17 smart ways to shop scholarships

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Applying for a scholarship is like buying a lottery ticket. You’re taking a chance that a small investment, time and effort, could pay off big. And with scholarships, the odds are much better.

For many students, though, the search alone seems daunting. It doesn’t need to be that way. Here are 17 ways to cut the time you spend and boost your odds of winning:

1. Play the numbers game. One secret to securing scholarships? Ask for a lot of scholarships. Ben Kaplan, who financed a free ride through Harvard University with $90,000 in scholarships and a year’s worth of college tuition credits, estimates he applied for roughly three dozen scholarships and won about two-thirds.

And, “I got better over time,” says Kaplan, who wrote “How to Go to College Almost for Free,” and is featured on www.scholarshipcoach.com.

No one’s going to dock you for making too many requests. “Nobody checks to see if you apply elsewhere,” says David Rosen, co-author of “Free $ for College for Dummies.” Instead, you’ll increase your odds of winning something. “Apply for as many scholarships and grants as you can,” he says.

When Kaplan talked with other scholarship winners, he found the one factor that they had in common was determination.

2. Realize there are scholarships for everyone. “A lot of people figure ‘because I’m average’ or ‘my parents make too much’ money, there’s no point,” says Mark Oleson, assistant professor and director of the Financial Counseling Clinic at Iowa State University. Not the case, he says.

You can get scholarships based on your interests, where you live, or even who your grandparents were. The trick is to find the right fit between you and the money.

3. Cover all the bases. In general, there are three kinds of scholarships — federal or state grants, money that will come through the college or university, and private scholarships given out by groups, companies or individuals. You want to be sure that you’ve tapped all three. Your high school guidance counselor and school financial aid office should be able to help with most of the first two and a few of the third. But for many of the private grants, you could be on your own.

4. Make the most of what your high school can offer. It might be a bulletin board with flyers or a fully functioning Web site, but use whatever resources your school can offer. That includes the guidance counselor.

High school guidance counselors have “access to quite a bit of information that comes to them,” and are a good starting point, says Oleson. Not only can the counselor help you understand which scholarships you might be eligible for, chances are they can put some applications in your hand, he says. And “there’s a psychological benefit to making some immediate progress.”

5. Get the best information. If your school doesn’t have great resources for scholarship information, “target other schools in your city, and beyond, known for strong college prep,” says Kaplan. “I, physically, went across town to the rival high school.”

In its scholarship center, he learned of several scholarships that no one at his high school knew about — and won them. “It made thousands of dollars of difference,” he says.

You can also contact colleges well-known in your chosen academic discipline. “Go to the school or the Web site,” says Kaplan.

And if you’ve already selected a college, you can use their financial aid office as a resource.

6. Crawl the Web. There are some great Internet sites that will help you hunt down that money. Some of the favorites: www.fastweb.com, www.collegeboard.com, www.finaid.com, www.srnexpress.com and www.petersons.com.

“One of the biggest mistakes people make is they search one or two of these, and they stop,” says Kaplan. Each site will have slightly different offerings.

7. Work the geography. You can hunt for scholarships in your hometown and the town where your college is located, too, says Kaplan. If you’re going away to school, contact high schools in your college town and the college itself to see who might be giving out money for school.

8. Do some cold calling. Is your dad a member of the local Rotary Club? Is mom involved with the town’s business association? Research any companies, clubs or organizations. Then call them. (The benefits or human resources department is a good place to start.) Tell them you’re heading off to college and ask what, if any, scholarships they offer, says Kathy Kristof, author of “Taming the Tuition Tiger.”

9. Call the state. “Each state has a student guaranty agency or student aid commission” and they will know about scholarships, says Oleson.

Going to school out of state? Call that agency, too.

10. Be careful who you trust. If you’re heading off to college, your name is on a lot of marketing lists. You may get letters, e-mail or spam dangling big money for college — for a fee.

And not every site promising information on scholarships is created equal. Some are great resources. Some are rip-offs.

Does the site promise a specific amount of money? Or scholarship leads you can’t get anywhere else? Does it ask for a credit card, Social Security number or other personal information? All of those are red flags, says Courtney McSwain, research associate for the Institute for Higher Education Policy.

“Unless you know a company is reputable, you should really be leery about paying or giving information over the Internet,” she says.

And the same goes for any solicitations you receive. No one can guarantee you will actually receive any scholarships. And thanks to libraries and Web sites, scholarship information is free and available to everyone.

Your state student aid agency is a good source for determining which sites and services are legitimate and which seem to be problem magnets, says Oleson. In addition, some agency Web sites will post links to reputable scholarship search sites.

11. You don’t have to pay for information. The reality is “there’s so much free information out there, students don’t have to pay,” says McSwain.

In fact, many of the consultants will simply run your profile through one of the publicly accessible free Internet sites and give you the same information you could get yourself for free, says Kenneth Redd, director of research and policy analysis for the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. “You can cut out the middleman and save,” he says.

12. Apply for large and small scholarships. “Don’t neglect the small local scholarships, even if only a couple of hundred dollars,” says Kaplan. High schools “are great for tracking those down.”

Sure, you’re thinking it’s not worth your time. But “the smaller ones add up over time,” says Kaplan. “It’s a snowball effect.” Plus there tends to be less competition.

13. If you can, start early. It pays if you look at your scholarship search as a long-term project, says Rosen. If you start talking with the guidance counselor in ninth grade and just looking at applications, that will give you a head start a few years later when you’re applying.

If you’re a parent, look at the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form. What kind of information does it require? What preparations can you be making over the next few years? If you have a financial or tax planner, this is a good time to start asking the money questions. “Just as people plan for a house purchase, so can they plan for college,” says Rosen.

For students, there are a lot of learning competitions that award scholarship money in middle and high school for projects, essays or inventions. Find the ones in subject areas that appeal to you and you can enter for several years.

14. If you’re in college, it’s not too late. Once you chose a major, you might be eligible for scholarships, says Kaplan. Ditto if you decide to study abroad. Contact professors, advisors and department heads in that subject department, your school financial aid office and professional organizations in that particular industry.

15. You’re never too old to get scholarship money. Not all scholarships are limited by age. And there are scholarships aimed specifically at people returning to school, says Kaplan.

16. Watch the clock. A lot of scholarship money comes with one very important string. To get it, you have to apply by a certain date. Another reason to start early: If you find out about a juicy money source in your junior year but miss the deadline, you’ll have another shot at it next year.

17. Recycle. The first two applications could take a long time and “are the hardest ones you’ll ever do,” Kaplan says Applying gets a lot easier after you’ve done it a few times. Unfortunately, a lot of students Kaplan talked with applied for just one or two, he says.

After the first few applications, you’ll have components, essays, paragraphs, ideas and lists that you can use again, he says. And as you keep rewriting essays and making them better, your chances of winning also increase.

How to turbo-charge your application process: The first couple of times, select applications that will require you to put together a range of things you can use again, says Kaplan. “Develop a suite of reusable material.” Then customize hose materials “to fit each scholarship.”

And know that you’ll get a lot faster and better. “There is a learning curve,” he says.

Kaplan remembers one essay he liked and used for two different scholarships. It didn’t win. After the third rewrite, though, “it was pretty darned good,” he says. And it won.

Dana Dratch is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.

Written by
Dana Dratch
Personal Finance Writer
Dana Dratch is a personal finance and lifestyle writer who enjoys talking all things money and credit. With a degree in English and writing, she likes asking the questions everyone would ask if they could and sharing the answers — along with smart money management tips from the experts.