Don't fail to seek local scholarships

July 20, 2008|By Steve Rosen | Steve Rosen,McClatchy-Tribune

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Free is good.

That's my rallying cry for coming high school seniors starting the scramble for every dollar they can get their hands on between now and next spring to cover college tuition, textbooks, and room and board.

Yet, at a time when college costs continue to escalate with no end in sight, many sources for "free" money are being overlooked and untapped.

By "free," I mean millions of dollars in scholarships that are typically available annually to qualified students with no repayment strings attached. The sources are not federal or state financial-aid programs, or the colleges themselves. Rather, they may be your employer, churches and synagogues, foundations, nonprofit associations and other community organizations.

Many groups will spend the year selling cookbooks and running other fundraisers to sweeten their scholarship pots. So why aren't there more takers?

After talking to dozens of students, parents and scholarship coordinators over the years, I've identified three issues that keep high school seniors from reaching their funding objectives:

*Not being motivated. For all the talk about how there are not enough education dollars to go around, students are often the ones dropping the ball.

Pursuing scholarships can be hard work; it requires making phone calls, searching Web sites, writing essays and staying organized. It can also be intimidating for a teenager to be answering questions from a panel of adult interviewers.

My advice to parents is to talk to their high schooler on the front end about the time and effort (yes, it will require plenty of both) to come up with scholarship money to help cover some of the college costs. Better to know early whether your teen is up for the challenge than to continually nag him to get the job done.

Be supportive during the process, keep tabs on deadlines, be a sounding board on essay topics and a source for leads, but don't do all the heavy lifting.

*Not using the power of networking. Those $20,000 awards from nationwide mega-scholarship contests sure sound enticing. But the odds of winning are not in your teen's favor, unless she is a high-achieving student, a super-talented violinist, the organizer of a global food drive, or, well, you get the picture.

A more effective alternative and a better use of time: Stick close to home and try to land scholarships from groups that know you or hear about you. Some quick brainstorming should be able to identify potential leads or referrals, such as the $500 textbook scholarship from your teen's summer employer, or the church youth group that provides a $1,000 prize, or the Lions Club chapter in your community that awards money for aspiring teachers. Make a list of all the groups and organizations you and your family have been associated with over the years - all might be college-aid sources.

If the goal is to raise $10,000 in scholarships, your teen may need to widen his network for financial leads. Just as in sales, winning scholarships is a numbers game, and you need to keep knocking on doors until the right ones open. That's why I don't advocate relying solely on scholarship search sites such as FastWeb.com.

*Not paying attention to details. If the application deadline is Dec. 1, don't mail the envelope 10 days later and expect to qualify for the $2,500 grant. If the scholarship requires applicants to have at least a 3.0 grade point average, and your student's GPA is 2.6, don't bother.

Likewise, if the scholarship requires a grade transcript, make sure the message has been directly communicated - in the form of a note - to the school administrative office well before the information is due. Provide the envelope - stamped and addressed - so there are no slip-ups.

It's also important to complete the entire application, not leaving blanks, and say "thank you" for the opportunity to apply. Groups want to know that their scholarship dollars are being spent on grateful recipients.

I don't know how many times I've heard scholarship organizers confide that they've had to disqualify eligible candidates because of missed deadlines, inadequate documentation or sloppy paperwork, such as filling in "US" when the question was "county." (It's happened.)

It takes only one slip-up for a candidate to get the heave-ho from even the most patient scholarship coordinator.

As I said, free money sure beats applying for expensive student loans or having to empty the family college-savings account. Sounds like a motivator to me.

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