I talk to a lot of people with student loan debt, and I tend to hear the same thing over and over: “I wish I had applied for more scholarships.”
When you’re still in school, loan debt doesn’t feel like “real” money. It’s not until you graduate and start making loan payments that you realize the difference an extra few thousand dollars can make – or even just a few hundred.
Don’t let free scholarship money pass you by. Start applying today with these tried-and-true strategies.
Start Searching on Major Sites
Most major scholarship websites let you create an account and input your information. Then, the site will notify you when a scholarship that fits your profile comes up.
Popular scholarship sites include:
After you’ve created an account, set aside time each week to go through the new scholarships and decide which ones to apply for. If you see dozens of new scholarships each week, consider doing this daily or every other day.
Applying for multiple scholarships can get confusing – unless you have a system in place to keep everything neat and tidy.
First, create a filter in your email inbox to organize scholarship-related emails. Then, use a spreadsheet, notebook, or Google Doc to compile the scholarships you want to apply for. Include the link to each scholarship, due date, application requirements, and any other notable details. Sort them by deadline to prioritize the ones due soonest.
Start working on each scholarship weeks before the due date so you’re not scrambling at the last minute to fill out an application. Ask for letters of recommendation at least a month before the deadline to give your teachers, employers, and coaches time to craft an effective letter.
Apply for Unusual Scholarships
Instead of only applying for basic scholarships, try finding unique options that fit your talents and personal demographic. For example, if you have a sense of humor, find scholarships that ask for funny essays. If you’ve played the oboe since you were eight, search on Google for “oboe scholarship.”
If you’re part of a minority group, look for scholarships from diversity-focused organizations. Don’t rule out a modest non-profit or small business. You never know what will happen until you apply.
You can also set a Google alert for the word “scholarship” along with your hobbies and interests, like “piano” or “engineering.” Every time a scholarship with your key terms pops up on the internet, you’ll receive a notification.
Read Through Requirements Carefully
Most scholarship applications require an essay, high school transcript, and letters of recommendation. But some have more specific conditions, like an essay about your favorite novel or a recommendation from a science teacher.
It’s tempting to gloss over the details of a scholarship, especially when you’re still juggling school and extracurriculars, but ignoring those details could lead to the automatic disqualification of your application.
Don’t Avoid Small Scholarships
Applying for scholarships can consume a lot of time, and it’s tempting to prioritize the big-name awards. Instead of focusing on large scholarships, spend time applying for smaller scholarships.
A $500 scholarship could cover a semester’s worth of books or a month of groceries when you’re studying abroad. Small scholarships are also easier to win because fewer students apply.
Also, every dollar of scholarship money you win is a dollar you don’t have to borrow and pay interest on. Let’s say you take out a $15,000 student loan at 5% interest and a 10-year term. You’ll end up paying $19,092 total over the life of the loan.
If you win a $500 scholarship and only need to borrow $14,500 with a 5% rate and a 10-year term, you’ll pay $137 less in total interest. In other words, that $500 scholarship is actually worth more in the long run.
Utilize Social Media
Put your time scrolling on Instagram and Twitter to good use and start following hashtags like #scholarship, #scholarships and #scholarshipopportunity. You can also follow scholarship sites on social media because they may highlight different scholarships on their social media feed.
Reach Out to Companies Directly
Local companies may award scholarships, but you’ll only find out if you ask. Make a list of small and large businesses that you and your family frequent, including retailers and restaurants. If possible, visit them in person or call and ask to speak to a manager.
If you worked a summer job, ask that company if they provide a scholarship. Your parent’s employer may also give out scholarships, especially if it’s a major company.
Keep Applying While You’re in College
Some students think that only incoming freshmen are eligible for scholarships, but many scholarships are available for upperclassmen. Keep utilizing the strategies outlined above and contact the financial aid department to ask if there are any university-wide scholarships you can apply for after you’ve enrolled.
Once you declare a major, contact your advisor and ask if there are any eligible scholarships specifically within that department. Set a reminder in your calendar to ask about scholarships every semester because you never know what might change.
What Happens After You Win a Scholarship
When you’re notified that you won a scholarship, make sure to accept it quickly. Organizations may have an acceptance deadline, and they may offer the scholarship to someone else if you don’t accept it by that time.
After you win the scholarship, read through the terms and understand how it works. Will a check be sent directly to you or to the university? Does the scholarship automatically renew every year or will you have to resubmit any information?
If the scholarship does renew every year, it may still come with a minimum GPA requirement, usually around 3.0. If you fall below that threshold, the scholarship may be revoked. Some scholarships have a four-year limit, so it may be rescinded if you’re still enrolled in school past the four-year mark.
If you use the scholarship for rent, dorm fees, or studying abroad, you may owe taxes on the amount given. Set aside a portion of the scholarship funds in a separate bank account so you’ll be prepared when tax time comes.