The Christian College Guide asked Christian college financial aid directors what characteristics they find in common among students who are successful in their searches for financial aid. These experts said if they could create the perfect financial aid searcher, he or she would bring the following seven P's to the search:
According to David Schrock, supervisor of student resources for Boyce College in Louisville, Kentucky, the hunt for college money takes sweat. "Students who are willing to work hard will have a much better chance at paying for school," he said. This hard work can take the shape of caffeine-aided internet searches for scholarships, writing endless amounts of letters to apply for potential ones, or working long hours in summer and winter in order to pay for fall and spring school fees.
The hard work begins in high school with classroom performance. The qualifications for scholarships can vary tremendously, said Dave Weems, director of financial aid at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, Arizona, but the standard prerequisites are a high GPA, high class rank and involvement in extracurricular activities. Working hard in classes is really working hard for college cash.
"Above all else, the student needs to be the best student they can be," said Richard Blatchley, director of financial aid at Northwestern College in St. Paul, Minnesota. He estimates that about 85 percent of scholarships are based on grades, class rank and test scores. Blatchley cited the example of Sarah, a high school senior from a small town whose strong grades, test scores and school participation netted her $25,000 in scholarships.
This hard work continues in the financial aid search process. Experts say the more possibilities students pursue, the greater the odds of success.
"Be a detective," said Blatchley. "Check all avenues for scholarships." Some sources he recommends: the college you plan to attend, high school scholarships, scholarships offered by your parent's employer or your own employer, grants from local businesses, fastweb.com, and other scholarship search sites. Schrock tells the story of an incoming seminary student who spent 40 hours in one week looking for scholarships online: "He drafted a form letter, sent it in with every scholarship for which he applied, and by the time school began, his whole seminary education was paid for."
Experts say all this work will pay off. "If you were to spend one hour each week for one month and received a $400 scholarship, you would have 'earned' $100 an hour," said April Powell, associate director of financial aid at Fresno Pacific University in Fresno, California. "How's that compared to an $8 an hour job?"
Schrock also recommends that students have at least a part-time job before they begin their college search. Such employment will do three things: promote a good work ethic by demanding responsibility, motivate the student to persevere in college, and begin to provide income for school costs.
"Many students leap for school loans because they require no immediate payoff and are easier to get," said Schrock. "Students who work and understand how hard it is to make money are more financially conservative and wise monetarily."
But experts say you shouldn't just work hard, you should work smart, too. "Much work can result in nothing if it is done in the wrong place," Schrock said. "Someone digging for gold in a coal mine is not wrong in their labor, just in their location. Likewise, students who don't have much experience with financial aid should ask others who have blazed the trail before them."
Who do you ask? Start with your high school guidance counselor. Also, Weems said, many college financial aid offices have staff members dedicated to assisting students with scholarship searches. Students can also ask if their local Christian colleges offer any free scholarship searches or provide assistance with writing essays, he said.
Other ways to work smarter not harder:
• Be consistent. "Students who are consistent in their searches are the ones who receive the most scholarships," said Powell. She recommends that students schedule a set time every week to look for scholarships.
• Have a strategy. Target scholarships that other students might avoid, such as ones that require a writing sample.
• Fine tune your abilities. Weems recommends students work hard at developing their writing ability because it counts at essay time. Take advantage of any creative writing courses or even college-level writing classes.
• Ask lots of questions. "Willingness to admit ignorance, ask questions and be a continuous learner are valuable skills to acquire in the financial aid process," said Schrock. "Ask the school you want to attend how their students pay for college. You would be surprised how many students don't take advantage of this."
Almost all scholarships have more applicants than possible recipients. So, students will likely receive far more rejections than awards. This can often be demoralizing, but experts encourage students to press on. "No one ever wins a scholarship award or finds a needed financial grant by giving up," said Schrock. "Those who excel in finding financial aid will be those who persevere through discouragement and denials."
Powell tells the story of Gary, an incoming freshman who applied for scholarship after scholarship and was turned down by many. Eventually, he received five large scholarships.
"Persistence is a key trait. The more scholarship applications the student submits, the better their chances of succeeding," said Weems. "Some students will get a rejection letter on their first scholarship application and give up hope. Instead, they need to use the disappointment as a catalyst to apply for more scholarships." He recommends applying for at least 10 scholarships because the chance of landing one or two is fairly strong.
Weems tells the story of an 18-year-old who applied for 30 different scholarships and wrote an essay for each one. The girl received more than 10 scholarships worth $500 to $2,000 eachfor the upcoming academic year. "Each one took a great deal of time to write, fill out the application, and submit, but she knew the end result had a huge upside," he said.
To develop persistence, Blatchley recommends that students visit potential colleges as soon as their sophomore year in high school. "This is the best motivation for looking for funding," he said. "Know where you want to goand what it costs." Then resolve to push through the long hours of filling out applications, writing essays and gathering references. "Be diligent," he said. "Like fishing, you may have to cast out into the scholarship waters many times to catch one."
Persistence can come from personal resolve, but it can also come from support networks of friends or family. "I am convinced that we are better working together than alone," said Powell. "It can be intimidating to work alone when searching for scholarships. Share with loved ones your plans to pursue scholarships so they can check up on your progress, encourage you if you begin to feel discouraged, and celebrate with you when you get good news."
"Families that work as a team are more successful at landing aid," said Brad Thomas, director of new student financial assistance at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, Illinois.
"Timing is everything," said Blatchley. "It's always better to be at the front of the line than lagging behind."
When it comes to the financial aid search, you want to be ready, prepared and moving on opportunities as soon you become a senior. Weems recommends that students start preparing at the end of their junior year by researching what scholarships will be available during their senior year of high school. Don't put it off. And don't assume your need will take care of itself.
"Too often families don't plan ahead, believing colleges will be able to make up the financial difference," said Barbara Layne, associate vice president of enrollment at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts. "In some cases this can be true, but for the majority the funding of education is a partnership between the college, student and parentsand the primary responsibility is going to fall to the student and parents."
In addition to looking ahead at potential scholarships, the experts we talked to said successful searchers don't have to scramble to figure out what to put in the applications. "Students that get it right keep a scrapbook of high school activities," said Thomas. He recommends keeping a record of awards, newspaper articles and mission trips for all four years.
Of course planning ahead doesn't matter if you lose track of what you've got. So, a big part of being prepared for the financial aid hunt is organization. Students should keep a running list of all scholarships, the amounts, the dates they can apply, the due dates, and what the requirements are for each scholarship. "To keep from getting overwhelmed, take a systematic approach to applying for scholarships," Weems said.
Blatchley recommends arranging potential scholarships in order of their due date and which qualifications best match your skills and interests. And remember that not all scholarships apply to every student, so carefully read the qualifiers in order to avoid wasting time and effort.
Weems recommends students develop their organizational skills by creating lists, whether of homework assignments or even weekly chores. "As the items on the list are completed, students can gain a sense of satisfaction that they are staying on top of things and accomplishing their tasks," he said.
Finding scholarships, grants and other means of financial aid can be a long process. Filling out forms, waiting to hear back from organizations, and reapplying each year takes time. "In a microwave age that wants everything now, students who learn to be patient are much more resilient to the ups and downs of finding financial aid," said Schrock.
Weems encourages students not to get frustrated when they haven't heard back. "Some scholarships can take months before a final decision is reached," he said. "Just because a student hasn't heard an answer quickly doesn't mean they won't get the scholarship." Weems recommends students contact the organization sponsoring the scholarship and ask when the committee will have a decision. "It can relieve stress just knowing that it could take a couple of months to hear an answer," he said.
Schrock recommends cultivating patience by prayer and dwelling on biblical truths. "Patience is a fruit of the Spirit," he said.
"Students who are passionate about their education are the students that scholarship committees want to financially help," said Powell. "If you are positive about your future and can share this enthusiasm with others, you will go far."
Powell cited the example of Yami, a college sophomore elected student body president and numerous other leadership positions because of her passion for each role. "Organizations wanted to support her because she believed that she would be successful, and so others did too," she said.
Students can develop an enthusiasm for their future by establishing goals, said Powell. Consider where you want to be in five to 10 years. "Having goals and a purpose will lead you to success," she said. "I have found that students actively pursuing financial aid are very conscientious about their futures. They know where they are going and who they want to be."
If you haven't yet established future goals, Powell recommends talking with a career resource adviser or a trusted adult who can help you find options that best fit your personality, strengths and interests. Skills assessment tools can also prove helpful.
Paying for college is an exercise in faith, and thus an opportunity for prayer. "Students who have learned to trust in the Lord Jesus with all of their heart are better prepared to begin the anxiety-producing process of paying for college," said Schrock. "Even as the cost of higher education increases, God is still sovereign, and this comforting truth must not be forgotten by Christians applying to college."
Schrock said students can cultivate their prayer life through reading the Bible, worshiping corporately, and modeling their lives after older, more mature believers. He recommends memorizing passages of Scripture that speak to God's provision, such as Proverbs 3:5-6, Matthew 6:25-34 and Philippians 4. "These passages will fuel prayer and confidence in God while applying for scholarships," said Schrock. "God will provide exactly as we need it, and when we need it."
Prayer is the foundation for all the other essential traits of a successful financial aid searcher. "Successful families operate with faith in God, but don't leave everything up to divine intervention," said Thomas. "They actively seek for funding and pray for wisdom. If everything belongs to God, then your finances and future are in his hands."
Jeremy Weber is a freelance journalist in Chicago. He graduated from Wheaton College (Illinois).