These days, the effort is more worthwhile than ever. Changes in the financial-aid policies of a growing number of the more prestigious schools have removed the hidden cost of snagging a private scholarship. In the past, colleges providing financial aid often would cut their grants by the amount of outside scholarship money the students had won. But thanks to competition for outstanding students and pressure from scholarship foundations, institutions such as Brown University, Georgetown University, Northwestern University, and the University of Chicago now will reduce the loan or work-study component of financial aid before touching grants.
More liberal financial-aid policies don't mean it's any easier to win a scholarship. While upwards of 700,000 scholarships are available each year from more than 25,000 providers in the U.S., "you have to work pretty hard to get some," says Connie Williams, director of student financial aid at the University of Cincinnati. Especially for larger awards, the competition is stiff. Coca-Cola each year gives away about 250 awards. The applicant pool? 117,000. Still, if you go about it right, you can get real money, says Melody Gibeson, 21, a senior at Missouri Baptist College in St. Louis. She started researching scholarships in her sophomore year at Hickman Mills High School in Kansas City and ultimately won three, totaling $11,000. "I couldn't have afforded the $15,000-a-year in college costs without this money," says Gibeson.
Scholarship seekers should first determine which awards to pursue. Most scholarships are handed out based on merit or a mix of merit and financial need. Many have stringent eligibility requirements, such as specific grade-point averages. Start the search on the Web, at such free sites as fastaid.com, fastweb.com, and wiredscholar.com (table). They'll ask your child to answer questions about his or her background and interests, a process that can take up to 20 minutes. Based on the responses, the site will comb its database to come up with a list of appropriate scholarships. Savvy searchers advise that your child check at least three sites to assemble a comprehensive list.
Many sites don't include regional or local awards, which your child may have a greater chance of snaring because of the smaller applicant pools. Check the high school guidance counselor's office. In some areas, organizations such as Dollars for Scholars can simplify the process of applying for local awards. Its 1,000 U.S. chapters act as the central coordinator for community groups providing scholarships. Students submit one application to their chapter, which then generally matches available awards with the winners.
Other sources to check include your employer and organizations that you or your child belong to. Take the National FFA Organization, an Indianapolis group for high school students interested in agricultural studies. Like Dollars for Scholars, it handles members' applications for scholarships from 187 sponsors and divvies up the money according to each provider's criteria. About $2 million in scholarship money is awarded each year to 1,500 winners, out of an applicant pool of 11,500. By applying to groups like National FFA, "you narrow the pool of competitors but have access to a bigger total pool of money," says Becky Manning, project coordinator.
The search should leave your child with 20 to 30 scholarships to pursue. Sound overwhelming? "It's a numbers game," says Ben Kaplan, author of How to Go to College Almost for Free (HarperCollins, 2001, $22). "You greatly enhance your odds if you increase the number of places you apply to." Kaplan, who graduated from Harvard University in 1999, won 24 awards totaling $90,000, after applying to 36 places. Another reason for applying to a huge pool: Most awards range from $500 to $3,000, says William Nelsen, president of the Citizens' Scholarship Foundation of America. So you need a critical mass of scholarships to get real money. Melcher Fabi, now in his fourth year at the University of California at Santa Barbara, can attest to that. Starting in his junior year at San Leandro High School in San Leandro, Calif., he spent some seven months researching scholarships, preparing applications, and getting recommendations. He won 17 local awards, ranging from $200 to $1,000, for a total of $8,000.
Filling out all those applications isn't as bad as it sounds. After the first few, they go quickly. And some essays can be reused. Another tack: Ask for samples of winning essays. You can't copy them, but "you can use [them] as your road map," says Kaplan.
Scholarship deadlines generally occur between the junior year of high school and the spring before the start of the college term, although some can be as early as the high school freshman year. The good news is that your child may even gain an edge when applying to colleges. "By the time I got to writing my college applications, I had honed my essay-writing skills to a fine art," says Kaplan. That's a nice benefit even if you don't get a scholarship. By Anne Field