10 Tips for Landing College Scholarships


Attempts to navigate the world of private college scholarships often result in students and families left adrift in the proverbial mile-wide, inch-deep ocean of cyberspace. Let the following tips serve as your guide, helping you and your child streamline the search for her “best-fit” scholarships and maximize her chances at emerging with the ultimate prize: substantial funds for her college education.

1. Save time by visiting top scholarship databases. You could Google until your fingers go numb and still not uncover a fraction of the legitimate scholarship opportunities that have been prescreened and neatly packed into the following easy-to-navigate databases:

  • CollegeBoard.com highlights 2,300 scholarships collectively worth more than $3 billion.
  • Fastweb.com lists 1.5 million scholarships and prides itself on being updated daily. 
  • CollegeNET.com is a user-friendly site that lists scholarships for everyone from freshmen in high school to graduate students.

2. Start before your child’s senior year. Many students make the mistake of waiting until the middle of their senior year to pursue scholarship opportunities, when a good number of scholarships are available only to high-school juniors, sophomores or even freshmen. The aforementioned websites all have a search feature that will allow you and your child to view scholarship opportunities available specifically for students in his current grade.

3. Pick wisely and play to your child’s strengths. Your child should only apply to scholarships that are right in his wheelhouse. If your son is a top-notch violinist who pulls Cs in chemistry and biology, he shouldn’t waste his time applying for a scholarship in the sciences. He should instead pour all of his time and energy into pursuing areas of genuine interest and accomplishment.

4. Beware of scams. By sticking with the aforementioned recommended websites, you’ll avoid illegitimate scholarships. However, as a general rule, avoid any listing that requires an application fee or seems to have no genuine criteria for eligibility.

5. Research your prospective colleges’ “over-award” policies. Many institutions count scholarships against students when awarding aid, because they view the acquisition of extra funds as causing a reduction in financial need. It is important to know which colleges will alter your child’s aid package should she win a scholarship, and whether these colleges will reduce her grants, loans or a combination of both. You can typically find over-award policies on any college’s financial aid website.

6. Polish your essays. For scholarships that require an essay component, a generic and bland submission, especially one riddled with spelling and grammar errors, is not even worth your child’s time to compose. He should make sure the first line or two grabs the reader’s attention and that the whole document is well-written and edited by at least one trustworthy source.

7. Carefully select letters of recommendation. Many organizations will require a letter of recommendation along with your child’s submission. She should pick someone who knows her intimately and can speak in great detail about her unique personal qualities and attributes. Remember, every applicant will be submitting a glowing letter; your child’s simply needs to burn brighter than the rest. 

8. Make sure your child’s online presence is pristine. Now is the time for your child to delete or at least edit his social media pages. Just as in the actual admissions process, organizations considering him for a scholarship are likely to Google his name. The last thing you or he wants a scholarship organization to see are risqué Facebook photos or off-color Tweets.  

9. Keep looking for opportunities while your child is in college. Scholarships for students already enrolled in college are far more abundant than people generally assume and receive significantly fewer applications than those offered to high-school students. Additionally, your child’s pursuits in college may open doors to scholarships she never previously thought possible.

10. Also focus on institutional aid. If you follow the above tips, the pursuit of private scholarships is a wholly worthwhile venture and can ultimately be a fruitful experience. However, it is important to remember that only 5 percent of aid available to undergraduates nationwide comes in the form of private scholarships. Institutional aid, meanwhile, comprises 19 percent of all available aid. To increase your child’s chances at procuring institutional money, make sure he prepares well for the SAT/ACT, takes a rigorous course load, maintains a stellar grade-point average and does his homework on which schools offer large aid packages to students with his academic profile.

Dave Bergman, Ed.D., is a partner with College Transitions LLC, a team of college planning experts devoted to guiding students and families through the college application and enrollment process. For more information, visit collegetransitions.com.

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