It's that time of year again. Families are filling out financial aid forms and confronting the high price of college. And many are wishfully thinking about scholarships.
Every scholarship dollar means one less buck you have to withdraw from savings or borrow and repay with interest. And you don't need a degree in math to know the value of that.
Take heart: The number of private scholarships awarded by businesses and other organizations is once again on the rise after a few years of barely budging when the credit crisis hit, says Mark Kantrowitz, author of "Secrets to Winning a Scholarship," released last week.
But be warned: Competition for those dollars is also up, in part because of the economic downturn. In the past academic year, 19.5 million families submitted applications for federal financial aid, a 33 percent increase from just two years earlier, Kantrowitz says. More families seeking federal aid likely means a greater number will be applying for private scholarships, too.
And be aware: If you win a private scholarship, your other need-based aid could be reduced. Schools' policies vary on how they handle this. Often, schools will apply the scholarship to any shortfall in financial aid the student has, then reduce the amount of loans and grants from the school.
Still, it's free money, and students and families can take a number of steps to better their chances. The typical scholarship award is $2,500 a year. Less than 1 percent of students at four-year colleges receive private scholarships worth more than $15,000 a year, according to Kantrowitz.
"That $2,500 might not seem like a lot. But that's $2,500 you don't have to borrow," he says.
Besides writing a book on scholarships, Kantrowitz is a leading expert on financial aid. He is publisher of FinAid.org, an online provider of student aid information, as well as of Fastweb.com, a free scholarship search site featuring 1.5 million scholarships worth more than $3.5 billion.
Many of the tips in his book on scholarships are common sense. "But common sense is not all that common," Kantrowitz says.
Indeed, some local scholarship officials say students often ignore deadlines, don't provide the materials requested or fail to show up for interviews — behaviors that can knock even the most worthy candidates out of the running.
To get started, Kantrowitz advises students to sign up for two free scholarship search sites so the bases are covered. Besides Fastweb, other free sites include College Board's Scholarship Search, Scholarships.com and Peterson's College Search.
The sites ask a series of questions to develop profiles that are then used to match students with scholarships. Answer all the questions, even the optional ones, Kantrowitz says. Students who do so get twice as many matches on average than those who provide fewer details, he says.
Apply for as many scholarships as you qualify for, again to better your chances, Kantrowitz says. It's work, but the job gets much easier after the first half-dozen, he says. For example, you can reuse an essay. Just make sure you revise it enough to fit the scholarship you're applying for.
Of course, the earlier you start, the better. Deadlines usually are in the fall or spring of a student's senior year in high school. Some are much earlier.
Students can start applying for some college scholarships as early as kindergarten.
The Jif Most Creative Peanut Butter Sandwich Contest is for children age 6 to 12. The young chef with the best sandwich — based on creativity, taste, appearance and nutritional balance — wins a $25,000 scholarship, while the four runners-up each get $2,500 for college.
Not surprising, students with the best grades and highest test scores win more scholarships. The same goes for students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics because companies are more willing to offer scholarships for these fields, Kantrowitz says. (Alas for art history and journalism majors like me.)
But some scholarships reward creativity over grade-point average and mathematical prowess.
The David Letterman Scholarship, for example, awards three scholarships totaling $18,333 to average — but highly imaginative — Ball State University telecommunications students. And two teens with a talent for transforming duct tape into prom attire can each win a $5,000 scholarship in the Stuck at Prom Scholarship Contest by Duck duct tape.
Students without stellar grades and test scores might have better luck looking for scholarships in their backyard than applying for national awards that attract tens of thousands of applicants, says Kalman Chany, author of "Paying for College Without Going Broke." Find out whether a local business group, a parent's employer or your religious institution offers scholarships for area students, he says.
Don't snub scholarships worth $500 or $1,000. There's less competition for them, and small sums add up.