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Finding Private Scholarships: Is It Worth It?

UPDATED 1/30/2019 Scholarships…when your clients think of paying for college, they think of scholarships. They hear stories about students winning full rides from the scholarships they’ve won. Your clients need to understand the reality and develop a plan of action to attack the task. We are taking a moment this week to revisit this important topic with the deadlines for most scholarships growing near.

High school seniors have received their acceptance letters and have received (or are waiting to receive) their financial aid award letters. At this time in their journey, they may be turning to scholarships. They see a gap, are hoping to NOT fill it completely with loans, and hope outside scholarships may help.

Just to clarify…we refer to “outside” or “private” scholarships as those coming from third parties not from the colleges themselves. Private scholarships come from places like the Rotary Club, Coca-Cola, etc.

Your clients are always surprised to find out that private scholarships are unlikely to fill the entire gap.

Your clients all hear about the billions of dollars in unclaimed free college money each year, and that fact is not exactly true. Those stories about unclaimed college money are mainly talking about federal Pell grants for those in need and employer tuition assistance programs that go unused.

Most private scholarships (especially those with higher dollar awards) have multiple applicants and stiff competition. The private scholarships that go unclaimed are the really unusual ones like “the Zolp scholarship…available only for students at Loyola University of Chicago born with the last name of Zolp.

Your clients are also surprised to learn that private scholarships are not the largest source of scholarships.

The majority (over 80%!) of scholarships students receive will come from the colleges themselves. Colleges reward merit and want to attract students by giving them scholarship money. Your client’s student doesn’t have to have perfect test scores either to receive scholarships from colleges. They just need to find the right fit.

In a recent post we discussed how winning an outside scholarship can actually cause your client’s student to lose need based financial aid! Affectionately called scholarship displacement.  You can learn more here.       

One of the keystones of our college conversations with families is looking at how they can find those colleges that will give them the most free money. Ideally, your clients need to be thinking about where they can find merit money from colleges before they even start the college search. (We call these “unicorn colleges”…those perfect for your client’s student.)

High school seniors are going to drag their feet.

Often times the hardest part of private scholarship searches is motivating a teenager with Senioritis.  Seniors will be “hesitant” to write one more essay. We use the word “hesitant” as a kindness. They may be dead set against it! Writing one more essay to apply for a private scholarship is not something your client’s student is excited to do in the spring semester of their senior year.

What can your clients do if their student refuses? There may be nothing your client can do. However, your client can share with their student a budget of what their post-graduation life will look like with a large student loan payment and that can be very powerful. (Click here for our blog with a helpful budget worksheet.)

So, given all that why should a your client’s family even bother?

We use this phrase all the time. If you could earn $50 an hour doing a job, wouldn’t you? Share that with your client’s student and see what they think.

Truth is if your clients find the right private scholarships to fit their student and they can spend a few hours applying for them and may be surprised by the benefit. (Of course, nothing is guaranteed, so their struggle with their high school senior continues.)

Don’t ignore the small dollar awards.

The private scholarships worth $500 are not going to have as much competition as the $20,000 national Coca-Cola scholarship. Every little bit counts and spending an hour to apply and winning $500 is a pretty good paycheck for an hour’s work.

Also, be sure your client’s know they should apply for more than just one. They should shoot for at least 6 to 8 scholarships to give themselves the best chance of winning one.  

Where are the best places to find private scholarships (in our preferred order)?

    • Have your client start in their student’s high school. Talk to the guidance counselor. They are often the best resources and are very knowledgeable about scholarship sources that would fit your client’s student.  
    • Think personally. Employers, clubs, churches…what groups and organizations does your client’s student and family belong to. Have your client ask family members if they know of scholarships from their organizations/employers.
  • Have your client Google their student’s interest. If a student is thinking about being a financial advisor (yay!), Google “scholarships for financial advisors,” and they’ll see several that apply. (Our local FPA Central Ohio is among them.) They could Google “college scholarships in meteorology.” Many professions have associations and frequently offer some kind of scholarship at the local level, national level, or both.  You get the idea.

Our advice…always look to the college first.  They have the deep pockets and we know that the majority of scholarship money will come from them.  

Then when thinking about private scholarships, tell your client’s not to wait until the last minute. Scholarship application can take some time—essays may need to be written. Have them watch out for those deadlines, and be sure they keep looking each year during college. Many majors have scholarships specifically for upperclassmen.  

Have your client make a game plan and tackle the search and application process to find some free money. The awards may not fill all the gaps like they hoped, but the effort should be well worth the time.

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