There are four kinds of money used to pay for college: cash, loans, financial aid, and scholarships. Scholarships are available yearly and year-round, not just before a student begins college.

As a preliminary matter, note that different institutions use terms like “financial aid,” “scholarships” and “grants” interchangeably. To keep things clear, recognize that “financial aid” is based upon the parents’ ability to pay for college. On the other hand, “scholarships” and “grants” are awarded based upon student merit, which often is not measured by grades or test scores.

Also differentiate between scholarships extended at the time that a college offers admission, and those that are extended afterwards. The scholarships provided at the time of an admission offer is really not an award of money. Rather, because colleges publicize their tuition at higher levels to give the impression of a highly-valuable education, they drop the cost with “scholarship” offer as an incentive for the student to enroll in their college instead of another. It is a bit like negotiating a car; the sticker price is not usually what you’ll pay.

Scholarships that are available after an offer is made, or from a source outside of the college, are true monetary awards. There are a LOT of scholarships available for students who put in the effort to pursue that money.

Most colleges have scholarships that are not widely publicized. When rich alumni donate to their alma maters, they often create scholarships. Usually, only the people who work in the university’s “money” office know of these opportunities. Once a student enrolls in the college of choice (or perhaps even before), go to the college financial aid office and ask what scholarships and grants might be available. Set aside a fair amount of time, get comfortable, and start filling out applications.

Private scholarships are also widely available, offered by Fortune 500 companies, charitable foundations, community organizations, and myriad other groups. The number of scholarships you can find is dizzying. Where do you look for them, and how do you apply?

The starting point for scholarships should be your high school counselor’s office. Counselors are aware of some very valuable opportunities. After looking there, look online.

Scholarship search engines can be effective tools for finding large numbers of scholarships. There is no shortage of scholarship search websites, and most are sortable. You don’t have to work with all of the search engines; many have similar information. A few even collect information about available internships.

Because you will find more scholarships available than you can complete, it is imperative that you work efficiently and strategically. Create a master list of scholarships in a spreadsheet, inserting the name of the scholarship, the amount of the scholarship award, the link to its webpage, and the due date. To organize your work, sort according to due dates, then prioritize by the monetary value of each scholarship and the likelihood that you are an appropriate candidate.

The typical scholarship application requires a resume and an essay. Before beginning your essay writing, check your list of scholarships to see if one essay can be used for multiple scholarships. You may be able to recycle a good essay that you wrote for a college application, but many scholarships have unique prompts. The key to effective pursuit of money is diligent work, so be sure to plan your work for maximum effect.

Finally, as a rule of thumb, never apply for scholarships that have an application fee. Even if the fee is only a few dollars, the majority of these are money-making schemes for the offeror.

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