In your search for college cash, what could be better than finding free money that never needs to be repaid?
Yet many students don't bother to look for scholarships, figuring they either 1) wouldn't qualify for any, 2) couldn't win the big ones, or 3) shouldn't waste their time applying for a small amount of money.
Sarah Baker might have thought that way, too, if it hadn't been for some nudging from her parents.
"My parents encouraged me to apply for scholarships," says Sarah, a junior at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts. "My mom did a lot of research before I even started the process. The thing we learned right away is that there are a lot of scholarships out there, if you know where to look."
In fact, Sarah's mom had discovered there are hundreds of thousands of college scholarships available annually to high school students. The total amount of academic scholarship money awarded each year is in the billions.
Sarah was thrilled at the thought of getting her hands on some of that money. She knew that the colleges she applied to might offer her a few scholarships along with her other financial aid. But she wasn't about to stop there. Her mom had already discovered that a lot of scholarship money is available to students through private organizations, government programs and competitions.
Armed with that knowledge, Sarah began her scholarship search during her junior year of high school. She immediately found three great sources of information: her school's guidance counselor, her local library and the Internet.
Sarah took careful notes whenever the school guidance counselor stopped by her English class to announce the latest batch of scholarships. She made several visits to the Boston Public Library, which offered a special scholarship resource center for students. She also subscribed to a free Internet scholarship service—fastweb.com—that sent her e-mails about scholarships. On the FastWeb site, Sarah was asked to fill out a personal profile. The site used Sarah's profile to determine which scholarships were the best fit for her.
Then Sarah contacted each scholarship provider using a form letter she'd written. In the letter, she gave her name and high school, and asked to receive information and an application.
The form letter kept the process moving quickly and efficiently. She heard back from most of the organizations. Sarah then sorted through all the applications she'd received, noting the requirements of each and looking for similarities.
"Some of the applications were easier to fill out than others," she says. "Some were as simple as 'Fill out this form,' but for a lot of them you needed to write an essay or answer some questions. They tended to be similar questions, though, and so on a lot of them I would use basically the same essay, just filling in the blanks with the name of that particular scholarship.
"I sent out a whole slew of applications. You're just sitting down and filling them out, hoping you'll get responses on a few. It would take up time, but not too much—it was just like having another piece of homework to do over the weekend."
Doing that extra "homework" was worth it: Sarah ended up winning a good amount of scholarship money.
She received one scholarship from the Dolphin Scholarship Foundation, which offers scholarships to students with parents in the Navy's submarine force—like Sarah's father. That award was for $3,000 per year for four years. She also received a Robert C. Byrd Honors Scholarship, providing $1,500 per year for students from New York. Those awards, along with the full-tuition scholarship she received from Gordon College for being a National Merit Finalist, meant the cost of Sarah's education was almost completely paid before she even set foot on campus.
"I think I would have gone to Gordon anyway, but it would have made it a lot harder to make ends meet without the scholarships," says Sarah. "I have a younger brother, and now my parents have more flexibility to help him with his college costs. It looks like I'm going to get out of college loan-free."
That financial independence is especially important for Sarah. After graduation, she's thinking about doing missions work as a translator.
"A lot of the students who plan to work in missions are wondering what they are going to do about their college debt," says Sarah, "and I might not have any, which would let me jump right in to missions work.
"Not only that, but it's made college a lot less stressful. I know other students who have to work 20 hours a week during the school year. I don't have that stress. Plus, since I don't need to work during the summer, I've been able to do short-term missions work."
Sarah's scholarship search is paying off in big ways—right now while she's in college, and later, when she won't have the burden of debt. She says a little effort now could mean a lot less work in your future, too.
"When you're going through your senior year, sometimes the last thing you want to do is fill out scholarship applications," Sarah says. "But it's definitely worth the time you put into it."