Getting Scholarships and Grants

Winning free college money is rather like earning money for writing. You have to work at it, and you only get paid if you do it right. But, unlike being a professional writer, pretty much anyone can win free money for college as long as that person educates himself about the process, completes the applications properly, and follows up on a timely basis.

Perhaps you're asking yourself, "Why would I get free money?" That's not the question to ask. The real question to ask is, "Why wouldn't I get free money?" It's available, so why not try to get some of it?

What's Rule #1 in the free money process? Apply! If you don't ask, you won't get. Applying for scholarships and grants doesn't cost you anything except the price of postage and a few hours of work. So, as long as you meet the qualifications, you have no good reason not to apply for as many scholarships and grants as you can possibly manage.

Understanding the concept of free money

To get free money, you need to understand how the awards system works, who gives away the money, and what these people want in return. Then you need to get organized, focus on and prioritize the best awards for you, do a great job on as many applications as you can handle, and send them out on time. It sounds like a lot of work, but after you get the hang of it, it's really pretty easy.

First, you have to know what you're applying for exactly. Free money is generally divided into the following categories:

  • Scholarships: If you're awarded a scholarship, a person or organization gives you money for something you've done or can do, such as getting top grades, being a basketball star, or showing exceptional leadership in the community.
  • Grants: You can get this money for just being who you are — the African-American daughter of a firefighter from Indiana who has the marks to get into college but only half the money to pay for it, for example.
  • Low-interest or interest-free loans: You have to pay back the loan, but you get to use the money while you're going to school, so the money is free for now.
  • Other stuff: Sometimes, you don't win money; rather, you get free books, housing, or other necessities of college life.

The words scholarships and grants are often used interchangeably, but they do have a slightly different meaning. Scholarships are usually based on merit, and grants are usually based on need or other circumstances. The generic term award is often used and can mean either a scholarship or a grant. Some awards are called prizes and other, mostly international, awards may be called bursaries. If an organization wants to give you money, it can pretty much call it whatever it wants.

Two other important financial aid terms are merit-based and need-based. Read on to find out what they mean.

Merit-based awards

Awards that are merit-based are given to whichever applicant is the best at the subject of the scholarship. One award may be for the highest overall grade point average (GPA) or highest marks in a particular class, such as chemistry. Another award may be based on one's ability to play softball, the flute, or do any number of things.

For a merit-based scholarship, your wealth (or your family's wealth) and income are completely irrelevant. You don't have to explain whether or not you can afford to go to college without the scholarship because you get the award for what you've done. Bill Gates' daughter can get a merit-based scholarship if she gets the grades, and so can you.

The moral of this story? Don't think that you shouldn't apply for scholarships because your family makes too much money.

Need-based awards

Awards that are need-based (primarily grants) are offered solely on the basis of financial need. You don't have to be the best student in the class, although you still have to get accepted at a college to qualify. Some need-based grants can require a qualifying grade level of, say 70 percent, but after you qualify, your grade is no longer taken into account. Then, the only thing that matters is your financial need.

Don't assume that you have to be living below the poverty line to qualify for a need-based grant. Many factors are taken into account, from your family income, to the number of dependents your parents are supporting, to the cost of living in the city in which your college is located. The important thing to remember is that need-based money is granted because you need it, not because you have the highest marks.

The moral of this story? Don't think that you shouldn't apply for grants because you didn't make stellar grades.

Finding out who's giving it away

Rule #2 is, "Put yourself in the shoes of the people giving out the money." After you know why they're handing out free money for college, you can shape your application so that the awarders want to give the money to you.

So, why do people give out scholarships and grants? Well, the government does it as part of a larger education policy. Influencing the decisions of these people is tough because they base their decisions on numbers instead of individual people. That's okay; the process is pretty cut and dried. After you send in the correct (and complete) information, you're pretty much done.

Colleges, foundations, and institutions are another story altogether. These organizations give out a lot of need-based money, but they generally have other criteria to make sure that the individuals receiving their money are also meritorious.

Colleges

Colleges give money to superior students to advance the reputation of their institutions. Colleges are more attractive to top professors and students if they have a long list of distinguished alumni, and popular wisdom dictates that distinguished alumni are most likely going to come from the top students.

Distinguished alumni are also likely to have more money to donate to the college, and the college itself is more likely to generate larger corporate donations if successful students maintain the school's high reputation. In general, college-based scholarships and other awards are intended to generate money for the college in the long term.

The best strategy, therefore, is to impress upon the college scholarship committee members that you have a brilliant future, or that you can otherwise enhance the reputation of the school in the years to come.

Foundations, institutions, and individuals

These groups also have particular motives for giving away free money. Their intentions are partially humanitarian, and you can't ignore that fact when you craft your application. Thus, it's in your own best interest to explicitly mention how generous these groups are to give away money for college students.

The other motive is promotional. These groups want to promote a particular field of study (scholarships for the top marks in economics, for example), a particular attitude (contests for the best essay about patriotism), or particular behaviors (awards for individual contributions to civil liberties). To succeed in winning awards, you need to concentrate on whatever these organizations want to promote. You should not fake your attitudes; instead, you should concentrate on those awards (and organizations) that mesh with your personality and beliefs.

Sometimes, hybrid awards are offered. They're given only to individuals of a particular background (such as descendants of Confederate soldiers) or individuals associated with particular groups (children or grandchildren of members of a specific trade union). However, within this group, the competition reverts to merit. The particulars of merit may be grades, essay writing, community service, or overall achievements, but the winner is the one who shines. Whenever criteria for an award combines a particular background, need and/or merit, it is considered hybrid.

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