10 Insider Tips for Getting the Most College Scholarships

Did you know that plenty of scholarship and aid money goes unclaimed every year? In fact, in 2014, $2.9 billion of federal grant money went unused. And many scholarships got only a handful of applicants, if any.

Did you know that everyone from Pizza Hut to your local Rotary club offers scholarships?

And, you don’t have to be a straight-A student with a perfect SAT score to win money for college.

You can win a scholarship for giving a good speech, submitting an essay on the book Atlas Shrugged, getting a lot of likes, writing about your love for coffee, or even donating feminine hygiene products to women’s homeless shelters, among millions of other ways.

Take it from a former admissions officer at both public and private universities – there is a lot of FREE MONEY out there, and you almost surely qualify for at least some of it. All you need is dedication and a little creativity. Here are some tips for getting started.

1. Do what you love – and keep track of it.

Of course, you need to be active in high school. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you need to take all the hardest math courses and join clubs that don’t interest you. Instead, get involved in things you love.

When students ask me what courses look best on their application, I always tell them to do two things:

– Challenge yourself – If you’re deciding between different courses or activities – say, advanced literature and advanced chemistry – pick the one that excites you most!

The truth is, you want your application to show passion more than anything else. And you have a better chance of succeeding rather than burning out in something that interests you.

If you can fail at something you don’t like, you might as well pursue something you do. Also:

– Keep a running list of everything you do throughout high school – volunteering, work, activities, athletics, but also awards and achievements. This will come in handy for scholarship applications.

2. Get a summer job that offers scholarships.

If you’re considering getting a summer job, or a part-time job while you’re in school, look for employers that offer scholarships or tuition assistance.

Many fast food chains and retail stores offer scholarships to employees. National chains like McDonald’s, Burger King, Walmart, and Taco Bell all have scholarships for employees, as do local chains such as the Seattle-based Dick’s Drive-In.

Many other companies offer tuition reimbursement or assistance programs for their employees. These include UPS, Starbucks, and Publix.

3. Volunteer for organizations that offer scholarships

Helping others can be good for you too.

Many volunteer programs and philanthropic organizations also offer scholarships for students. Find the ones in your area that do, and log some extra volunteer hours there. By doing so, you’re getting your foot in the door to a potential scholarship.

4. Build a relationship with your university’s admissions officer

Admissions departments keep records of every interaction you have with them. They log your phone calls, emails, visits, and campus tours.

When you show interest in a university, they assign you an admissions officer. Figure out who that person is, and give them a call. Try to stay in touch with them regularly so they can get to know you, and if you can visit, set up an appointment to meet them in person. While they don’t have total power over your admission and scholarships, they help make the decision. You should view them not as your judge, but as your advocate.

Let me tell you a story about a colleague of mine in admissions. He had a student apply from Pakistan. This student chatted with him regularly, talking about his dreams of becoming a writer and fighting for freedom of the press in his country, and showing him a portfolio of his exceptional work.

My colleague truly believed in this student and pushed for him to win a full tuition scholarship, which he did. Since the scholarship didn’t cover room and board, my colleague went the extra mile to help his student set up and promote a Kickstarter account, which raised $10,000 to help him study in the United States.

5. Ask your teachers

Build good relationships with your teachers as well, and ask each and every one of them about scholarship opportunities.

One of my past applicants was a girl who, after receiving her financial aid and scholarship packages from the university, still had a funding gap of several thousand dollars. She went to her AP Physics teacher to ask about any scholarships, and the teacher informed her of a Women in Science scholarship. The girl was hesitant because she planned to major in English Literature. However, she’d excelled in AP Physics and had a recommendation from her teacher, so she applied. She won the scholarship.

6. Spend some time in your college and career center

Visit your college and career center. They should have a list of local and national scholarships available. Sort the list by deadline, and apply to every scholarship you qualify for. After you exhaust these, you can try calling other local high schools and asking their college counselor if they have any lists. Try checking at your local library too.

7. Ask your community

Local scholarships are often the least competitive and easiest to get. Even if they’re for small amounts, a few smaller scholarships can add up quickly.

Research your area, and ask around. Many community organizations, community leaders, alumni of your school, local businesses, and churches offer scholarships.

Ask your family to do the same for you. Some employers offer scholarships for children of employees.

Check out community foundations in your area. Often times they provide scholarship money for community members.

8. Search for specialized scholarships

If you haven’t figured it out already, there’s a scholarship for everything. Look for specialized scholarships based on your personal experiences or identity, whether it be a talent you hold, your ethnicity, your career path, your gender, your status as a first-generation college student, or a language you speak.

Create a Google search alert based on these terms as well – for example, “scholarships for Cherokees”, “scholarships for women in engineering”, or “scholarships for people from Springfield, Ohio”.

9. Use scholarship search engines

Frequent both popular and alternative scholarship search engines. The popular ones usually have more to offer but are more competitive. Search through both.

Popular scholarship search engines:

– College Board
– Fastweb
– Cappex

Alternative scholarship search engines:

– Zinch
– Scholarship Experts
– Peterson’s

10. If you qualify, APPLY!

Don’t self-select! Many students defeat themselves before they even apply by coming up with reasons they won’t win. Let the scholarship committee do their job!

Make sure to build the strongest application file possible, applying early, completing all optional items, tailoring each application to the specific scholarship opportunity, and having family and teachers proofread your application.

Most importantly, never pay for scholarship and financial aid information. This information is free, and programs that ask you to pay are often scams.

What techniques do you use to increase your chances of getting a scholarship?

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