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; some years, 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 FAFSAForm Immediately
Parents may fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form 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 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 recommends. 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."
7. Keep Looking for Scholarships Even After You Start College
"Every year, the pool is a little different," explains Clarisse Leong, assistant director of admissions at Evergreen State University, a small public university in Olympia,. "Colleges leadership and merit scholarships to existing students," she says.
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."
More Ideas to Free Up Money for College:
1. Free yourself from credit card debt this year. Learn how to pay 0% on your balances for up to 21 months in The Top 4 Balance Transfer Credit Cards for 2019.
2. Minimize your car payments. If you're paying 6% APR or more, it's time to know The Top 3 Reasons to Refinance Your Auto Loan.
3. Slash your college-related expenses: 5 Easy Ways to Save on the Costs of Higher Education.