7 sure-fire strategies to win college scholarships

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.


Need to save for college? Open an online savings account.


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!

More about...Planning, Education

Become A Money Boss And Join 15,000 Others

Subscribe to the GRS Insider (FREE) and we’ll give you a copy of the Money Boss Manifesto (also FREE)

Yes! Sign up and get your free gift
Become A Money Boss And Join 15,000 Others
guest
26 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Beth
Beth
5 years ago

The U.S. academic system baffles me — this process reminds me of retail stores who jack up their prices and then constantly run sales. (Scholarships for elementary school kids? Seriously?) But if there’s money to be had you might as well try for it, and I like how this article provides a framework for looking. My only caution as a former teacher is that not all students are high achievers like Aziza so your mileage may vary and forcing a kid down this path who isn’t meant to be on it can do more harm than good. Many parents often… Read more »

Lynnette Khalfani-Cox
Lynnette Khalfani-Cox
5 years ago
Reply to  Beth

Beth, I agree with you on all three points: 1) It is kind of wild that kids in elementary school are being offered college scholarships. But most of it is being done to promote college awareness at an early age; 2) Not all students will have as many options as high-achieving students like my daughter. I would note, however, that scholarships exist for all kinds of students – even those without A and B grades. For instance, that Foresters scholarship my daughter won had a GPA requirement of just 2.8; and 3) Students need to know that other options exist… Read more »

My Factoring Network
My Factoring Network
5 years ago

College scholarships helps a lot in the studies of American students. One must gain more and more professional contacts to be aware of what and when these scholarship news pops up. There are also various online websites where you can get the informations about scholarship. Thanks for sharing the post.

Lynnette Khalfani-Cox
Lynnette Khalfani-Cox
5 years ago

Thanks for reading … and yes, I’m sure that having contacts who can help tell you about scholarships would be an advantage too!

Another Beth
Another Beth
5 years ago

That’s great about the local scholarships. I wish it had been that easy when I was getting ready for college! I understand that YMMV, but IME, the local scholarships asked for a LOT for what was not a big return back then (about 15 years ago). For one scholarship I had to jump through hoops, which included writing an essay on a niche topic that I couldn’t re-purpose in another essay. Given the scholarship’s monetary value, it wasn’t worth the effort, even back then. While I am all for applying to as many scholarships as possible, even the small ones… Read more »

Lynnette Khalfani-Cox
Lynnette Khalfani-Cox
5 years ago
Reply to  Another Beth

Another Beth,

Thanks for your comment! It is a good idea to see if a scholarship payout would be worth the effort. Many kids who do win scholarships say it was totally worth it when comparing the hour(s) they put into an app versus money won. I guess that’s mainly because they look at things like how much they could have earned if they were working at a typical minimum wage job.

Emily @ JohnJaneDoe.com
Emily @ JohnJaneDoe.com
5 years ago

Congratulations on your daughter’s scholarships. I know that must be a weight off your shoulders. I have a couple of things to add. I had a merit scholarship that covered about a quarter of my college costs, and I was always surprised by the number of kids who didn’t keep their grades up and lost their scholarships. A lot of these kids were ones who did well in high school but struggled with the freedoms of college. It’s something parents should discuss with their kids, because it’s easy to get sucked into the social scene and not spend the time… Read more »

Lynnette Khalfani-Cox
Lynnette Khalfani-Cox
5 years ago

Emily, I hope GRS readers take your advice to heart … because it’s 100% true! My daughter and I did have “the talk” — multiple times, in fact! 🙂 — about the need for her to achieve and then maintain great grades. In fact, her scholarship with the Business Honors Program at UT Austin requires her to get a B+ average her first year and then a B average (3.0) in subsequent years. That’s very doable for her. But I do know of students, as you’ve suggested, who don’t get the necessary grades (for a variety of reasons) and then… Read more »

Paul
Paul
5 years ago

I went to the University of Illinois on the Chick Evans Scholarship (www.wgaesf.org/). It is sponsored by the Western Golf Association and it is awarded to caddies. There are over 800 recipients in colleges throughout the country. The scholarship covers full tuition and room for four years. The students only have to pay for food and books. Most Big 10 schools have a building to house their Evans Scholars. When I won the scholarship, I was told I could apply to the University of Illinois, Northwestern, or Marquette. The scholarship folks like to keep the students close to their homes,… Read more »

Lynnette Khalfani-Cox
Lynnette Khalfani-Cox
5 years ago
Reply to  Paul

Paul,

Kudos on your scholarship! Thanks for reading, and for the tips about how teens can use caddying as a way to earn free money for college.

Maggie
Maggie
5 years ago

My oldest child was able to get all of her expenses paid for the first year at a state university with a combination of school merit scholarships and community scholarships. She knew we had no college fund or rich grandma so she was expected to start at community college and pay as she went or look for money elsewhere. Her counselor at school was a huge help especially with the community scholarships and she applied for everything she could. Awards night her senior year of high school was a real eye opener for us. The groups awarding the money got… Read more »

Lynnette Khalfani-Cox
Lynnette Khalfani-Cox
5 years ago
Reply to  Maggie

Maggie,

Congrats on your oldest daughter’s scholarships and academic successes. Volunteer work and community service often do play a huge role in students winning scholarships. In fact, there are many scholarships and grants that are awarded purely on the basis of how much community/societal impact a person has made. So thanks for reading and sharing!

Carla
Carla
5 years ago

Though this article is targeted towards parents with young children, in my personal experience I’ve realized that the scholarship market is getting tighter and tighter – probably due to the high cost of tuition. Though on the surface I’m an ideal scholarship candidate: Older (late 30s), of-color, disabled, female, CASA volunteer, high GPA, long work history, etc earning a scholarship is no easy task. I was convinced by a counselor that I would receive something though the school I attend. When I received my rejection letter, I asked if there was anything I missed or could have done differently. Basically,… Read more »

Lynnette Khalfani-Cox
Lynnette Khalfani-Cox
5 years ago
Reply to  Carla

Carla, I agree with you that it seems like it’s getting harder and harder to win scholarships. But I think it’s a function of a couple things: a lot of students have great financial need, given the escalating cost of college. Also, so many students today are just enormously talented and outstanding in a variety of ways that it’s just impossible for scholarship committees to award funds to every deserving applicant. I don’t think I could’ve won even the modest scholarships I earned when I was a student if I had to compete against today’s crop of students. In your… Read more »

Carla
Carla
5 years ago

Lynnette, than you for your reply! You wrote: “Also, so many students today are just enormously talented and outstanding in a variety of ways that it’s just impossible for scholarship committees to award funds to every deserving applicant.” I agree with you there. My education experience growing up in Oakland in the 1980s pales in comparison to what kids are exposed to today, even in mediocre districts. There is also much more support for those (like myself) who grew up with and have learning disabilities. We were just called “lazy” back then and if we fell behind, it was because… Read more »

Kimberly Rotter
Kimberly Rotter
5 years ago

Interesting and useful. But the thing that catches me off guard is that your are simultaneously recommending that a parent start early – as early as kindergarten – and that it’s easiest to get money from the chosen school. So are you advocating that we choose a short list of schools for our children at that young age? Isn’t that best left to decide once the child has grown into some interests and strengths, or at least a personal philosophy?

Lynnette Khalfani-Cox
Lynnette Khalfani-Cox
5 years ago

Kimberly, I’m glad you raised those questions about the tips I offered. So let me clarify. It may seem, at first blush, that the advice is a bit contradictory. But really it’s not. I was trying to make the point to parents that they can hunt around and search for scholarships even while their kids are young. Are these likely to be full-tuition type of awards, or very very large scholarships. No. Most are not. But it all adds up and banking some money now — when a kid is, say, 8 or 10 or 12 can help out with… Read more »

Jo-Pete
Jo-Pete
5 years ago

7600 of 1.5 million is 0.5%. I disagree with your assertion that scholarships from the institution are better than private sources. If you win 10 scholarships from private sources, those usually stack on top of each other. If you win 10 scholarships from 10 different institutions, you can only select one of them. When you’re looking at college scholarships from the institution, you should completely ignore the face value of the scholarship. From an affordability perspective, it simply doesn’t matter how much tuition “normally” is if you still have to cover a significant portion yourself. We can have a separate… Read more »

Lynnette Khalfani-Cox
Lynnette Khalfani-Cox
5 years ago
Reply to  Jo-Pete

Jo-Pete, Good editing catch: 7,600 out of 1.5 million is .005, so there shouldn’t have been a percentage sign added there; or it should say, as you mentioned, 0.5%. Separately, I think you missed the point about private scholarships vs. those awarded directly by colleges and universities. You’re correct that a student can only attend one school; that’s a given. But the chief advantage of the school awards is that those dollars awarded are typically much higher than the value of private scholarship awards. That’s why private scholarships account for just 7% of all scholarship dollars, whereas scholarships from colleges… Read more »

Brianne
Brianne
5 years ago

That’s awesome that you guys found so many scholarships for your daughter. As a National Merit Scholar, I’m sure she could have gotten great offers from a number of schools. I chose the USC Presidential Scholar award nearly 20 years ago and their financial aid grant made up the rest of the tuition cost. Even with outside scholarships (and a bonus each year from National Merit) to cover fees, I still had to take out loans to pay for housing and food.

Lynnette Khalfani-Cox
Lynnette Khalfani-Cox
5 years ago
Reply to  Brianne

Brienne, I too am a USC alum and I wound up with student loans as well — to the tune of $40,000. That’s one reason I was determined that my daughter wouldn’t have any loans. I didn’t want her to come out of college with that financial burden. Lots of students experience the same thing you and I did: they find that total expenses (room and board, books and supplies, living expenses, etc.) are often far more than anticipated. That’s why I wrote my latest book, called College Secrets: How to Save Money, Cut College Costs and Graduate Debt Free.… Read more »

Samantha
Samantha
5 years ago

Another reason not to focus on private scholarships: many schools will count them against your award, dollar for dollar.

Lynnette Khalfani-Cox
Lynnette Khalfani-Cox
5 years ago
Reply to  Samantha

Samantha,

Good point … thanks for sharing that tip and for reading!

Wendy
Wendy
5 years ago

Would you mind sharing specific resources that helped you with your search?

Lynnette Khalfani-Cox
Lynnette Khalfani-Cox
5 years ago
Reply to  Wendy

Wendy, To track down scholarships, I used websites like FastWeb.com and Scholarships.com. But mainly, I focused on the schools to which my daughter was applying. I investigated the type of aid the colleges/universities offered – i.e. need based vs. merit based, and made sure that all (except 1 school) provided merit scholarships. I then read up on their scholarship policies (i.e. do they reduce their own awards if a student gets outside scholarships?). And finally, for online searching, I mainly did a ton of keyword searches to locate scholarships relevant to my daughter. For instance, I did Google searches of… Read more »

Shanice Miller
Shanice Miller
4 years ago

Applying for local scholarships also enhances your connection with your hometown and the people in it. Local merchants, reporters, and other community members want to see their students succeed. They also want positive feedback and publicity for their businesses. Winning a local scholarship helps you maintain a long-term connection with the people and enterprises who bestowed it on you. Many scholars are invited to banquets and similar events to speak on their experiences and show appreciation to donors. Over time, these interactions can lead to better chances in the job market as well as career advancement opportunities.

shares