Scholarships – Are they worth applying for?

Building Your College List, Financial Aid, Saving Money

It’s common to hear a lot of vague yet encouraging words about how scholarships can help you pay for college. But the possibilities seem endless, and oftentimes out of reach or just too quirky (how about the Asparagus Club Scholarship?).

How can you make sense of all the options? How can you find opportunities that are best for YOU? Read on to learn more…

What are scholarships? Scholarships are “free money” for college (yes! free!) that don’t need to be paid back. Sometimes they are also referred to as “gift aid” or “merit aid.”

When should I apply? While some scholarships target younger students, the vast majority of scholarships are for 12th graders and continuing college students. We typically recommend that students start searching for scholarships in Junior year, even if you won’t be eligible for many of them until you are a Senior. Starting the search early will leave you plenty of time to put together applications for scholarships that are due in the Fall of Senior year. 

Types of Scholarships:

College Scholarships: Scholarships awarded by colleges are the best types of “free money,” and are known as merit aid. Another way to think of them is as “discounts” on the cost of tuition. Many of these scholarships are awarded based solely on the information in the admissions application, while others require a separate application. 

It’s important to note that the most highly selective schools (the Ivy Leagues, and other similar, hard-to-get-into schools) DO NOT offer merit aid scholarships (aka, discounts). Why? Because they don’t have to! Many more highly qualified students apply than they can possibly admit each year; these are colleges that don’t need to “attract” anyone to apply and enroll in their institutions.

The schools most likely to offer merit aid are those that are trying to attract the best students they can, by wooing them away from the more selective (and more expensive!) schools. While they may be “less selective,” such schools still can offer an outstanding education to students, and are well worth considering, especially if cost is a part of your family’s equation.

Outside Scholarships: Separate from the merit aid offered by colleges, you can find scholarships locally and elsewhere. These are known as “outside” scholarships. The majority range from $500 to a few thousand dollars, with a smaller number that are around $10,000 or more. Your high school counselors will know about the local scholarships that you can apply to; many (but not all!) are targeted to students who are civically minded and/or academically strong. You can make an appointment with your high school counselor to find out more about what’s out there for students in your area. Also be sure to check out your high school’s college and career webpage, and read the emails your counselors send out about these opportunities.

Beyond your local options, you can certainly find lots of interesting possibilities online, and you don’t need to be #1 in your class to be considered. There are many scholarships that prioritize interesting hobbies, interests and/or backgrounds. In addition to the more quirky ones (for cat lovers or vegetarians, for example), there are scholarships focused on particular career interests (women in STEM, for example). Students who come from underrepresented backgrounds are sure to find plenty of scholarships they qualify for. Regardless, you need to be willing to put in the time and effort to find scholarships that align with your varied interests, hobbies, skills, and/or background.

What about the full-ride scholarship programs, like Coca Cola, Dell, Burger King, Google, etc? Given how well-known they are, these scholarships are extremely competitive; they are looking for “unicorns” – students that have special, unique, or unusual backgrounds, talents or experiences. Students that rise to the top for such scholarships are those that often combine outstanding academic achievement AND one or more of following: they have made it “against all odds” (overcoming intergenerational poverty, for example); have found creative ways to explore career interests (saving money for an old clunker car to develop engineering skills); and/or have worked hard and creatively to address specific needs in the community (leading a community effort to bring meals and comfort to home-bound elderly). Basically, unless you are quite sure you are a “unicorn,” we don’t recommend spending your time applying to these.

So…is it worth my time? That’s the big question, and it’s up to you to decide. First, you should assess how much time and energy you are willing to spend on searching for scholarships. There are literally thousands of them, and it takes a long time to sift through them. Then, how much effort do you want to devote to actually applying to them? It can be as time intensive as the college application process. Is the “return on investment” (of your personal time) worth it, based on the money you may or may not receive? 

The fact is, if you are looking for funds for college, you could probably earn the same amount – or more! – working a part time job. Plus, a job is something you can add to your application; you don’t get any credit for scholarship searches!

Our take-home message is: Yes, there are tons of scholarships out there. While you may find one or more that are perfect for you, there’s still no guarantee of winning them. Students have to decide for themselves the amount of time they are willing to spend on finding and applying for scholarships. If cost is a big factor for your family, we think the best use of your time is to focus on finding colleges that are a great fit for you AND offer merit aid, or are reasonably priced public universities. And if you are still thinking you’d like to have more money to ease the cost burden of college, consider a part-time job! That money is guaranteed