I often have people asking about scholarships, and for good reason. Scholarships are the best form of aid available because unlike loans, they don’t need to be repaid – they are free money! Most people don’t realize that the largest amount of scholarship dollars comes from the colleges themselves in the form of merit scholarships. Merit scholarships are awarded to students based on strong academic abilities, leadership skills, artistic or musical ability, and athletic abilities. And students can be awarded merit aid regardless of the family’s overall income or how much the family has saved for college. Unfortunately not all schools offer merit scholarships. You can find out if they do by looking on the websites or by contacting the financial aid office of the schools you’re interested in.
There are also “outside scholarships” – scholarships not awarded by the government or the school – and they exist for nearly every characteristic you can think of. Outside scholarships tend to be for small amounts of money, are a one-time award, and can require a significant amount of work in the form of an application, essays, etc. The best way to find these scholarships is to use an online search tool that compares your background with a database of awards. There are several free databases available online: The College Board; Fastweb; and Scholarships.com to name a few. You can also ask your guidance counselor about local scholarships.
Be aware that every college has an “outside scholarship” policy that specifies what happens to your need-based financial aid package when you win an outside scholarship. Outside scholarships are considered resources, meaning that they reduce your financial aid package dollar for dollar. Check the college’s website for their policy.
When it comes down to it, the best strategy for finding scholarships starts with building your college list. Apply to schools where you are likely to qualify for merit aid.