Funding College Without Going into Debt Part 2: Applying for Scholarships

Male college student filling out scholarship applications

We told you in Part 1 of this article why you should try to avoid student debt and, instead, get scholarships. We showed you that it is possible to fund your entire education with scholarships and where to look. But, now that you know why your financial future depends on not going into massive student debt for college, how do you apply for the scholarships you need? 

Starting the Scholarship Application Process

First, know that this will be hard work. Getting scholarships outside the schools you apply to or attend requires significant additional work. You must identify them and decide which you’ll invest energy into trying to get. “There are an abundance of outside scholarships,” says Brady Norvall, founder and chief education officer of FindaBetterU. Remember, though, don’t focus just on the big-dollar scholarships.

That’s because, Norvall says, “For really high-dollar scholarships like those from Walmart or Ford Foundation, not only do you have to prove significant financial need, they are also as competitive to obtain as getting into a school like Stanford or MIT.”

While you may want those large, prestigious scholarships, there are many other alternatives. “You should focus on those that may be smaller but that you’re more likely to receive,” says Norvall, who helps students find and win the scholarships that fit who they actually are and the schools they can get into.

Start with the databases and take advantage of their common application forms to apply for multiple scholarships and grants at the same time. But pay close attention to the requirements for each scholarship, to make sure you’re meeting their unique criteria. Get help from professionals like school counselors to help you apply. Much of this help is available free and through books like Gwen Thomas’ “The Parent’s Smart Guide to Sending Your Kids to College Without Going Broke!,” which students can use, too.

Thomas says of the process, “You have to put in the time and effort. Make the commitment to apply for two scholarships a month” until you get the money you need.

Prove You’re Qualified for the Scholarships

The most successful applicants have strong academic records and a wide array of extracurricular activities. They have engaged in leadership roles or contributed to their communities in a strong way. Thomas says, from her experience, “A GPA of 3.0 is the threshold for the best scholarships.” She says she pushed her son, Cameron, to do well starting in grade school.

Norvall adds, “Having a great resume will help you get a scholarship. But students also need to show they’re self-aware, and that they have connected authentically to their experiences and learned something about themselves that comes through in their essays and recommendations.”

Scholarship and grant committees are looking for students who, if awarded the funds, will not only benefit personally, but will also be high-value contributors to the college community that the funds will help them attend.

Yet, according to Vickie Reckow, director of scholarship services for the College Success Foundation, even if less affluent students couldn’t participate in extracurricular activities like student government or class trips, they have valuable experiences that can lead to scholarships. “Many students of color or lower-income students may have to work to help support themselves and their families. They may work in family businesses or take care of younger children while their migrant-worker parents work in the fields.”

Those students, she says, still develop the unique skills that scholarship committees are looking for in winning students, like leadership abilities, organizational skills, maturity and “grit,” a special perseverance that shows the ability to overcome the most challenging obstacles.

The College Success Foundation, which provides college scholarships and mentoring to low-income, high-potential students, helps them write strong scholarship essays that “demonstrate those skills in non-traditional ways.” “But,” adds Thomas, “Make sure you answer all the questions in the way they’re asked.” She says she’s been surprised by how many students don’t and Reckow has seen this, too.

Finally, ask each college about its outside scholarship policy because many schools reduce the need-based financial aid you receive by the amount of outside scholarships you get. Check to see if your school will reduce student loans, first, though.

Putting It All Together

Clearly, if you want to avoid student debt at graduation and have a sound financial start, applying for scholarships is critical. “Every dollar you win in scholarships is a dollar less you have to borrow,” says Kantrowitz. So, identify the scholarships you know you can get, pay careful attention to the application process and requirements and apply for as many as possible. Then, tell the scholarship committee what sets you apart from your competitors in a way that makes you unique.

Finally, apply each year for all the scholarships available. Thomas says her son Cameron applied for at least 10 his first year of college to make sure he had the money for the next. By making scholarships part of your college funding strategy, you’re avoiding a debit-laden future. 

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