The statistics are startling. Outstanding student loan debt has reached $1.2 trillion dollars. The average senior graduates owing $26,600. You might ask yourself if a college education is even worth it. Largely, the answer is yes.
In 2013, Americans who were college educated earned an average of 98% more per hour than those without a degree. Over a lifetime, that means the college graduate will earn on average $830,000 more than the high school graduate.
The trick is, to graduate without debt, or at least with the smallest amount possible. You can do that by winning scholarships. Here are some ways to get as many as you can.
Something For Everyone
Not all of us are 4.0 students, achieved Eagle Scout status, and spend our weekends reading to orphans. That doesn’t mean there isn’t money out there for us too! Just because you don’t have perfect credentials doesn’t mean you shouldn’t search for scholarships.
Can you build awesome blanket forts? This underrated skill can win you a $1000 scholarship. Are you a budding culinary genius? You can win a $25,000 scholarship from Jif if they deem your sandwich most creative. When you’re bored in class do you ever devise your escape in the event of a zombie apocalypse? You can win a $2000 scholarship for just a 250-word essay! See? Something for everyone!
Start Researching Early
Start researching scholarships as early as your freshman year of high school. All scholarships have requirements, devoting a minimum number of hours to volunteering or taking elective classes in a certain subject for example. Waiting until your senior year to look for scholarships may mean you don’t have enough time to fulfill these kinds of requirements.
Clean Up Your On-Line Presence
Scholarship judges, not to mention college admissions officers and future employers, will search for you on-line. Remove anything, photos, tweets, comments in on-line forums, that doesn’t reflect well on you.
Competition for the most lucrative scholarships is fierce. Unless you are the cream of the crop among applicants, it’s better to think small. Less competition increases your odds of being rewarded. Because these scholarships are less well known, they will generally be for smaller amounts so you will need to apply for several, as many as you can in fact. This too increases your odds of winning, less competition and more chances to do so. Look for opportunities that are local rather than national, businesses and organizations in your community who offer grants and awards.
Because you will be casting a wide net, you need to keep close tabs on each scholarship. Use a spreadsheet to list and track the provider, deadline for applications, amount rewarded, eligibility criteria, and any required documentation, including an essay.
Start gathering the required documentation as soon as you decide to apply. Things like transcripts and letters of recommendation can take time to receive.
Ask For Feedback
After a reasonable length of time, follow up on the status of your application. If you were turned down, ask if you might get some feedback on why. This feedback can go a long way to improving future applications with this provider and others. Losing out this year doesn’t mean you can’t try again next year, this time knowing what went wrong last time.
Requesting feedback will also save you time. There may be something that does preclude you from a particular scholarship that you overlooked and now you know not to waste your time reapplying. If the feedback indicates that it would be worthwhile to reapply, you’ll improve your odds and save time because you’re already familiar with a particular scholarship’s application process.
Read The Fine Print
Before you begin the process, carefully read the application instructions and the entire application. Doing so will help minimize mistakes and prevent you from wasting time for scholarships that you may not be eligible to receive. Getting half way done and realizing there is a requirement you don’t meet is frustrating.
Don’t Be Generic
When you’re applying for lots of scholarships, there can be temptation to make everything one size fits all because it’s faster, easier and you’re tired of the whole process. Avoid the temptation! The more personal and specific you are, the more you stand out from your competitors. The same is true for cover letters when you start applying for jobs so get in a little practice now!
Spend time researching the mission statement behind the organization bestowing the scholarship. They will be looking for people who share their values and ideals. Many of these require volunteering. Don’t detail what you did in your capacity as a volunteer. Tell the story of how your service changed you, what it taught you and how it impacted those you served.
It All Pays Off
Applying for loads of scholarships is ponderous, I know. But do you know what is worse? Graduating with tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt. There are millions of dollars out there to help you pay for college, go get your share! I’ve already done so – read my story here.