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How to Graduate College Debt Free – Part 4. Scholarships

Adam Personal Finance 9 Comments

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This is a part of a multi-post series on graduating college debt free. Check out the other posts below:

What is a scholarship?

A scholarship is “free money” for your education. They come in many shapes, sizes and amounts from a variety of locations, but in the end it’s a check somebody writes you or your school in order to pay for your education. Typically they fall in 2 categories: merit and need:

  • Merit-based: These are awarded because you’ve done something of “merit”. The most common would be athletics (think football scholarship) or academic (think your high school valedictorian), but they may come for other reasons, such as an art or community service. 
  • Need-based: These are provided to students who meet some level of family income, typically determined through the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). Essentially if your family is deemed to low on the income scale to pay for college you may be eligible.

For the purposes of this post, we’re talking merit. I’ll discuss needs based financial aid of all sorts in a future post.

Why do you care?

I went to college on a full academic scholarship and it transformed my life. My family wasn’t in a position to pay for my schooling, but all that hardwork allowed me to go to a solid (but not overly prestigious) state school, where they covered my tuition, room and board, as well as providing me an extra $1-2k per semester for living expenses. I was still broke most of the time, but it afforded me an opportunity I wouldn’t have had without a lot of loans otherwise. I was able to join a fraternity, study abroad, go to football games, and have the entire college experience at a leisurely 4 year pace, without worrying about racking up a dime in debt. Scholarships can give you that opportunity.

Scholarships are the top of the financial aid pyramid. They provide the closest thing to free money, typically in either a big one time check or in incremental amounts each semester. They take all the pressure off of speeding through college at maximum speed and if done right, make the entire college experience free (or damn close). If you really work hard, you may even be paid to go there.

The downside is that this is by far the most difficult of all the options we’ve discussed. Anybody can take an AP class, community college course, or work on a CLEP test. The best merit scholarships that provide a “full ride” are reserved for the best of the best. The kids receiving these are 4.0 GPA, 2 sport athlete, yearbook editor, president of the clubs, type kid. In your average public school there are probably only 2 or 3 in 100 (at most) that are getting these types of offers. If you want to be one you have to be wise beyond your years (or have parents that are) and be willing to significantly delay gratification and work hard, skills that your developing, hormonal teen brain are not meant to do.

If your starting the 9th grade (or have kids that are), congratulations, you have time to start. Everything before 9th grade isn’t on the books for college. If your older and reading this, hopefully you’re already on the path. If you’ve already spent too much time screwing around, I’m sorry, this post isn’t for you. Check out our other discussions on how to get through college affordably.

What do you do to qualify (polish the resume)?

Check out Khan Academy’s timeline and suggestions for making the most of high school. Their work puts mine to shame.

Obviously this is going to vary significantly from school to school or scholarship to scholarship, but let’s talk a bit in generalities:

Grades

You need to be as close to a 4.0 (or greater) from day 1 of 9th grade. It may not seem like it at the time, but those boring classes matter. That transcript is going to affect your life for far longer than you can imagine and it’s probably the single most important metric you will be held against for both admissions and scholarships.

Extracurricular

Get involved in EVERYTHING. If your athletic, play sports. If you’re artistic, act in plays, work on the yearbook. If your musical, play in the band. If possible, do all of the above. Beyond that, there are often lots of clubs that require minimal time but can’t hurt on a resume. Join at least a couple of these clubs and try for a leadership position. Every mention of President, VP, or other leadership position is worth it’s weight in gold.

Volunteer

Performing legitimate community service is something everybody should do because it’s good for your community and it’s good for you. You’ll feel better about yourself and help someone in the process. Having said that, it looks great on a resume. Volunteer at as many things as possible and find what fits. Once you’ve developed a real passion for a specific charity, try to get as involved as you can. Run projects, lead teams, build something.

Summer Internships

High school is not an easy time to find anything that resembles a traditional college internship, but there are still a lot of opportunities. Any work history can demonstrate reliability, hard-work, and drive. It’s also a good chance to explore various career options if your able to spend some summers shadowing or working in different types of fields.

Standardized Tests

We all know how important the ACT / SAT are, but I think many students underestimate how big of a difference a small change in score can be. The difference between a 27, 30, and 33 on the ACT can be the difference between admission, partial scholarship and full ride and can be worth tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

I suggest taking the ACT / SAT at the end of 9th or beginning of 10th grade with no preparation just to give students and idea of what the exam is like and provide a baseline score to work from. From there begin preparing for the SAT and/or ACT at the start of junior year, with plans to take each test twice.  Continue preparing throughout your junior year. There are lots of great self-study options in books or online from companies like Kaplan. If you prefer a hands on method these same companies offer in person courses with an instructor.

Aim high. Don’t be satisfied with even an above average score. These tests do not signify intelligence, or do so only vaguely in very large bands. If you are decently smart, let’s say top 20-25%, and driven, you are smart enough to beat the test. The test is a game and games have rules. If you learn the rules, you can beat the test. Learn the material, the type of questions asked, and you pound enough examples, you can significantly increase your baseline. Kids who get a perfect score are rarely a prodigy. More often than not they’ve put in the hours necessary to beat the game that’s being played.

Scholarship Breakdown

Let’s break merit scholarships in to 2 categories: major academic scholarships and minor scholarships

Major Scholarships

Major scholarships cover the bulk or entire cost of your education and are predominantly awarded by the university you plan to attend, your state, or major endowments companies. For example at Arkansas you could receive a Chancellor’s Scholarship $8k/yr (from the U of A) or a Governors Scholarship $10k/yr (a state program to keep smart kids in state). An example of a major corporate scholarship might be the Buick Achievers Scholarship for up to $25k/yr.

Minor Scholarships

Minor scholarships tend to be anywhere from a few hundred dollars up to several thousand and once you start looking, you’ll realize there are almost a limitless number of options. They can be from the same places as the major options, but many many other places. Hundreds of small companies, organizations, charities, churches, unions, and special interest groups give out money.

Minor scholarships are the hidden gems of the financial aid universe. It may seem like filling out an application for a $250 scholarship is a waste of time, but that’s exactly the point. Most people never bother to make the effort. There are so many of these out there that aren’t well advertised if your willing to put in the time, you can win at this game because most people aren’t playing it. You would be SHOCKED at how few people apply to many of these and THEY ADD UP. Part of how I survived in college was the fact that I had applied to every single scholarship, big or small, that I could find. I probably applied to well in excess of 100 scholarships. All those extra $250-2,000 scholarships are what allowed me to cover my living expenses for 4 years.

Where do you find them?

There’s no 1 stop show for where to find scholarships, but the short answer is the internet.

There are hundreds of them and it takes some searching. I’ve put a link

The short answer is the internet. You should also try your guidance counselor and utilize your school resources, that may know specifically about local scholarships that may not be easy to find on the web (giving you an advantage). Finally keep in mind any personal characteristics that provide you an edge. For example, in Oklahoma there are a number of scholarships specifically for people of Native American descent. A few websites below:

Conclusion

Scholarships are the ultimate tool in our belt for graduating debt free from college. You can complete a 4 year degree at one university, at a normal pace, without any worry of ever dealing with student loans. The downside is that this is a strategy that requires long-term planning, delay of gratification, and a lot of hard work. But if you pursue excellence in high school and work hard there’s a lot of opportunity to completely offset the cost of a 4-year degree.

Get started and work hard.

This is a part of a multi-post series on graduating college debt free. Check out the other posts below:


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Comments 9

  1. Eric

    This is so important, and looked over by so many people. I got a full ride scholarship for undergrad thanks to a combination of scholarships from the Boy Scouts, my university, and my high school job (Target). I made it out of college only spending about $3,000 out of my own pocket for four years including tuition and fees, books, and room & board.

    1. Post
      Author
      Adam

      That’s awesome. I did the same. The bulk of the money came from the school itself and a couple of government grants, but I picked up lots of small scholarships from both some national ones and a few very local ones. I think the small scholarships are really key to getting it all truly paid for and are the most “inefficient market” in scholarships, if your not necessarily competitive for the big ones.

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