Getting to college is almost a full time job these days. Between standardized tests, lengthy applications and the search for financial aid, many high school students devote many hours each week to the effort.
One less unappealing aspect of the process is trying to score free money in the form of scholarships, and this is the season when organizations with money for students are reaching out. But before you start a big push for scholarships, there are a few things to take into account.
For starters, private scholarships tend to cover at best a small portion of a student's college costs. Students received about $112 billion in grants and scholarships in the 2011-2012 school year, but private scholarships accounted for just 10 percent of that total, according to the College Board. And of course, there are also loans.
"Most people who assume they can pay their entire way through school are overestimating their eligibility for scholarships and underestimating their eligibility for financial aid," said Mark Kantrowitz, senior vice president and publisher of Edvisors Network.
Second, many private scholarships are intensely competitive. Just 10 percent of students at four-year schools received private scholarships in the 2003-2004 academic year, according to the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study, and that figure declined to 8 percent by the 2007-2008 year.
Still, free money is free money, and it can be had—if you play your cards right.
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Leah Robson, a junior at Boston University, said she wrote "dozens and dozens" of scholarship applications as a high school senior, but what paid off the most was focusing on very targeted grants. Her father is a Los Angeles County firefighter, and she has been receiving $5,000 per year from the Los Angeles Fire Department Scholarship Fund, funded by the Jean Perkins Foundation.
"I had to go before a panel in Los Angeles. It was actually a really intense interview," she said. "They asked a million questions and questioned everything I did and all my beliefs. But I got the scholarship."
Robson says scholarships with interviews can work in your favor, since you have a better chance of standing out from the crowd.
"Sometimes contacting whoever is in charge of the scholarship foundation and asking to meet them is not a bad idea," she said. "Just being the kind of person that's proactive enough to ask might help. Maybe send a separate handwritten thank you note" after the interview, she continued. "They just want to see that you really want it."
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