Paying for college is one of the biggest financial concerns of families today. Finding private scholarships and merit scholarships from colleges–awards you don’t have to pay back–can help.
According to a recent College Ave Student Loans survey of undergraduates, families rely on scholarships and grants more than any other way to cover college costs.
To help get you started on your search, here are some tips and stories of inspiration:
Merit vs Private Scholarships
Scholarships are either merit-based and offered by colleges, or private, and offered by companies, non-profits, and other private organizations.
In an article for Road2College, college admissions coach Pam Andrews recommends that before searching for private scholarships, you start with a merit search first.
Scholarships awarded by colleges tend to be four times higher than private scholarships.
Does that mean private scholarships aren’t worthwhile? Not at all–think of them as the second layer in a two-layer process, she says.
Once you’ve done a merit search, the next step is to layer the search and look for private awards.
Find Private Scholarships That Fit Your Kids
Jennifer, a member of the Paying for College 101 FB Group (PFC101) who’s had considerable success finding and winning scholarships for her two college-aged students, agrees that it’s best to chase merit first.
When you start your private scholarship search, try to narrow down the parameters to match your child’s interests and passions: Find the ones that “really fit your kids, and then have them go for it!”
You might be surprised to learn that your local grocery store, law office, or doctor’s office offers an award. Melissa, a member of PFC101, said her family orthodontist offers two annual scholarships to his college-bound patients.
“It’s an essay-writing scholarship,” she said. The prompt is: The Importance of a Smile. How did Melissa hear about it? “We were at an appointment and the orthodontist, who learned my son wanted to be a writer, told him he should apply.”
Melissa’s son was one of the winners and received $1,000 in his senior year of high school. “He was able to use it on anything college related,” she said. “It was a really nice way for the orthodontist to give back to the community.”
Experienced parents stress that persistence is what drives the most successful private scholarship searches. But knowing where, how, and when to apply is key.
For that, we turned to members of the Road2College community, and expert Pam Andrews. Here’s what they said (comments are edited for clarity and flow):
General Search Techniques
- Andrews advises that students continually check their guidance counselor’s offices for scholarship applications. Nicole said that this strategy worked very well for her student. By staying on top of it, her child “got the newest scholarship information first.”
- Brandi recommends looking up specific local businesses and nonprofits. “I was stunned by how many of them offered scholarships,” she said.
- Jennifer had great success doing an online search of local banks to see if they offered scholarships.
- Several parents found scholarships by searching insurance company websites.
- For national awards, Shannon suggests using a guide such as The Ultimate Scholarship Book, available at bookstores, online, or at your local library.
Specific Search Ideas
These private scholarship sources aren’t meant to be comprehensive, but they are good to know. (Scholarship amounts are included to give a sense of the range parents can expect, and they’re linked wherever possible.)
- Jennifer’s daughter won $2,500 from Northwest Farm Credit services after Jennifer did a Google search of local/regional banks to see if they offered scholarships. “My daughter applied to over 40 scholarships. She made it through a couple rounds of a national one but then was eliminated. We were honestly about ready to give up when we heard her shriek as she came running down the stairs saying she finally got one!”
- Among other private scholarships, Jennifer’s daughter was awarded:
- Jennifer’s son won $3,500 through an Idaho Opportunity Scholarship found through a community search, and the help of friends. “The dollar amount he won wasn’t given initially,” explains Jennifer. “After a month we found out that he won the full amount possible…we cheered!…the scholarship covers his housing for freshman year!”
- Both Jennifer’s children won scholarship money from the Amy Kearsley Memorial Fund. Her son won a $500, $200, and $1,000 grant; her daughter a $200 and $1,000 grant.
- Shannon’s daughter won the following private scholarships in her senior year:
Nicole says among others, her child won the following scholarships:
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When to Look
Those in the know say the earlier parents and students start the process, the more likely they are to reap positive results.
Because some scholarships renew from year to year, even a small amount can add up to big savings over four years. How early is early? Single mom Shannon says, “Your child can start applying for and winning scholarships as early as elementary school.”
- In 6th grade, Shannon’s daughter was awarded a Kohl’s Cares scholarship for $1,000.
- In 8th grade, she received the Prudential Spirit of Community scholarship, also for $1,000.
- In 8th grade, she received a Carson Scholars $1,000 scholarship, which Shannon says has grown to $1,270 since they held money until disbursement.
- By 9th grade, her daughter had received another (local) Rising Stars Scholarship, $1000, and a $500 Jefferson award.
The award list continues, but the takeaway is clear: Start early!
Tips: How to Apply
Andrews says families applying for private scholarships should know it’s a long process, one that requires the dedication and commitment of the whole family, and to consider these tips:
- For essays: Encourage your student to connect with the mission statement of the company or nonprofit offering the scholarships. In Nicole’s experience, “creating strong, compelling essays is the key. Students have to be able to tell their story.”
- It takes a village. Kids need administrative support to get the applications done. Designate a family scholarship email, a scholarship table or desk, and a consistent time to do scholarship applications. Nicole says she “created a scholarship resume of all activities, classes, awards, and community service.” She updated this resume continually.
- Find scholarships that fit your child’s activities and personal profile. Shannon says many of her daughter’s scholarships involved volunteering. “Some of the high-school awards were based on my daughter having health challenges. The ones based on health issues required letters from her doctor.”
- Be aware that some applications are more involved than others and will require essays, some very lengthy, as well as a transcript and letters of recommendation. Applications may also ask for extracurricular and volunteer records.
- By contrast, Jennifer notes that other applications sometimes end up being surprisingly simple, asking only for “two basic forms that require contact info, SSN, and signature.”
Nearly all the families profiled here made the application process a part of their weekly routine–sometimes stretching over years.
What Winning Private Scholarships Means to Families
Winning the Amy Kearsley Memorial Fund scholarship meant the world to Jennifer and her son, and the award was far from a given when they applied. “He was less than $1,000 away from his first year of tuition/fees being covered. We submitted the application for the $200 scholarship for both my son and daughter because that was the one we knew about. A few days later it was received by the local bank [which] immediately called me and let me know that my son could qualify for a $500 one as well. They emailed me a form, we filled it out, and they immediately cut that check.”
After a few weeks, they were notified that both kids were getting the $200 scholarship as well as the $500.
Jennifer’s son is currently out of state. “When he called I let him know that he had won a total of $1,700 (so tuition was covered plus money for books). He teared up and was extremely humbled…couldn’t speak for a minute. He has spent the last two years working for his church and not making money for school. So to receive this is huge!”
Meanwhile, Jennifer says her daughter’s winning of the Daughters of the American Revolution scholarship is one she’ll tell her own kids. “We were at a girl’s weekend. We had just gone to a hilarious musical, followed by an equally hilarious driving experience. We’d stayed up late talking and laughing… finally heading to bed at about 1 a.m. My daughter suddenly remembered that the results (good or bad) were emailed out. When she checked her inbox she squealed (trying to be quiet), showed me, and we were both jumping up and down.”
Jennifer recalls her daughter had really put her all into writing and rewriting her essay for the scholarship.
“We snuck upstairs to see if anyone was still awake and found one aunt and her grandma. She quickly told them and more hugging and squealing ensued.” Her grandma asked them the amount. “We couldn’t remember. We thought maybe $1,000, maybe up to $2,500. We looked it up… $4,000 a year!” Jennifer says more muffled squealing, lots of jumping, and some tears followed. “She realized that after over 40 applications, numerous essays and so much stress, she had done it. She had won enough scholarships to go to her dream school completely debt-free for her entire undergraduate degree.”
Shannon, a single mother, and teacher, said that private scholarships have enabled her daughter to attend college debt-free and that this is a major load off of her mind. “I’ve always worried about college, and specifically looked at meet-need schools. She is saving so much on college, which is amazing. Winning scholarships has allowed her to purchase a laptop and will help pay for travel and books. It also has allowed us to not have to take out any loans for her undergrad education!”
Shannon’s daughter adds, “As I was spending hours applying for scholarships, I knew that I had a good chance of winning some, and I was so excited when I began to. My biggest honor and surprise was winning the $25,000 Equitable Excellence Scholarship. That was a game-changer because I can spread that one out over all four years!”
Nicole stressed that earning private scholarships has been life-changing. “For us scholarships were not just about paying for college, but actually seeing, feeling, and believing the future career and life you always dreamed about was actually possible. Earning college scholarships, no matter how small, means you have possibilities, and there’s no feeling greater than that.”
Trying Is Everything
Applying requires trying and as these stories are testament to, the payoff can make it all worthwhile. Smaller scholarships may be all it takes to keep up the motivation. Larger scholarships, particularly those which repeat year after year, help you forget the time it took to earn them.
So while there’s no guarantee that you’ll win a lot of money through private scholarships, you’ll never know unless you try.
This article was sponsored by College Ave Student Loans.
Use College Insights to help find merit aid and schools that fit the criteria most important to your student. You’ll not only save precious time, but your student will avoid the heartache of applying to schools they aren’t likely to get into or can’t afford to attend.
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