You might be tempted to go on a scholarship hunt and chase down as many awards as possible. But winning substantial scholarship money is not that simple. You'll need a plan.
You've probably heard the stories of lucky students who get a "full ride"—a scholarship that will pay for all four years of college. But, unfortunately, those scholarships are rare.
Time for a Scholarship Hunting Strategy
A more realistic goal is to win enough scholarship money to at least make a dent in the amount you owe for college. You will need to make astute choices about how much time to devote to scholarship applications, which scholarships to apply for, and even which colleges to apply to. In other words, you need a scholarship strategy.
How Much Money Do You Really Need?
Your first step is to estimate your funding gap—the amount of your college costs you want scholarships to cover. To most accurately determine your potential funding gap, you'll need to estimate your net price to attend each college on your application list. Net price represents your actual cost to attend a college. It takes into account your Expected Family Contribution and how much need-based financial aid the college generally provides to students in the form of grants and scholarships. CollegeData's Net Price Calculator can estimate your net price to attend any of the nearly 2,000 four-year colleges profiled on our website.
Determine Your "Best Shot" Private Scholarships
Once you figure out how much scholarship money you need, it's time to decide which private scholarships to go for. (Private scholarships are offered by sponsors outside the college.) These awards are so diverse that there are nearly endless ways to qualify for scholarship money. You need to know which ones best fit your qualifications and are generous enough to be worth the time it takes to apply.
First, make a list of every private scholarship you are considering. (If you need some tips on searching for scholarships, see the article Finding Scholarships You Qualify For or use our Scholarship Finder.) Then answer the following questions about each scholarship:
- Are you eligible? For example, do you meet the GPA or fields of study required by the scholarship?
- Is the award renewable for every year you will be in college?
- Are you an excellent fit for the requirements?
- Is the deadline manageable?
- Is the scholarship not one everyone knows about? Scholarships offered by local sponsors are usually far less competitive than nationally known contests.
- Is the award size worth the effort?
- If applicants must be nominated, can you easily find someone to nominate you?
If you can answer "yes" to every question above, add the scholarship to your "best shot" list. Next, give the list a reality check. Is it too long? Too short? Can you meet the deadlines? Make your final list, put the scholarships in order by deadline, and schedule time to work on those applications.
Apply to Colleges That Offer Generous Scholarship Aid
Almost all colleges offer their own scholarships. Your scholarship strategy should include applying to colleges where your chances of getting such awards are strong. Look for colleges that highly value applicants with your qualifications and offer generous gift aid, which is aid you don't have to repay or earn. (Scholarships are one form of gift aid.)
You can identify such colleges by looking up two types of data about its recently enrolled students:
- The average amount of gift aid awarded. Look at both need-based gift aid, which is offered based on your financial aid applications, and merit-based gift aid, which is offered based on your value to the college.
- The average percentage of applicants' financial need that was met. The higher this percentage, the more likely it is that at least some of that aid will be gift aid.
You should be able to find this information on the college's website, but you can also find it by looking up the college on CollegeData. See the Money Matters section of any College Profile. This section will also list specific scholarships the college offers.
Find Out How Colleges Treat Private Scholarships
A college may reduce or adjust your financial aid package by the amount of any private scholarships you receive. Private scholarship policies vary from college to college. Some will reduce loan aid. Others will reduce gift aid, or a combination of gift and loan aid.
If you are relying on private scholarships to cover some of your college costs, investigate the private scholarship policy at each college on your application list. The results may influence where you apply.
A scholarship search is almost always a good idea. But before you begin, make sure you understand how much money you'll need and how much gift aid you might get from the colleges on your list. Then apply for scholarships to help close your college funding gap.