In scholarships, sweat the small stuff

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While students and parents complain about the high cost of college, many ignore opportunities to pick up scholarship money that’s there for the taking.

The latest numbers from the National Center for Education Statistics indicate that college students are relying more heavily on federal and state loans to help finance their college educations. In 2004, almost half of all full-time undergraduate students took out loans, with the average person borrowing $6,200 for the year.

Yet 70 percent of survey respondents told they wouldn’t bother to apply for a scholarship award of $100, and only about half were willing to spend the time if the award wasn’t at least $500. Those are generous numbers based on the attitudes Alisa LeSueur, a certified college planning specialist in San Antonio, encounters week after week.

“Kids don’t want to take 30 minutes to write an essay for a mere $100. First of all, they’re kids and they don’t understand money. They see a $20,000 college bill and think, $100. Big deal. It’s an all or nothing. ‘If I can’t make a major dent, why bother?'” she says.

So they nix a world of possibilities like the $500 Mesothelioma Memorial Scholarship and $500 for the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives’ George Watt Memorial Essay Contest. Sure, the top prize at the Easterday Poetry Award is $1,000, but they also give away amounts between $500 and $1,000 to honorable mentions. Or how about the Casualty Actuarial Society/Society of Actuaries, handing out money to mathematically talented minorities underrepresented in the actuarial profession? Heck, they even throw in a $500 bonus for any scholarship applicants who take and pass an actuarial exam during the year.

Students can even pick up $200 to $500 from the Stuttgart Chamber of Commerce for an admirable showing in its duck calling contest in Arkansas.

LeSueur lays a chunk of the blame at parents’ doors. “I’ve had kids say to me, ‘I’m not writing an essay!’ like it’s going to kill them. What’s worse, parents come to me and say, ‘Oh, she won’t write an essay.’ Well, who’s the mom here? This is your retirement money we’re cutting into.”

The power of small
To pocket that $100 in the real world, you actually need to bring in $130, thanks to taxes and FICA withholding. So even at a generous $10 an hour, students would have to work 13 hours to come up with the dough. Few essays require that much time. And as long as the scholarship amounts don’t exceed the cost of attendance, taxes don’t enter into the picture. (If you are lucky enough to win more than you need, only the overage is taxable.)

“Those students who turn (up) their noses at a $100 award are making a big mistake. Saying no to small scholarships is essentially saying no to $50 to $250 per hour of work. I guarantee no part-time job pays that well,” says Kelly Tanabe, co-author of “Get Free Cash for College.” And those $100 and $500 dribs and drabs come in handy when buying books, meals or even a plane ticket home.

Christina Rohall admits her four scholarships amounting to $2,000 to attend Western Michigan University wasn’t a huge sum, but it paid for two semesters at the time. And without parental help, that meant a lot. “It’s something I took very seriously and it paid off,” she says.

Junvi Ola tells a similar story. Half of the 10 scholarships she won to attend San Diego State University were in amounts between $200 and $500. “At first, I really had to convince myself that these scholarships were worth pursuing because most of them required a lengthy application process with an essay and letters of recommendation,” Ola says. Her first check was for just $200, but she used it immediately to pay off debt she’d accrued on her credit card when paying for books earlier in the semester.

Ahead of the pack
Best of all, these smaller awards can be far easier pickings than their heftier cousins. For example, one organization had so few applications, 90 percent of students who bothered to write the 250-word essay requirement won.

Compare that that to the popular Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation, which awards its winners cash ranging from $1,000 to $4,000 per year for four years. This year’s 250 lucky recipients were gleaned from a pool of more than 100,000 applicants, meaning less than one of every 400 applicants won an award. By comparison, Harvard admitted 2,074 students into its class of 2009, out of a pool of 22,276 students. The 9.1 percent acceptance rate for the class of 2009 was an all-time low for Harvard, yet it still far outstripped a student’s chance of winning a Coca-Cola Scholars award.

“When you get that many applicants, you look for ways to eliminate people because you have to whittle the group,” says Mark Rothbaum, president of, “whereas the local scholarships may not be so overwhelmed. If something is missing, they might give the student a call because they look like a great candidate, and tell them how to fix it.”

Contrary to popular belief, these small-dollar scholarships don’t take food out of your mouth down the road. When you file for federal student aid through the Department of Education, the bean counters determine your family’s expected contribution, which schools subtract from their cost of attendance. That difference becomes your eligibility for financial aid. Some colleges meet 100 percent of that gap; most do not. And even in those 100-percent cases, many schools will honor your request to subtract the scholarships you bring to the table from the loan side, not the grant column, which saves you interest payments down the road.

Finally, as Ola knows first hand, small scholarships make excellent résumé fodder. “Winning any scholarship, especially those offered by professional organizations in your field, will gain you early exposure as a rising star. Usually organizations award the scholarships during their own annual awards dinners, so you’re already getting your name and face out there,” she says.

Not to mention that winning scholarships, no matter the dollar amount, gave Ola leverage to win still more money. Although her first five scholarships never topped $500, all that the judges saw on future applications was that she’d won five previous awards, signaling she was a worthy investment. She subsequently landed five more awards ranging between $2,000 and $4,000 each, enough to study abroad in Italy her senior year.

Winning tips
LeSueur suggests her clients begin applying for smaller scholarships as soon as middle school. After all, she says, few people take this tactic, so this stacks the numbers game in your favor. Organizations will gladly hold your awards in trust until you prove college enrollment four or five years in the future.

By high school, devote an accordion folder to scholarship applications and file opportunities according to their deadline dates. Watch newspapers and school bulletins for scholarship-winner announcements, and stick these clippings in as reminders that they exist. Troll Internet sites such as,, and LeSueur’s for new opportunities.

“If kids commit to putting in one scholarship application a week, they’ll be a lot more successful,” LeSueur says. Yes, each essay must be tailored to the application, but she finds that after about 12 essays, students can recycle the basics and merely tweak the details. Rothbaum encourages students to double up: If you have to write a paper on, say, the Civil War, use the research and writing to enter a Civil War essay contest as well.

“If they approach it systematically, it may not even be a lot of extra work to go after these smaller scholarships,” he says.