The Lowdown on College Scholarships

Published by Wendy Nelson on

1317230_29811116One of the topics I think perspective college students and their parents often misunderstand going into the college search is College Scholarships.  Misunderstandings usually lead families to believe one of two things – either assuming that they will get scholarships to make college more affordable or assuming they won’t qualify for any college scholarships.  Here are some facts to clear up the confusion:

  1. There are four basic kinds of college scholarships – merit-based, talent-based, need-based, and combined.  Merit-based scholarships are based primarily on GPA and ACT/SAT scores.  Talent-based scholarships are awarded to students with a particular talent, often things like athletic talent (Division 1 & 2 schools and a few other types offer athletic scholarships), musical talent (primarily for students planning to be music majors), artistic talent (primarily for students planning to be art majors), theatrical talent (primarily for students planning to be theater majors), and a few other odds and ends.  Need-based scholarships are based primarily on a student’s need for financial assistance to go to college.  These are usually based on the FAFSA or other reporting of your family financial picture that includes household income.  There are also some scholarships that look at a combination of factors, like merit, leadership and financial aid.  These are usually looking for “great students” who also have a large financial need.  I only separate this category out because there is a clear line between college scholarships with no financial need component and those with a financial need component.
  2. The largest source of college scholarships is from the colleges themselves.  Colleges usually offer all four types of scholarships mentioned above ad these vary from a few thousand dollars all the way up to full-ride scholarships.  Check the college websites for details.
  3. Not many students can hit the “jackpot” – Yes, there are full-ride scholarships out there and they aren’t all for athletes.  There are merit-based and need-based full-ride scholarships and full-tuition scholarships, but they are out of reach for a majority of students.  That doesn’t mean they are impossible to find, though.  Once again, fact #2 applies.  My Full Scholarship List is a collection of merit-based full-ride scholarships and full-tuition scholarships offered at colleges around the country.  It is worth checking into if your student has a top GPA and high ACT/SAT score.
  4. Private scholarships, like the ones listed on sites like fastweb, and cappex are a crap shoot.  Private scholarships usually get thousands of applicants and your student has a very low probability of winning one.  It’s better to look into the next category.
  5. Local private scholarships can be a good source for small amounts of supplemental college money.  These aren’t listed on the big scholarship websites. Most high school counseling offices have a list of local college scholarships offered to their students.  These also tend to be written up in the local newspapers.  Clubs like Kiwanis, VFW, Rotary and others award scholarships to high school seniors in their community based on certain criteria.
  6. Colleges have rules when it comes to outside scholarship money.  Many schools limit the amount of outside scholarship money (private scholarships) that can be applied on top of the school’s own discounts.  In other words, a school might reduce the aid it is providing a student if a student is also coming in with scholarships from outside sources.  Make sure you understand the rules for college scholarships at your student’s chosen school.

College scholarships are a great way to make college more affordable.  Just be sure you understand the different types and what your student may be eligible for.  Talk to the colleges about your student’s chances at different types of merit and talent based scholarships.  Ask about their criteria for need-based scholarships to see if your family may qualify.  And when it comes to outside scholarships, make sure your student spends his or her time wisely, applying for those where he/she has a realistic chance at winning.