This is a guest post by Lynnette Khalfani-Cox.
How much can hard work in school and when applying for scholarships reduce the overall costs of getting a college degree? Well, in our family’s experience, it’s amounted to nearly $150,000 so far. (I say that because we have two more children to put through college.)

Hard work over the years brought choices

Our oldest, Aziza, is a high-achieving, ambitious student. She plans to graduate in four years with a triple major: Business Honors, Marketing and English. Needless to say, I’m a proud mother who is thrilled at all that Aziza has accomplished — and what lies ahead for her.

When she began getting college acceptance letters, it kind of felt like we were winning the jackpot again and again. But really it was because of the years of planning and hard work. We were excited not only because Aziza was accepted to seven great schools located all across the country, but five of them offered her terrific scholarships as well.

First came the $48,000-a-year, full-tuition scholarship from Fordham University. Later, NYU dangled a $50,000 a year merit scholarship before her, with a paid summer internship to boot. My alma mater got into the mix as well, courting my daughter with a Presidential Scholarship offer valued at $25,000 a year to attend USC.

Drastically reducing the cost of tuition

Ultimately, Aziza chose the all-around best fit for her: the University of Texas at Austin. Since we live in New Jersey, Aziza will be a non-resident student; and for the 2015-2016 school year, UT’s annual price tag for out-of-state tuition, fees, room and board is $48,000.

Thankfully, we’re not paying anything close to that.

Due to Aziza’s receiving numerous scholarships and generous institutional aid, our family’s net bill with UT Austin will be extremely affordable at roughly $5,200 a year. And with two more kids to put though college after Aziza, I’m breathing a sigh of relief.

Carefree and debt-free

When I spoke to my daughter on the phone recently, she was carefree and bubbling with energy. Aziza raved about everything from her nice roommate, the new friends she’s made, and the ballroom dancing class she tried to the stimulating classes she’s enjoying as a Jefferson Scholar and in UT’s Business Honors Program.

I’m equally happy that my daughter will complete her college studies without student loans and completely debt free, thanks to scholarships and university aid that does not have to be repaid.

It is gratifying to know that your child is able to concentrate on her studies without the concern of student loans. That’s why I wanted to share these strategies.

If you’re a student, or a parent of a child going off to school, here are seven key strategies for winning college scholarships and reducing the overall cost of pursuing higher education.

1. Start the scholarship search early

Around the time Aziza was in 9th grade, she and I started scouring the Web looking for college scholarships.

OK, I admit it was mostly me — helicopter mom that I am. But to my surprise, I discovered that we were actually somewhat late to the game.

Nowadays, college scholarships are being offered to kids of all ages — including middle school and elementary school students. (There are even college scholarships offered to kids in kindergarten!)

The lesson: Kick into high gear immediately, because it’s never too soon to begin the scholarship hunt.

2. Target the single best scholarship sources: colleges and universities

It is possible that you or your child could win scholarships from private sources, like corporations or foundations. But you are likely to fare much better by targeting scholarships and institutional aid if it’s offered directly from your chosen college or university.

  • For starters, only about one in eight undergraduates at four-year schools win private scholarships. But more than half of all students seeking bachelor’s degrees get scholarships right from their schools.

  • Additionally, private scholarship awards are typically smaller and account for just 7 percent of all free money for college, whereas colleges and universities dole out larger sums.

  • Finally, institutional scholarships are frequently renewable — meaning the student benefits from these awards year after year. By contrast, most private scholarships are one-time awards.

The lesson: Your scholarship search should center first and foremost on the free money you could receive from your target list of colleges and universities. Look specifically for campuses that offer merit aid, which is based on factors like academic, artistic or athletic accomplishment, as opposed to need-based aid, which is tied to your family’s assets and income.

Realize that merit aid is usually easier to get if you are in the top 20 percent of a college’s academic profile, in terms of grades and test scores among its admitted students.

3. Pursue activities that support scholarship goals

Targeting UT Austin as one of her top-choice colleges led to a huge scholarship bonanza for Aziza — largely because her student profile made her a standout applicant.

Among her credentials: She was an A-student with a 2230 SAT score and plenty of AP classes. She was also a National Merit Scholar, president of the French club, founder of a multicultural club, a theater kid who did community service, and more.

Tip: To aid your scholarship search, create a student resume and an activities sheet that highlights all work experience, awards, community involvement or other personal and academic highlights.

The net result: Aziza was accepted into UT’s Business Honors Program (BHP) and given a $10,000 a year BHP Scholarship. Since it’s a renewable award during her sophomore, junior and senior years, that’s a total of $40,000 we won’t have to pay.

4. Look for additional sources of institutional aid

Equally important to our success was the fact that winning that competitive BHP Scholarship made Aziza eligible for an additional, key source of institutional aid: an out-of-state tuition waiver.

This tuition waiver isn’t technically a scholarship. No matter what you call it, though, this institutional aid is directly tied to her scholarship, and it certainly translates into dollars saved for our family.

With the out-of-state tuition waiver from UT Austin, instead of getting billed the out-of-state rate of $38,126 for tuition and fees, she is charged the in-state rate of just $10,738.

The value of that waiver: a whopping $27,388 per year (or $109,552 over four years).

So when you take the $40,000 BHP scholarship into consideration plus the $109,552 in institutional aid from UT Austin, we’ve reduced our daughter’s undergraduate college career expenses by close to $150,000.


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5. Prioritize local and regional scholarships over national ones

Aziza also won a one-time $2,500 National Merit scholarship. But this prestigious award was extremely difficult to earn and the competition for it was fierce.

According to the National Merit Scholarship Corp., out of the 1.5 million students nationwide that vie for these awards each year, only 7,600 individuals (a mere .005%) win a coveted National Merit scholarship, based on PSAT scores (Aziza’s was a 225 out of 240) and academic performance in high school.

By contrast, a couple of other local scholarships Aziza received were much easier to land. They were smaller, but they illustrate the importance of the go-local scholarship strategy.

One scholarship that came right from her high school parent-teacher organization was for $150. She didn’t even apply for it; the PTO simply awarded her (and 24 other recipients) the money based on the recommendation of high school staff.

Another scholarship Aziza received was a $700 award from the New Jersey State Elks Foundation. Although no one in our family belongs to the Elks organization, our town has an Elks Club and Aziza was eligible to apply.

The lesson: It is far easier to win a local scholarship than a national scholarship that has a lot of competition.

6. Tap personal and family ties

Seeking out scholarships based on your personal traits and family ties is another great way to win free money for college.

You can earn scholarships based on a host of personal qualities, too — everything from your gender, ethnic, racial or religious background to your chosen major, future career path, current hobbies and extracurricular interests.

Leveraging family ties can help too.

One of Aziza’s scholarships was an $8,000 award ($2,000 per year) from Foresters Life Insurance Company. She obtained this scholarship via a family affiliation: Aziza’s grandmother doesn’t work at Foresters, but she is policyholder. Turns out Foresters has a great scholarship program that’s open not only to customers, but also to their spouses, children and grandkids.

The lesson: To score more scholarships, make a list of all your social, civic and professional connections, including membership groups, ties or affiliations you and your parents/grandparents have to clubs, businesses, community-based enterprises, service organizations, industry and trade groups. Then contact each and inquire about scholarships and grants.

7. Use technology to make the process easier

To find and match with the most scholarships for which you are eligible, do yourself a favor and register for online scholarship search sites or use apps such as Scholly, ScholarshipOwl, FastWeb, Zinch and Scholarships.com. Several have online features that let you complete numerous scholarship applications without having to re-enter personal data each time.

What scholarships have you or your child won? And what advice would you offer to others seeking scholarships and free money for college? Share your wisdom here!

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