You’ve worked your tail off for four years of high school, and you’re ready for your next adventure: college!
By now, you’ve thought about what schools would be a great fit for you and help you nurture your interests and passions, meet new friends, and hopefully find direction for a rewarding career.
Now you need to figure out how you’re going to pay for it without breaking the bank or saddling yourself with a massive pile of post-graduation debt.
These days, no matter your family’s financial situation, that means finding and applying for some combination of student loans, work-study programs, grants, and scholarships.
How do you figure out the best combination of aid with so many options and—once you’ve got that nailed—where and how can you compare the options and apply?
TYPES OF FINANCIAL AID
Let’s start with a quick look at your options.
Student loans seem pretty straightforward—or are they? There is after all an educational debt crisis in the United States. Most students, or their families, won’t have much trouble getting a loan, paying it back in a reasonable amount of time can be a much bigger challenge.
With the average American college student graduating with around $30,000 in loan debt, even a great starting salary will only go so far.
Grants and scholarships can help you keep that debt to a minimum. The great thing about both is that they’re what’s known as “gift aid.” While you’d need to work hard, take a minimum number of schools credits, and keep your grades up, grants and scholarships don’t require that you pay them back. Ever. Once awarded, many continue for all four years of undergrad study.
Unlike scholarships, most grants are needs-based. That doesn’t mean only low-income students can qualify—schools with really high tuition may provide grants to academically qualified kids from families that would be considered quite well-off—but most are aimed at lower- and middle-income students.
You can find out more about how to find and apply for grants from the U.S. Department of Education and other sources.
FINDING THE SCHOLARSHIPS THAT WORK FOR YOU
For high school seniors looking for scholarships, the good news is that there are many, many options available to you. That’s also the bad news.
Thousands of scholarships are available to students, funded by colleges and universities, professional and social associations, private foundations and non-profit organizations, and employers of all sizes. They range from “full-ride,” all-expenses-paid offers for truly exceptional applicants to a few hundred dollars that can help pay for books and other costs that can add up over a semester.
Each scholarship has different requirements, based on:
- Financial need
- Academic performance
- Unique talents
- Extracurricular activities and interests
- Community involvement
- Where you live
- Your specific family background, gender, or other characteristics
- And more
It’s worth your time to do your research and apply to as many as you match up with.
Check to see if any of them have rules about how much you can accept from other scholarship or grant programs. That can lower the amount of money available to you from some scholarships and help you decide which offers you’ll accept.
MAKE A PLAN FOR APPLYING
The application process is also a little (or a lot) different for each scholarship.
As a senior, you know this is a crazy busy time for you and your family, so It’s a good idea to start with scholarship applications that won’t require a whole lot of extra work.
Apply for as many easy-apply scholarships as you can find. That will let you focus on crafting your brilliant essays to fit a few applications that are worth the extra work. Of course, take your time with each application to make sure you understand and follow directions exactly.
But be careful! There are a million websites that claim they can help you find scholarships. Many of them are really just harvesting as much data about you as they can in return for a basic list of well-known scholarships.
The best sites provide up-to-date lists that include fewer well-known scholarships, lots of detailed information you can use to improve your chances at a specific scholarship, and powerful, free tools to help high school seniors through every step of the scholarship application process.
For high-school seniors and their families, the first thing to do is to decide what you can afford and how much your target schools will really cost. Every school provides a “net price calculator” on its website. If you can take the time to find it and use it, it’s a helpful tool.
Fill out the Free Application for Financial Aid (FAFSA) form. That will give the schools you’re interested in a baseline to help match you with the scholarships they award directly or through alumni organizations. That being said, FAFSA won’t do all your work for you. Remember that more and more of the college application process is automated. If you want a chance at more than the standard aid package, it’s time to get personal.
College financial aid offices’ core mission is to help you attend their school. So don’t wait for them to get to your FAFSA application before you contact them and ask for scholarship guidance. Ask about any nontraditional scholarships that might be available and give examples of any you have researched on your own. And keep checking back.
Be persistent and proactive, and remember that until you accept an aid package, it can always be improved. That’s one more place where your scholarship homework will pay off big.
This post was originally written by the team at Bold.org especially for College Essay Guy.