Applying for Scholarships

Billions in Scholarships Are Awarded Every Year - Here's How to Start the Process

College tuition has been on the rise for some time and continues to do so. The graduating class of 2016 stepped into the real world with an average of $37,000 in student loans - the highest debt levels yet.

The good news is there are ways to ease your post-graduate debt burden. If you need to take on student loans to cover all or part of your education (or even if you don't), there's something you should do first: pursue scholarships.

Scholarships are financial awards given to students to help cover school-related costs and, unlike student loans, don't need to be paid back. Billions of dollars in scholarships and grants are awarded every year. Here's how to get yours.

What scholarships are available?

According to the Federal Student Aid website, scholarships are offered by just about anyone: schools, employers, individuals, private companies, nonprofits, communities, religious groups, and professional and social organizations.

Savvy students can tap many resources when looking for scholarships to help reduce their overall cost of college.

Jodi Okun, founder of College Financial Aid Advisors, notes how many unique scholarships are out there. "There are scholarships available for everything from being an Eagle Scout or creating a resume for a fictional or nonfictional character, to crafting a prom dress out of duct tape."

When looking for scholarships, start local by asking your guidance counselor what options are available at or near your school. You'll also want to start thinking about your skills and interests so that you can apply accordingly. For example, if you're a musician and plan on pursuing music in college, it makes sense to start by searching for music-based scholarships.

But you shouldn't end there - it's key to cast a wide net and search for as many scholarships as possible.

How much scholarship money can you get?

The amount of scholarship money you get depends not only on what you apply for, but what, if any, you're granted. For that reason, apply to a number of scholarships to significantly increase your chances of an award.

Some scholarships offer a full ride, which, though harder to come by, cover the entire cost of tuition. Others may only be a few hundred dollars, but can help out significantly with expenses - so don't write off the little ones.

"Scholarships can typically range from as little as $250 to as much as $25,000," says Okun. "I encourage students not to ignore the smaller-amount scholarships. Every little bit helps."

The type of scholarship you apply for can also affect how much money you may be eligible for.

"The average [scholarship] ranges from $250 to $1,000 for local scholarships and up to $50,000 for national scholarships," says Ashley Hill, founder of College Prep Ready and author of "The Ultimate Guide for Finding and Winning More Money for College Now."

Some scholarships are merit-based, which are typically based on your academic, athletic, or artistic achievements, while others have little to do with academics or skills and may be awarded based on location, personality, and more. There are also a number of out-of-the-box scholarships worth applying for.

How to pay for college with scholarships

Scholarships can significantly lower your tuition costs, which can be helpful for your family and your wallet.

"The key is to apply consistently and apply often," says Okun. When applying for scholarships, make sure you are looking in a variety of places as well.

"There are many resources available such as College Board's Big Future or Fastweb.com," says Okun. "Students should also ask their high school for local scholarships within their community. Check the local newspaper and local businesses, too."

Additionally, you can browse scholarships on the following sites:

Improve your odds

"One of the best ways that students can maximize their scholarship opportunities is to get leadership and volunteer experience," says Hill. "Many scholarships and scholarship essays require students to discuss leadership and volunteer experiences. Students shouldn't worry about getting thousands of hours of volunteer experience, but focus on the quality of the experiences."

It's important to also think about what makes you unique - consider your heritage, background, geographic location, personality, appearance, passions, skills, and more to identify which scholarships are the best fit.

Watch out for scams

Unfortunately, scholarship scams are a very real thing to watch out for, and before you apply, evaluate the opportunity for any telltale signs of trouble.

"There are red flags students need to be aware of. First, don't apply for the scholarships that ask for your friends' or family's personal information," says Okun. Also, giving out your Social Security number for a scholarship isn't really necessary.

"Do your research on the scholarship organization and contact them if you have any questions about the information they are requesting. Lastly, you should not have to pay money to search for scholarships. There are many free resources available," says Okun.

Always think twice before giving out your Social Security or credit card number. Scholarships are available to give you free money; you don't want to fall victim to one of these scams and lose money.

Final word

Going to college can be an expensive endeavor, but there are ways you can lower costs by applying for financial aid through scholarships. Scholarships are available for almost anyone - you just need to find the right one for you.

For information about paying for college after exhausting your scholarship options, call 1-888-411-0266 and speak to one of our Student Lending Specialists.

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