Q: “Where are the best places to search for scholarships and grants?” – Cheryl V.
A: Ever wonder why some students seem to get a good portion of their education paid for while you’re filling out yet another financial aid application? Scholarship winners aren’t always Rhodes Scholar contenders. Sometimes winning grants is just a matter of knowing where to look and then giving it a shot.
Here are ten tips and tricks to find scholarships right for you:
- The Internet is your friend. Searching for scholarships online is easy, fast and free. Check out websites like Fastweb.com to see what's available. This easy-to-use scholarship site matches your personal background profile against a very large database of billions of dollars of scholarships, highlighting only the scholarships for which you are eligible. Completing a profile takes about a half hour and most high school seniors will match 50 to 100 awards. If you have the time to comparison shop, don’t forget to search Fastweb’s competitors as well. Looking at more than one site will highlight the overlap between the various scholarship databases, so you can be sure that you’ve found all the scholarships for which you are eligible.
- You don’t always get what you pay for. Do not be fooled by cost. Paid scholarship matching services are not any better than the free scholarship databases, which tend to be larger and more accurate anyway. Fastweb is updated daily, and will e-mail you notifications of new scholarships that match your profile.
- Optional questions matter. When using Fastweb, or one of the other free scholarship matching services, make sure you answer all of the optional questions. The answers trigger matches to specific scholarships. On average, students who answer all of the optional questions match about twice as many scholarships as students who answer just the required questions.
- Start early. Start searching for scholarships as soon as possible. Many families wait until the spring of the senior year in high school to figure out how to pay for college. By then, half the deadlines have already passed. Students can apply for scholarships in grades K-12 and after they are already in college, but the sooner you start, the better your chances of winning that money for college. There are specific opportunities for students under 13, such as spelling and geography bees.
- Scholarships take many forms. FinAid.org includes other lists of scholarships, such as a list of unusual scholarships, a list of the most prestigious and generous scholarships, a list of scholarships for average students and a list of scholarships for volunteering and community service.
- Just Google it. Google and other web search sites can give you scholarship lists as well. Just combine the name of your hobby or field of study with the word “scholarship”. The FinAid site includes a tool that makes this even easier.
- Real world searches. Don’t overlook the offline world. Your local public library and bookstores have many periodicals that contain scholarship opportunities. These are great tools for random exploration. You can usually find the scholarship books in the jobs and careers section. But before you rely on such a book, check the copyright date. If the book is more than one or two years old, it is too old to be useful. About 10% of scholarships change in some material way each year, such as a new sponsor’s address or a different deadline. Local awards may also be posted to a bulletin board outside the guidance counselor’s office at the local high school or the financial aid office of local colleges. Also check with your community foundation, as community foundations typically manage scholarships for local students. Other local awards may be sponsored by your local high school's Parent Teacher Association (PTA), Rotary Club and Dollars for Scholars. Your church, synagogue or mosque, local businesses, employer or union, fraternal organizations and other social organizations may offer scholarships, too. Also check your city’s newspaper. Many national scholarship sponsors promote their scholarship programs in the coupon section of the newspaper.
- Beware the application fee scam. If you have to pay money to get money, it’s probably a scam. Never invest more than a postage stamp to find out information about scholarships, or to apply for one. Scholarships that charge you a fee to apply should immediately raise a red flag. They may disguise the fee in various ways, such as calling it an administrative fee or the taxes on the scholarship. The fine print on an unsolicited scholarship check will sign you up for an expensive service with the monthly fee direct debited from your bank account.
- Need-based grants. You should submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to apply for need-based grants from the federal and state government and most colleges.
- Tax credits. There are also several education tax benefits, such as the Hope Scholarship tax credit, that you can obtain when you file your federal income tax return. These tax benefits are based on amounts you paid for college tuition, fees and course materials.
—Mark Kantrowitz is president of MK Consulting Inc. and publisher of the FinAid.org and FastWeb.com. He has testified before Congress about student aid on several occasions and is on the editorial board of the Council on Law in Higher Education.