Scholarships For College In Unlikely Places

As the calendar year draws to a close, my daughter, a high school junior, received the news that has been holding most families like us in suspense since October.  Her PSAT/NMSQT scores finally arrived. We learned that she placed in the 92nd percentile nationwide. In our house, these scores are certainly refrigerator worthy. However, they were not high enough for her to be considered for an elite National Merit or National Achievement Scholarship.

Jif and ScholarshipsAccording to the 2015-2016 National Merit Scholarship Annual Report, of the 1.5 million students who took the PSAT/NMSQT that year, only 7,367 Merit Scholar® designees received Merit Scholarship awards worth a total of $31.3 million. Though it is a preliminary test, the PSAT/NMSQT score carries weight because it is the first attention-grabbing tool for scholarships in the college application process. However, it is not the only tool. I will give your student the same advice I gave my daughter, “If you are not in the running to be a National Merit Scholar: don’t beat yourself up.” There are scholarships for nearly every niche group, from academics to artists, lefties, fashionistas, women interested in engineering and creative chefs – but you have to know where to look.


In the Sallie Mae 2013 study on how America pays for college which surveyed 1,602 families, the average family covers 32 percent of their college costs with grants and scholarships.  The majority of families who received scholarships report having received them from the college (61%), although families also report receiving scholarships from community and nonprofit groups (30%), and receiving state-based scholarships (18%). In 2012, the average scholarship awarded was $6,355, the highest level over the past five years. The study also revealed that of the parents surveyed, 63% said that having a discussion about earning scholarship money was one of the most important conversations they could have with their child when preparing for college.


Sherie English, coordinator of the college resource center for Bloomfield Hills High School in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., said the first place juniors and seniors should look for scholarship opportunities is through local private and religious organizations.

The rigors of a high school college counseling office pick up in the spring semester. Therefore, English advised the best time for students to meet with the high school counseling department for some individualized attention is November through January. Additionally, English suggests that students to drop in on a weekly basis to their college resource room for new scholarship opportunities.

Though it doesn’t hurt for juniors to plan ahead with some preliminary research, English said the bulk of applying for scholarships happens in the spring  semester of one’s senior year. This is because most likely the student has already decided on where they are attending and can search within the college for specific scholarships. One free scholarship site she recommended that lists both national and state scholarships is


According to English, there is no limit to how many scholarships you may apply to or how much money you can get. Moreover, winning a scholarship from a private organization will not cancel out any scholarship or financial aid monies you may receive from your college financial aid office. 

Mark Kantrowitz, a VP at Cappex disagrees. He stated in a New York Times blog that federal over award regulations require colleges to reduce the need-based financial aid package when a student wins a private scholarship. However, colleges will be flexible on how they reduce need-based financial aid packages.  Kantrowitz continues his advice in his blog post that each college has individual policies on how they reduce financial aid when an outside scholarship is received.  If the policy reduces loans first, the college will have a lower net price, making it more affordable. If the policy reduces grants first, there is no net financial benefit to the student.

Winning a scholarship from a school is usually the deciding factor on where a student will attend. Sam Hudson, a sophomore at West Virginia University in Morgantown, found himself in close consideration for a National Merit Scholarship, and his SAT scores earned him scholarship offerings at several colleges, including WVU, where he receives $6,000 annually.  Additionally, the university offered Sam an in-state tuition rate, and Sam’s annual expenses totaled about $18,000 per year. This came satisfactorily under the $30,000-a-year budget the Hudsons set for themselves. Therefore, Sam’s first year away at college was fully paid through savings and scholarships. Even if your child is rewarded a scholarship, there is still no coasting downhill. During his freshman year, in an attempt to try out engineering as a major instead of business, Sam’s GPA fell below 3.0. He lost his scholarship and had to pay back the $6,000 difference – a deal he made with his parents – with money saved in the years he worked in the family business. Now back on track with a business major, his GPA rose and WVU restored his scholarship.


Sometimes, finding scholarship money can come from the most unlikely of places, such as your food pantry or a local department store.  In January, Jif rewards students with scholarships up to $25,000 for creating the most original peanut butter sandwich.  This scholarship opportunity, among thousands of dollars from other quirky sources, has been unearthed by self-proclaimed scholarship diva Sheila Cain of  Kansas City, Missouri, creator of B-forc Bound for College. Through sheer determination and all-night Google searches fueled by cups of coffee, this Kansas City, Mo. mother started hunting for scholarships when her child was in the eighth grade. Since her following and business has grown, Cain has found over $700,000 in scholarship money for a select group of students she coaches through the college application process. “I am a hoarder of Internet information, and now I like to share this so others can benefit from what I have learned,” said Cain from her hotel room in Greenville, N.C., where she was about to give a lecture on her scholarship finding savvy. How savvy? In the 30 minutes leading up to our phone conversation, she posted five new scholarship opportunities to her website. Not every student out there is going to be a National Merit Scholar. But, with enough persistence, where one scholarship window closes, there are many out there that will open.

*previously publisher of and

  1. […] Read the entire article, my latest in a series of articles about financing college at  […]

  2. excellent information!

  3. There is so much info out there for high school students looking for scholarships, but what about college students looking for scholarships?! Many of the scholarships offered to high school seniors are one time only or short-term scholarships. When they run out in one semester or after freshman year, what are college students supposed to do to replace them? Why doesn’t anyone ever mention that?

  4. Great article! It is a breath of fresh air that there are so many more opportunities for scholarships available now than there were even 10 years ago when I was an undergrad.

    With college graduates on average facing an estimated $33K in student loan debt (2014), the hidden gems of small scholarships can quickly add up and relieve some of the stress of repaying.


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