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What You Need to Know for a Successful Scholarship Season
With tuition rates at an all-time high, the most pressing question many college-bound students face isn’t where they’ll be going to college: it will be how they’ll pay for it. As even public schools hike up their tuitions and various fees and the annual cost of attendance at some private schools exceeds $70,000 (a figure that exceeds the median family income in the United States), students are forced to turn to scholarships and loans, offered either through the institutions they aspire to attend or through outside parties, or outside employment. But not all scholarships are created equal — different students are eligible for different awards, and there are varying selection processes in each. We’ve broken down some of the most common types of scholarships to help you as you begin your scholarship quest.
Need-based scholarships are, as the name implies, awarded based on financial need (you may be more familiar with another name for them: financial aid). Unlike merit-based scholarships, you usually won’t need to write any additional essays or provide any letters of recommendation to earn a need-based scholarship. Universities use your financial information that they’ve received, usually through an outside service like the FAFSA or CSS Profile, to determine your family’s financial need. They then distribute funds so that families with less ability to pay are asked to pay less than families who have more funds available to contribute to a college education. The money your school offers you to supplement the cost of tuition is a need-based scholarship, or financial aid.
While need-based scholarships are obviously awesome, they do come with a few catches. Most schools have limited funds to assign for financial aid purposes, meaning that even with a need-based scholarship, your family may still not have sufficient funds to finance your education. Typically, only private schools with sizable endowments are able to meet 100% of student’s “demonstrated financial need”, and even then, “need” is determined by the university, not the family paying. If you’re looking for a school that will pay full tuition on a need-based scholarship, your options, outside the Ivy League, are limited.
That being said, there are benefits to need-based scholarships as well. Unlike merit-based scholarships, which may require maintaining a certain GPA or participation on a sports team to keep the scholarship, need-based awards are based only on financial status; unless your family experiences a significant change in personal circumstances, you will receive about the same amount every year without having to fill out any extra applications or jump through any hoops.
Merit-based scholarships are usually what comes to mind when the average person thinks of a scholarship. Universities offer students with exemplary academic records or exceptional athletic skill merit-based scholarships to entice them into choosing to enroll at their school. The better student or athlete you are, the more money you’re offered; many universities even offer full-ride scholarships for extremely strong candidates.
The nice thing about merit-based scholarships is that you have more control over the selection process. Need-based scholarships are awarded purely on the basis of personal finances, so you only get however much your university decides you need (assuming your university meets 100% of need — and most universities don’t even do that). With merit-based scholarships, the amount of money you’re awarded has to do not with your family’s finances, but with your individual performance. The amount you receive is proportional to your degree of academic or athletic success, so you can have a significant impact on the size of your award. While that influence can be beneficial if need-based aid isn’t sufficient to meet your family’s need, it is not without its drawbacks. A lapse in performance in school or sports can jeopardize your scholarship, and in the case of athletic scholarships, you’re tied to participating in that sport for all 4 years of college unless you are willing to forfeit your scholarship.
It’s notable that many top schools don’t offer any merit-based scholarships, or if they do, they are very few in number and very competitive. Strong students looking to receive generous merit-based scholarships often apply to schools with average stats (GPA, standardized test scores) below the student’s own in order to maximize the opportunity to earn merit-based scholarships.
At many schools, the selection process for merit-based scholarships happens upon admission; at other schools, additional scholarships may be available through an additional application process. Public schools in particular often offer honors or leadership scholarships, sometimes even with additional perks and opportunities for selected students. Be sure to browse the websites of the schools you’ve applied to and see what merit-based scholarships are available outside those awarded upon admission.
Special Interest/Outside Scholarships
Many scholarships, often awarded by outside parties, offer awards that are restricted to a specific demographic or group. There are scholarships specific to race, gender, major, career field, religion — even height! Many websites have scholarship search tools that allow you to find scholarships you are eligible for.
Scholarship opportunities can be found in your local community as well. Some high schools feature scholarship programs specifically for college-bound seniors, so check if your school offers such a program. Churches, local government, Lions, Rotary, and Kiwanis clubs, businesses, and more offer scholarships to local seniors.
The key to being successful in your scholarship search is to start early and do your research. Obviously, your chances at winning a scholarship offered only to a select group are higher than a scholarship to which anyone can apply, so look for specific, local scholarship opportunities. Additionally, don’t be quick to count out smaller scholarships; five $1000 scholarships are just as good as one $5000 scholarship. Ask family and community members if their places of employment or community groups offer any scholarships to graduating seniors, or do some quick online searches. With time, research, and hard work, you’ll have a great shot at earning scholarships that can make attending college a reality.