), and even a scholarship of $1,000 for an essay about your cat (wwwallaboutcats.com/cats-voice-cats-essay-contest-scholarship).
Also, keep in mind that students can compete for private scholarships on the local, state, and national level. Local scholarships are often smaller, but easier to attain as there are fewer people competing for them. Students should look at those scholarships first for that very reason.
Where does one even begin with these scholarships?
Now that is a valid question, and the answer is a little different for each of the branches of merit aid.
In the case of college-given merit aid: This honestly depends on the student. However, there are things every high school student can do: apply to college, do their best in high school, study for standardized tests, haggle with their college’s financial aid office, and pray.
Micro-scholarships, on the other hand, are far more immediate. All you have to do is create an account on the website RaiseMe.com, fill out your profile, pick some colleges, and let the dollars roll in.
Where it gets a little stickier is with private scholarships. It’s easy to make mistakes or not get the most you could have out of these. So, there are 3 very important rules to remember:
- Start the process early. That means, if you’re in high school, you start the search process as soon as possible. And, if you’re planning on applying for a certain scholarship, start working on your application six months or even a year before the scholarship is actually awarded.
- Apply to as many as possible. The reality is you’re not going to win every scholarship you apply for. That means you need to apply to a bunch in order to improve your chances of winning. Also, even if the scholarships you apply to only award small amounts of money, they do add up and can help close the gap between college savings and educational expenses.
- Follow all the instructions. This seems like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised by how many people miss the little details that can make or break their chances of winning.
How can I begin finding these scholarships?
The goal in your scholarship search is to find as many scholarships (that are appropriate for you) as possible. If you’ve already been accepted to a college, though, start with your school’s financial aid office; they usually have scholarships specifically for the students going there. These are typically pretty competitive, but more accessible than a random private scholarship that you find online.
After that, before you start getting lost on the internet, talk to your high school counselor. They should know you and be able to find merit aid that fits your situation. The same thing goes for your employer, as a lot of part-time workplaces offer scholarships for their employees planning on going to college.
There are also millions and millions of other private scholarships in every random corner of the internet. Trying to find the right ones for you on your own would be beyond tedious, but fortunately, there are many scholarship databases devoted to sorting through all those websites and putting the right ones in the right place. Here are a few of my favorites (in no particular order):
- This is the most established and robust database, and, if you sign up and fill out a profile, it will automatically show you all of the scholarships you are able to compete for.
- This is another huge database, and it will send you tons of emails about matches, deadlines, and newsletters (a lot of experts recommend that you make a separate email for applying to scholarships).
- This website shows you scholarships and colleges that are matches for you. It also has tutors to help you with your essays and applications.
- The College Board’s Big Future Site
- Here you can find info about colleges and how to pay for it, as well as a giant search engine with over six billion results in scholarships, financial aid, and internships.
- This website pairs students with scholarships that match their qualifications, and it sorts them into easy to understand categories like “no scholarship essays.”
- This website in general is kind of magical for the college search. If you’re feeling lost in the college search process, play around for a while on Niche and things should start becoming a little clearer.
I’ve found scholarships to apply to. What’s next?
Keep your eyes open for an upcoming installment in our college blog series where we open that other can of worms: the scholarship application process.