The Great Scholarship Myth

College scholarships
Photo Credit: Flicker User 401(K) 2012
By: Susanna Cerasuolo, M.Ed.
Scholarships, as parents think of them, do not really exist.  Not for the masses.  You can’t just “start applying for scholarships” and pay your way to college–not very easily.  It is not at all commonly done, and yet many parents persist in thinking that this is how kids pay for college, and they begin to nag their kids about looking for scholarships, when in fact the elusive large sum of college scholarship money here in America is little more than a popular myth.
According to Lynn O’Shaugnessy, noted Financial Aid expert, 6% of kids receive private scholarships (the kind parents are always asking about), but a whopping 86% of kids receive “scholarships” from the college they actually attend.  Most students receive a discount on tuition from the colleges.  Very few students receive private scholarships that they filled out a separate application for.
You can apply for private scholarships, and your best chances will be with local organizations, like the Rotary, Elks, etc.  I paid for part of my first year of undergrad tuition with such “little” scholarships as these.  I applied for many scholarships and got 4, ranging from $500-$2000.  They were non-renewable, for high school seniors only, so the following year, I got a job.  Most kids don’t get these kinds of scholarships at all–in fact, Lynn says just 6%.
But there are big bucks to be had–and these come from your colleges. Colleges offer merit aid to attract certain students who will round out their class by being active in a certain organization on campus, playing a certain sport, studying a certain major, coming from an underrepresented state, or by bringing diversity.
So how do you get this money?

1. You check the box for “Yes, I want to be considered for merit aid” on the application to the college
This is your application. If the college asks any other questions like that on the application, then you check, yes, too.  If they have any other scholarship applications you can do these, as well. These are always noted and explained on the Financial Aid page of that college.
2. You get the best grades possible in high school
Colleges give merit money to kids whose GPA’s and test scores will help that college look better in the college rankings. By far the best way you can spend your time if you are interested in “scholarships” is by studying through all of high school.
3. You work on your test scores
Same as #2, the colleges want kids with high test scores, so a great use of your time is to try to bring your score up as much as possible. Also, really consider attending your Safety schools because if your GPA and test scores are much higher than those of your peers, your Safety schools are likely to offer you money to attract you–again, for how your statistics will boost theirs.
4. You offer to play your sport in college
Your sport can help you get into colleges that you would not get into on your own. While D3 colleges cannot give athletic scholarships, any school who really wants you can offer you merit money, and they get to decide what defines merit, so that’s not up to you. Unless you despise your sport, I strongly urge you to consider playing at college. Just give it a try. I have seen kids who swore they would play all 4 years of college quit after one because they didn’t like it, and I have seen kids who were so reluctant to play end up playing all four years because they loved it.  No one can predict on the front end exactly how you will feel…
5. You turn in your application early
Merit money is often given out early, so in this case, the early bird really does get the worm.  Plan ahead.
A word for your Safety school…
Your Safety school is likely to offer you perhaps the largest financial aid package of all your colleges.  By attending a school where you can stand out as an intellectual, you will get so many opportunities for undergraduate research and special offerings, and you will rather easily be able to secure outstanding rec letters for jobs and grad school.  It is SO difficult for people with PhD’s to find teaching positions that even professors at most community colleges have full PhD’s which did not use to be the case.  
My point is, the people teaching at your Safety school have doctorates.  They are experts.  And they are very happy to have those jobs, because jobs as professors are scarce, so you can get a great education wherever you go.  You get out what you put in, and if you are an amazing student, well, you’ll get an amazing education. Consider it…


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