As our guide shows, there are many strategies that you can take to help you graduate from college with little to no student loans. However, there may not be one strategy more overlooked and underused than scholarships.
For many students, shivers go down their spines at the mere mentioning of applying for a scholarship.
Even now, you may be thinking one of the following things about scholarships.
Scholarships are only for students with a 4.0 GPA or athletes.
Too many other students would all be applying for the same scholarship as me. There’s no way I’d be the winner.
Applying for scholarships is a big time-waster. I’d get a better return on my effort by focusing on other things.
If this is how you feel about scholarships, I want to dispel these myths. You can succeed in the scholarship game.
And, surprisingly, it has very little to with your IQ, and more to do with being savvy about how the scholarship process really works.
If the thought of having more free money in college and less student loan debt after college appeals to you (it should), then let me share with you 5 simple ways that you could double your scholarship earnings.
1. Start Scholarship Searches Close to Home.
Stop for a moment and try to picture yourself applying for scholarships right now. What scene pops into your head?
If you’re like I used to be, you’re probably picturing something like this:
Was I right? Were you picturing yourself on your bed with your computer on your lap, scouring scholarship search sites for random scholarships that you can apply for? If so, you’re like most of us.
But while we will see later that there is definitely a time and place to use scholarship sites, this is not the first scene that I want to pop into your head. This is:
I want you to picture yourself sitting in the guidance counselor’s office at your school. This should be where your scholarship search begins.
Here’s why: your guidance counselor will know all of the scholarships that your high school offers, as well as any scholarships from local businesses or families. He or she will also know the requirements and deadlines for each and, in general, can just be a tremendous resource for you.
Sticking with the local theme, your parents’ employers could also be potential scholarship sources. Many larger companies offer college scholarships for the children of their employees. Local professional clubs could also have scholarships in place for local high school grads.
Check out this quote from MoneyforCollegeProject in which he shares the success he enjoyed by focusing on local scholarship opportunities:
“For example, the town I graduated in had a club exclusively for graduates of the college I was planning to attend. They offered a scholarship and I applied. No brainer! My Dad had friends in the local Shriners club which provided scholarships to students from my high school. I had spoken to the local Ruritan Club for a high school project which created another scholarship opportunity. My Dad’s employer offered a scholarship to employee’s children. I applied and won.”
But back to guidance counselors for a moment. In addition to filling you in on all the scholarships available in your local area, they could also help you find the scholarships that are available from the school that you are considering attending.
Finally, if you develop a good relationship, your guidance counselor could write you a letter of recommendation, which many schools require.
Bottom line: There may be a lot of scholarship money “sitting in your backyard.” You just need someone to show you where to find it. Your guidance counselor is that person. You want to be their best friend. Trust me.
2. Leverage Online Scholarship Tools Wisely.
Once you’ve moved past all of the local scholarships that you can find, you then will need to move to scholarships that can be found via scholarship search engine websites. There are LOTS of these sites, so you have plenty of options.
Complete Your Profile.
For these sites to find scholarships that are your best matches, they’re going to need information about you – and the more the better. Don’t take shortcuts on this. I know you want to quickly get to the scholarships, but be patient and make sure that you’ve taken your time on this important step.
Fill out as many optional fields as you can, including any relevant extracurricular activities or community service you’ve been involved in, but be wary of sites that ask for your banking information. This could mean that you’ve stumbled upon one of many scholarship scam sites, which we discuss below.
Avoid the Scams
The FTC has detailed the telltale signs of illegitimate scholarship sites. First, they often will try to pressure you to pay immediately after a seminar or webinar.
Second, they love to “guarantee” that they can secure you scholarship funds as long as you give them an advance fee (that, supposedly is refundable, but in reality, is not).
Third, many scam sites say that they will do “all the work” to qualify you for financial aid. All you have to do is pay a small “processing fee.”
Here’s the thing: the only application that can make you eligible for federal financial aid is the FAFSA, which you can fill out for free on your own. And with real scholarships (as opposed to sweepstakes), you’re almost always going to have to fill them out yourself anyway, due to the essay component. So “taking care of the paperwork” is not a legitimate scholarship service worth paying for.
Scholarships, Not Sweepstakes
If you spend much time at all searching for scholarships online, you will inevitably come across college funding “sweepstakes.” Some of them will even call themselves scholarships.
Hint: If a “scholarship” requires only your personal information with no further effort (i.e. an essay), then you are most likely actually looking at a sweepstake.
The problem with these college tuition sweepstakes is that they are usually nothing more than data-collecting tools. The sweepstakes “sponsor” then turns around and sells your personal information to third-parties.
Also, as we will discuss later, you should never view your scholarship search like playing the lottery. You want to lean into your unique strengths and characteristics that will set you apart from the crowd.
Entering a contest with random winners does not give you an opportunity to do that. Stay away from these as much as possible.
Reputable Scholarship Sites
With all that being said, there are many honest and helpful scholarship search sites. Feel free to do a Google search to find some on your own. But to get you started, here’s a list of 10 popular ones:
- Big Future (College Board)
- Broke Scholar
- Career One Stop
BONUS SITE: My friend Debbie Schwartz and her team from Road2College are working on creating a unique tool to help you find free scholarship money at the schools you are interested in attending. The tool is in beta testing right now, and only includes 5 states, but will be making a wider rollout soon. I’ll keep you updated!
3. Approach Scholarships Like a Job, Not the Lottery
Many students approach their scholarship searches like they would the lottery. They fill out a random application here and there and hope that they hit the jackpot.
This is not the mentality you should have. Instead, you should approach your scholarship search like a part-time job, perhaps even dedicating 10-15 hours a week to the task.
With scholarships, it’s all about the law of large numbers.
Understanding the law of large numbers helps salespeople push through all the “no’s,” knowing that eventually the law of averages will kick in and they’re going to get a”yes.”
With scholarships, if you only got 1 out of every 20 applications accepted, would you be disappointed. Well, from a sales perspective, that’s actually an awesome percentage (many salespeople in certain industries would kill to have a win percentage that high!).
Let’s say it took you 15 hours to fill out all 20 applications, and the 1 “yes” ended up landing you a $2,250 scholarship. That’s $150 an hour. Most high schoolers would take that job any day of the week!
Or consider Sarah Allevato, who was highlighted in a story on Fastweb. She applied and was rejected on seventy-two scholarships. But on the seventy-third application to the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, she won $40,000 per year for the remainder of her undergraduate years, and $75,000 for graduate school!
So, even if Sarah only had 2 years left of undergrad school, plus, let’s just say, 2 years of grad school – that’s $230,000!
There are very few jobs to be had in the world where one sale could land you that kind of a return!
So think of applying for scholarships like it’s your job. The product you’re selling is yourself. Your “clients” are all the schools and organizations out there giving away free money to students.
If you approach scholarships with this mindset, as opposed to the lottery mindset, you will have a much greater chance of finding success.
4. Look for the “Unloved” Scholarships.
Imagine for a moment that you’ve just finished your grocery shopping and you’re making your way toward the check-out registers. Instinctively, without even thinking, what do your eyes begin to scan for?
The shortest line.
I mean, nobody looks at all the registers and sees the one line that’s 3 times as long as all the others and says to themselves, “That’s the register I want to check out at!”
With scholarships, you should have a similar mindset. You want to find the “short lines” – scholarships that aren’t getting as many applications as others. This gives you a better chance of winning.
But while it’s easy to see the shortest line at the grocery store, it’s not quite as simple to determine which scholarships are more heavily applied for than others.
But when you consider human nature, it’s really not that hard to figure out which scholarships won’t get as much “love” as others.
Just ask yourself, “What is the average student looking for?” And the answer is they are looking for scholarships that will give them the most money for the least work.
If you find a high-dollar scholarship that is not too difficult to apply for, you can just about guarantee it’s getting lots of applications.
Finding the Short Line
Knowing this, I want you to go in the opposite direction of everybody else. I want you to look for:
- Low-dollar scholarships, and
- Scholarships that require a lot of work.
Now before you yell at me for being crazy, just hang with me for a second.
- Let’s start with the smaller scholarships. While a $5,000 scholarship may receive 12,000 applications, a $500 scholarship may get less than 100. Your odds of being noticed are far better in this situation. Remember, we’re not approaching this like the lottery. And $500 scholarships can add up quick!
- The same principle applies to lengthier scholarship applications. The odds are that whoever designed it made it purposefully more difficult. Why? in order to weed out the lazy students from the ones who are willing to go the extra mile.
Am I saying that you can’t apply for big-money scholarships that require minimal time and effort? No. I’m fine with you applying for as many scholarships as you can.
I’m only saying that you should not avoid the smaller or harder ones, because these “unloved” scholarships could present your best winning opportunities.
5. Strive to Be Unique (Not Brainy) on Scholarship Essays.
In his scholarship guide (which is fantastic I might add), Remit Sethi explains a simple, but incredibly effective way to stand out from the crowd on scholarship essays:
Think about what everybody else is going to say, and then say something different.
Let me give you an example. If you visit Fastweb, they will give you a list of the most commonly used scholarship essay questions. Here is an example of one under the “Current Events and Social Issues” section. “What do you see as the greatest threat to the environment today?”
Now when you see a question like this, you can easily imagine how nearly every Joe Shmoe is going to answer this question. They’re going to talk about global warming or population growth and the food shortage that we will soon be facing. Or perhaps they will talk about pollution.
The point is, just about EVERYBODY is going to be talking about the same 3 or 4 things.
Flipping the Script
You can use this to your advantage.
Instead of being the 400th student to talk about the perils of global warming or the 200th student to explain the dangers of population growth, try to be the 1st student to go a completely different direction.
Here’s an example of a unique approach to answering this question:
In my opinion, the greatest threat to the environment today is the rise and increasing prevalence of dogmatism. Dogmatism is defined in Webster’s as: “the tendency to lay down principles as incontrovertibly true, without consideration of evidence or the opinions of others.” When it comes to any environmental issue, it seems everyone has already made up their mind where they stand. If you try to provide evidence to the contrary, they’ll explain that the data can’t be trusted because some nefarious group must have funded the study. Or they’ll just dismiss any new information brought to light on the topic as “fake news.” Honest dialogue and discussion are happening less and less in this country – from the school classroom all the way to the Senate floor. Whether we are discussing global warming, population growth, or pollution, we all gain when we are able to admit: “I don’t know everything there is to know on this topic.” This is the first step towards making real changes that will benefit our environment and the future generations that will need its resources.
Do you get the idea? On Sethi’s guide, he explains this approach in great detail, giving many more examples.
Now, here’s what the average student tries to do:
- Figure out what everybody else is going to say.
- Say the same thing.
- Say it smarter, with bigger words.
Don’t do this.
The essay judges aren’t going to be impressed with the amount of time that you spent scouring the thesaurus for big words to stuff your essay with. They can spot this “word-stuffing” behavior from a mile away.
What they are looking for are answers that are actually unique, not just brainy versions of the same, tired answers that everybody else is giving.
So there you have it: 5 simple ways to double your scholarship earnings.
If you’re looking for more ways to save on your college education, be sure to check out our complete guide to graduating without student loans.
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