Investing Answers Building and Protecting Your Wealth through Education Publisher of The Next Banks That Could Fail
Investing Answers Building and Protecting Your Wealth through Education Publisher of The Next Banks That Could Fail

7 Insider Secrets To Getting College Scholarship Money

They don't involve soaring ACT scores, sky-high grades or applications listing every activity from band to soup-kitchen volunteering. Yet these seven scholarship tactics can be astonishingly effective in getting kids dollars that will help them get through college -- money they won't have to repay when they graduate.

Know these principles: legwork and thinking outside the box -- way outside the box. Here are seven insider's tips for finding scholarship money.

1. Be authentic. Students sometimes take a kitchen-sink approach to extracurricular activities, hoping the breadth will make them look interesting. It doesn't, says Lisa Dubuque, registrar at The Khabele School, a private school for grades 6 through 12 in Austin, Texas. "Admissions counselors can smell that 'I'm doing this to look good' from a mile away," Dubuque says. She counsels Khabele students -- 100% of whom get accepted to a four-year school -- to demonstrate depth, not breadth, with their interests. For several years, Khabele has offered a program that allows students to take a sabbatical to discover a particular passion. The program originally was two separate weeks; this year, it's a single week to make it more manageable for families, Dubuque says. "Their extracurricular activities are geared toward those passions, rather than spending hours on Facebook," Dubuque says.

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2. Let your dream schools know you're interested. Even better, enroll in a program for high-school students at that school. Some private colleges host "fly-in" programs -- kids visit for a weekend to hang out on campus, stay overnight in a dorm and get a feeling for the place. Colleges notice who's participating, Dubuque says, and take note of those names when they recruit students.

3. Fill out the FAFSA form immediately. Parents may fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid  in January of their high school students' senior year. And January is when they should complete the form, Dubuque says. The form assesses eligibility for all aid -- scholarships, grants and loans -- and filing it early can help kids get first dibs on free college money.

4. Think beyond sports and grades. Colleges want to reward more than a 4.0 GPA and a killer jump shot, says Martha "Marty" O'Connell, head of Colleges that Change Lives, a Westminster, Md.-based nonprofit that advocates a student-centered college search process. One example: Leadership scholarships meant for students who might not be stars, but who are student-government officials or captains of their sports teams.

5. Look outside academia. The National Eagle Scout Association, affiliated with Boy Scouts of America, offers academic and merit scholarships. Girl Scouts offers scholarships for girls who have attained the Gold rank of scouting. Students who are involved in those and similar organizations should investigate what kinds of scholarships are offered, O'Connell says.

6. Put a package together. A five-figure free ride is great, but don't overlook the $1,000 scholarships, O'Connell says. Link five or six of those together "and you're going far to pay your tuition and room and board," she says. "There's no such thing as a scholarship that's too small."

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7. Keep looking for scholarships even after you start college. "Every year, the pool is a little different," says Clarisse Leong, assistant director of admissions at Evergreen State University, a 4,800-student public university in Olympia, Wash. Colleges offer leadership and merit scholarships to existing students, she says.

The Investing Answer: Sweat equity: That's the two-word answer to the scholarship question. Rather than give up -- or pay $500 or more for a list of scholarships -- families should do deep research on free sites, such as Colleges that Change Lives, Fastweb.com and Cappex.com.

The best source of all? Your dream college's website, a wealth of information on available scholarships.

Too often, "students look at the sticker price and say 'I can't go there; it costs too much,'" says O'Connell. "They don't take time to look at the school's website and find out what's there."