gradcap_moneyAttempts 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 to streamline your search for the “best-fit” scholarships and maximize your chances at emerging with the ultimate prize: substantial funds for your 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 over 3 billion dollars.
  • Fastweb.com lists 1.5 million scholarships and prides itself on being updated daily.
  • CollegeNET.com is a user-friendly site which lists scholarships for everyone from freshmen in high school to graduate students.

2. Start before senior year

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

3. Pick wisely and play to your strengths

Only apply to scholarships that are right in your wheelhouse. If you are a top-notch violinist who pulls C’s in Chemistry and Bio, don’t waste your time applying for a scholarship in the sciences. Pour all of your time and energy into pursuing areas of genuine interest and accomplishment.

4. Beware of scams

By sticking with our 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 aid package should you win a scholarship, and whether these colleges will reduce your grants, loans or a combination of both. Over-award policies can typically be found 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 time to compose. Make sure the first line or two are attention grabbing 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 submission. Pick someone who knows you intimately and can speak in great detail about your unique personal qualities and attributes. Remember, every applicant will be submitting a glowing letter; yours simply needs to burn brighter than the rest.

8. Make sure your online presence is pristine

Now is the time to delete or at least edit your social media pages. Just as in the actual admissions process, organizations considering you for a scholarship are likely to Google your name. The last thing you want a scholarship organization to see are risqué Facebook photos or off-color Tweets.

9. Keep looking for opportunities while you are 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 pursuits in college may open doors to scholarships that you 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% of aid available to undergraduates nationwide comes in the form of private scholarships. Institutional aid, meanwhile, comprises 19% of all available aid. To increase your chances at procuring institutional money, prepare well for the SAT/ACT, take a rigorous course load, maintain a stellar grade point average, and do your homework on which schools offer large aid packages to students with your academic profile.

Dave Bergman
Dave has over a decade of professional experience that includes work as a teacher, high school administrator, college professor, and independent education consultant. He is a co-author of the book The Enlightened College Applicant: A New Approach to the Search and Admissions Process (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).