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5 tips to score scholarships

College-bound? Here's how to win a slice of the billions up for grabs every year.

By Stacy Johnson Apr 23, 2012 4:39PM

This post comes from Brandon Ballenger at partner site Money Talks News.

Money Talks News on MSN MoneyA college degree can open doors, but finding the money to get one can mean knocking on a bunch of doors first.

The average annual cost to attend a four-year public college is $8,244, says the College Board. For out-of-state students, that number more than doubles ($20,770), and for private schools, it triples ($28,500). And that's just tuition.


While many believe college will pay for itself later through higher salaries, there's no reason to take on loans and years of debt. Instead, search out as much free money as possible. In the video below, Stacy Johnson interviews Harvard grad Ben Kaplan, who won two dozen scholarships totaling $90,000. Find out how he did it, then read on to learn how you can too.

This is the kind of advice I could've used heading into college. I had a state scholarship that covered 75% of my tuition for four years. But it wasn't until senior year that I realized I could've had a full ride and saved myself thousands more. I just assumed I wasn't eligible.


Don't make the same mistake. Instead, follow these tips:

Check nonacademic scholarships. There are literally billions of dollars in scholarships out there every year. As we covered in "25 bizarre scholarships," many don't require great grades, test scores, or any kind of performance at all. There are scholarships based on everything from your height to a passion for the science behind wine.

Image: Graduation cap (© Stockdisc/SuperStock)Some of them have such weirdly specific criteria that you might win just by being the only person crazy enough to apply. For instance, there's a scholarship for Catholics named Zolp. (Name changes won't work.) 


Use scholarship databases. There are many places to hunt for scholarships online. The College Board's scholarship search alone claims to check "scholarships, other financial aid and internships from more than 2,200 programs, totaling nearly $6 billion."


Try some of these:

Also check with the financial aid department of any school you might apply to, or even ones you don't apply to. Some, like Harvard, have dedicated Web pages for scholarships available only to their students. But many schools list scholarships that any student attending any school can apply for.

Wherever you look for scholarship money online, remember that you should never pay anything. Don't fall for scholarship application fees, matching services, or other such come-ons. Not all places that charge are rip-offs, but many are, and there's no need to take risks with so many free resources at your fingertips.

Check locally and offline. Online searches are a great tool, but your odds of winning nationally competitive scholarships might be lower than less-advertised local ones. Check with local businesses and community-oriented organizations in your area: Rotary clubs, YMCA, Kiwanis and even churches. High school and library bulletin boards and well-connected guidance counselors might also be able to clue you in.

Reuse your work. Apply for a few scholarships, and you'll start to see a pattern. Many want the same information, and essay scholarships may touch on the same themes (especially "tell us who you are and why you want our money").

While plagiarism is a no-no, you can't plagiarize yourself. Save time by keeping documents you can copy and paste from, and use your Web browser's auto-complete feature so you don't have to type in your contact info a billion times. Just make sure to double-check everything.

Be persistent. While there's a mind-boggling amount of free money out there, don't expect it to fall into your lap. Do the legwork and keep checking every semester. Some scholarships aren't available to freshmen or undecided majors, and new opportunities pop up all the time.

Fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid at the start of every year so your school knows you're still interested in grants and other financial aid. Do it early in the spring semester. Need-based aid such as federal Pell grants is often first-come, first-served.

What to do if you can't get enough aid
Consider starting at a community college, which costs significantly less than a four-year university and allows you to finish core courses before transferring to the school you really want. Just make sure your credits will carry over. Ask the transfer school for an articulation agreement.

You could also try applying to some of the cheapest schools in the country, or the tuition-free schools named in this Businessweek article. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's new comparison shopping tool might also help.

If you need more money, you'll probably have to turn to student loans. While their interest rates are relatively low compared with most other types -- 3.4% for subsidized undergraduate loans -- it's still easy to rack up a mountain of debt.


More on Money Talks News and MSN Money:

Apr 23, 2012 11:23PM
In WHAT world is the "average" annual cost of college $8,244?!?   
Apr 24, 2012 1:33AM

Just beginning this whole process for my Senior in High's amazing that none, and I mean none of the colleges in our state (CO) really step up to bat to tell you about some of the obscure scholarships available.  They are happy to hear about them, but all the legwork is up to you!  Oh, and if you share the information, then they claim it as there own legwork, which is why none of us know about them.


I have to agree.  What four year colleges in todays society are only $8,244 annually?  I know the college my daughter is going to next year costs at least $17,000, and that's at a 9% increase over last year, when I read an article that this "state" college is looking more at about a 16% increase, and this college is considered one of the most reasonable for the education in our state?


Navigating this process is hard enough, but it really starts to feel like they have you by the short hairs.

Apr 24, 2012 11:29AM
We just went to an open house at St. Catherines in MN. Yearly tuition is $42,000.00, but that includes a room on campus. I think it was like $36,000.00 if you didnt live on campus.  Since this is per year, and most degrees are 4-8 years, I wonder how in the world the kids are supposed to afford it. Even with doing all their generals at a cheaper college, its still an astranomical price to pay.  Will they ever break even?
Apr 24, 2012 10:11AM
I would add that a lot of parents or students wrongly assume they have to take on six-figure debts in order to attend big-name schools when they can go to the local branch of the state college, then work like heck to get a grad school scholarship/teaching assistantship to a top-name school where they spend a couple years getting at least the master's degree which is required today in so many fields.  The grad school scholarships are easier in many cases than undergrad scholarships.
Apr 24, 2012 1:11AM
Apr 23, 2012 11:59PM
University of Minnesota! Freshman in a dorm $24,000 a year.
Mar 19, 2013 3:21PM
I love this advice, "You can't plagiarize yourself".  Re-using essays that you have had proofread and critiqued by trusted sources is excellent scholarship advice and saves a ton of time, allowing students to apply for even MORE scholarships.  M.M.,
Apr 23, 2012 7:40PM

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