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Parent Guide: The Scholarship Search

With the cost of college once again rising this past year (2022-2023), every parent needs a game plan. US News & World Report has crunched the numbers on ranked 4-year colleges, and the average annual tuition this year was $39,723 at private colleges, $22,953 at public, out-of-state colleges, and $10,423 at public, in-state colleges (US News 2022). And that’s just tuition! Room and board costs range between $15,000 and $20,000, not to mention the cost of books and materials, as well as fees and incidental costs, like transportation and trips home.

One silver lining is that these “college costs” do not reflect the exact amount that everyone pays. Instead, they are sticker prices, which some, but not all, families pay in full. In fact, 83.8% of first-time, first-year undergraduate students receive financial aid in some form, most often through grants, loans, or work study programs (Education Data Initiative). Of course, the availability of financial aid will vary for each student depending on factors like family income, assets, number of children, and parent ages.

In this blog post, I explore an additional option for reducing the cost of college: scholarships, along with some tips for finding them.

When it comes to scholarships, the biggest challenge is deciding which ones to focus on. Reference books and online guides make it easy to filter scholarships by relevance, requirements, and award amount. The College Board’s Scholarship Search even emails relevant scholarships once students sign up online. But it still takes a significant investment of time and energy to understand which scholarships are most likely to pay off.

Often the best starting point for scholarships is to search locally: your city and state, the local Chamber of Commerce, high school alumni groups, the college your child plans to attend, or a family member’s employer. Not all of these local scholarships will be included in scholarship guides and catalogues, so it is important to talk to people and to consult more than one source. For well-known, more established scholarships, the following websites and books are good starting points for a search:

  • Scholarships.com
  • The College Board’s Scholarship Search
  • The U.S. Department of Labor’s CareerOneStop Scholarship Finder
  • The Ultimate Scholarship Book 2023 (print)

Academic Scholarships

For students who are strong academically, general academic scholarships might seem like a logical starting point. Certainly, the National Merit Scholarship Program is worth participating in, especially because students who take the PSAT in junior year of high school are automatically entered into the scholarship program. (It’s important to note that this version of the PSAT, the PSAT/NMSQT, differs from the PSAT 8/9 or PSAT 10, which students take in earlier grades.) Out of approximately 1.5 million students taking the PSAT, the top 50,000 scorers (about 3.3%) will receive an honorary award: a Letter of Commendation, National Merit Semi-Finalist status, or National Merit Finalist status. These honorary awards have the potential to open doors at highly selective colleges. In addition, 7,250 students are chosen from this group of 50,000 to receive a scholarship. Many of these National Merit scholarships consist of a one-time award of $2,500, but some are renewable for multiple years. So, to reiterate, the National Merit Scholarship Program tends to be worth it because applying simply means taking the PSAT and because top-scorers stand to gain an award they can list on their college applications as well as (potentially) scholarship money.

Other academic scholarships require more work as well as more luck. For instance, the Engebretson Foundation Scholarship provides a one-year award of $5,000 per semester to one student in any major attending a 4-year college. To apply, students must have a 3.75 out of 4.0 GPA (or be in the top 5% of their graduating class) as well as a 1280 SAT or an ACT score of 28. This scholarship requires students to need some financial assistance to attend college, but it does not require students to be Pell Grant eligible. To apply, students must also write at least one essay about their need for the scholarship, education plans, and future goals. Here, even if the student has the grades and tests scores necessary, the demand in time and energy may not be worth it for the slim hope of being that one student chosen.

The Gladys Carol Scholarship Program is another academic scholarship that requires a minimum GPA and standardized test scores, as well as an essay (250 words) about the scholarship relative to future goals, to apply. Open to STEM students at a 4-year college or university, the Gladys Carol Program offers a single student an award of $2,500 (which is renewable the following year). But if last year is any guide, it also offers smaller one-time awards to other students applying. Although here the odds are slightly better than those for the Engebretson Foundation Scholarship, students may be better served by choosing an academic scholarship specific to their city of residence, college, major, religion, ethnicity, etc. Those factors will limit the number of students applying, thereby increasing the odds that the time spent writing the essay will result in a scholarship.

For students who don’t mind writing an essay, another type of academic scholarship open to students nationwide is the essay contest. For example, the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Essay Contest entails writing a 700- to 1000-word essay about the courage of any U.S. elected official serving after 1917. The winning essay receives $10,000. Similarly, the Think for Yourself College Essay Scholarship awards $5,000 to the best 600-800 word essay on topics related to free speech and controversial social issues. Or, if you would rather take on one of those controversial issues directly, the AU Student Essay Contest awards $1,500 to the strongest 750- to 1000-word essay in support of the separation of church and state. For these essay contests, the student’s GPA or test scores don’t factor in–the essays are judged on their own merits.

Of course, it is important to stress that these essay contests reflect the core values of their sponsors, so it is important for students to choose a contest that aligns with–or at least doesn’t contradict–their own beliefs. For example, if a student believes strongly in theocracy, his or her views are unlikely to win over an organization dedicated to the separation of church and state. In addition, students should study winning essays from previous years and consider how best to approach the issue from an angle that intrigues or surprises the contest judges–without contradicting their worldview.

Finally, one other type of academic scholarship is what I call the “subscription scholarship.” At first glance, these academic scholarships seem to check all the boxes: generous scholarship money, few restrictions, maybe a required essay. But then you see that the scholarship is only open to members of the supporting organization. For example, the Claes Nobel Scholarship offers ten $5,000 scholarships and twenty $1,000 scholarships, but students must first be a member of NSHSS (the National Society of High School Scholars). To become a member, students must have a 3.5 cumulative GPA, a strong standardized test score (1280 SAT, 26 ACT, a 4 on any AP Exam, etc.), or top 10% of class. They also need to pay a $90 fee that covers a lifetime membership, and it’s because of this fee that I would classify this organization as offering “subscription scholarships.” In general, I am wary of scholarships that students must pay to have a chance of receiving. But I recognize that, theoretically, these subscription scholarships might provide better odds because of fewer students paying to join the organization. I would only advise that parents limit themselves to joining one or two subscription scholarships max–and understand that there is no guarantee that this membership fee will result in a scholarship.

Three important observations:

  • Standardized test scores remain important for general academic scholarships. Students who take the SAT or ACT and score near the top 15% of test-takers (SAT 1280, ACT 27) will simply be eligible for more scholarships than those who don’t.
  • The scholarships highlighted in this blog represent only a small sample of available scholarships. Students with lower GPAs or standardized test scores shouldn’t lose heart. Local scholarships–as well as scholarships for particular majors, interests, or employers–tend to have less stringent requirements for GPA. Also, not all scholarships require SAT or ACT test scores.
  • To apply for scholarships, students should create a detailed, compelling essay about how a scholarship will enable them to pursue their plans for college and beyond.

If your son or daughter is close to the 1300 SAT or 27 ACT that the scholarships above require, consider Write Start Prep’s group classes and individual test prep. Focusing exclusively on the English side of the SAT and ACT, Dr. Kevin Cooney has created a comprehensive program that builds students’ analytical skills, reviews grammar and editing criteria, and creates a personalized strategy for test-taking. In more than a decade of SAT and ACT test prep, Dr. Kevin Cooney has an excellent record of helping students to boost their scores.

Also, consider one of Write Start Prep’s Essay Planning sessions to make sure your child’s essay tells his or her story in a compelling way. Drawing on his more than ten years as a college English instructor, Dr. Kevin Cooney specializes in helping students to articulate their unique strengths in order to create a truly memorable essay. As we have seen, the scholarships are out there. The next step is developing an essay that shows you’re the best person to award them to!