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Take these steps to find and secure scholarships

If your college applications are all submitted, congratulations!

Now roll up your sleeves. With applications in, you have the bandwidth to make a last-ditch effort to land scholarships that will help pay for school.

Student at desk
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With tuition, room and board at four-year public colleges and universities averaging nearly $20,000 even for in-state applicants, and private schools charging an average of nearly $44,000, landing scholarships is crucial for many students. And it can be some of the most lucrative things a student can do, said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher and vice president of strategy for cappex.com, a college search website.

"The typical high school senior will match anywhere from 50 to 100 scholarships using any of the [online national search] services," Kantrowitz said. And once students have written a few applications, it becomes easier to reuse what they have, he said, so subsequent applications take less time.

The process may seem arduous, Kantrowitz said, but if a student spends 10 hours applying for scholarships and wins a $500 award, that is equivalent to earning $50 an hour. Often, he said, scholarships with smaller awards or ones that require essays attract fewer applicants, boosting your odds of winning.

Cappex is just one of several national scholarship databases, including fastweb.com, bigfuture.collegeboard.com, scholarships.com and the scholarship search area on petersons.com. All of them provide extensive listings of scholarships available across the country.

Those listings offer a wealth of choices, but another place to find attainable scholarships at this point in the year is your local area, said Lisa Micele, director of college counseling at the University of Illinois Laboratory High School in Urbana, Illinois.

Her office is "being bombarded with the local ones right now," she said. "We have seen with our local ones that they are not being picked up by the search engines," so the application pool is smaller, or the scholarships require that "you must live in Champaign County or in our school district." The organizations sponsoring these scholarships tend to want to benefit the community around them, Micele said.

These scholarships may offer smaller awards, but Micele cautioned against passing them by. "If you think you are going to find some national scholarship right now that's going to give you a full ride, that's kind of hard," she said. And there is no reason a student can't apply for — and win — multiple, smaller awards.

"The students you hear about who get a gazillion dollars apply to everything," Micele said.

Many students start the scholarship search around the time they finish their applications, but Micele encouraged younger students and their families to think about starting earlier. It is much easier to choose among colleges you know you may be able to afford than to have to opt for a backup school because you find out late that your favorite is financially out of reach.

Claudia McKenzie, now a sophomore at Stanford, started her search as a junior in high school. She found that some of the essays she wrote for college applications could be repurposed for scholarships, and that made the process more efficient, she said.

McKenzie used the national databases but was more successful with local scholarships, including one she won for $48,000 over four years.

"You are up against a much smaller pool" for local scholarships, she said, adding that you are also more likely to be invited to interview for the award, so you can highlight things on your résumé and "make yourself stand out as an individual."

Beware of college policies

One issue to be aware of with scholarships is that they can affect other aid you may be receiving. Some aid, like the income-based federal Pell grants, are not affected by any other source of funding. And about 80 percent of colleges will first reduce the loans they offer you by the amount of an outside scholarship, then cut grants only if your outside scholarship exceeds your loans, Kantrowitz said.

The remaining colleges, though, will reduce their own grant aid if a student receives an outside scholarship, Kantrowitz said.

"Scholarship displacement," as that practice is known, "is one thing the scholarship providers don't like," he said. In awarding money to students, scholarship grantors are trying to make college more accessible, he added.

However, when colleges leave all their loans in place in the face of new scholarship aid, "there is no net financial benefit" to students.

For that reason, it is a good idea to be certain of a college's policy regarding outside scholarship money. Some list their policy on their websites, but for others, the financial aid office may be the best resource. Students who are weighing offers from two schools may find that a difference in policy tips the scales for them, Kantrowitz said.

For her part, McKenzie found that her scholarships covered her expected student contribution at Stanford, but because the awards she won exceeded that amount, Stanford counted the remainder as an offset to the university's grant aid. (Stanford's policy is described on its website.) McKenzie was able to use some of her scholarship funds for things like a new computer when hers broke, she said, but the policy was frustrating.

"Don't be afraid of the financial aid office. You are not going to get a negative mark against you in the admissions office if you call up and say, 'Can we talk about my aid package?'" -Lisa Micele, director of college counseling at the University of Illinois Laboratory High School

"I'm obviously still glad that I applied for the scholarships that I did, but I would have liked to have known more of that going in," she said.

Lisa Lapin, a spokeswoman for Stanford, said the university "does not expect any of our financial aid recipients to borrow to meet their need," and she characterized the university's benchmarks for need as generous. (Parents with incomes under $65,000 typically have their student's educational costs covered, and those with incomes under $125,000 will receive scholarships that at least cover tuition.)

Students receiving financial aid are expected to cover some of their costs, she said, but "students may use outside scholarships to meet their responsibility, thereby reducing the need for work. When a scholarship recipient's outside awards total more than we ask students to contribute [$5,000], we consider those awards as contributing toward the students' total financial need," she continued. "We adjust their federal and institutional aid accordingly. This adjustment is actually a requirement for recipients of federal aid."

Even so, it may also be possible to negotiate with outside aid, Micele said. One family she worked with had a student's entire tuition bill covered by merit-based aid from the college, and then the student won an outside grant that was to be used for tuition.

At first the college planned to reduce what it was offering by what the student had won. Micele said she is not sure what happened, but eventually the family was able to apply at least some of the money to the housing bill.

"Don't be afraid of the financial aid office. You are not going to get a negative mark against you in the admissions office if you call up and say, 'Can we talk about my aid package?'" Micele said. "This is a human process. People are in this business to help."