By Ben Kaplan – Founder of CityofCollegeDreams.org
Not too many years ago, I was caught in the classic middle-income financial-aid crunch. The obvious options: take on piles of debt or settle for a much cheaper school.
Fortunately, I stumbled upon a third way: Over the course of my senior year in high school, I applied for three dozen scholarship awards. With a healthy dose of determination, some dogged detective work, and more than a little elbow grease, my efforts paid off. When the dust settled, I had accumulated more than two dozen scholarships worth $90,000-enough for me to attend Harvard University virtually for free.
These days, I answer thousands of questions on the topic at my CityofCollegeDreams Web site and at my national "Paying-for-College Pajamas Workshops." Here are answers to four of the most frequently asked questions.
Q: Are scholarships only for exceptional students?
Many students mistakenly assume that they must have sky-high GPAs or amazing SAT scores to win merit scholarships. Although some scholarships use grades and test scores to evaluate merit, others use criteria such as extracurricular activity participation, leadership ability, community service involvement, obstacles overcome, family affiliations and much more. Contrary to popular belief, "merit" is not another word for "academics."
Q: When should I begin looking for scholarships?
For many students, the process begins during the junior and senior years of high school. The earlier you can start, the better. Some students may want to start searching as early as seventh or eighth grade because of the many learning contests for younger kids that include scholarship awards (usually as a cash prize or U.S. savings bond).
But it's never too late. Once students select their academic majors and potential career paths in college, a wide range of corporations, foundations, professional associations likely offer scholarships in those fields. There are a lot of scholarships for adult returning students, too.
Q: How can I find scholarships on the Internet?
A nice way to get your feet wet is with free Internet scholarship search databases. You fill out questionnaires and these databases match you up with scholarships that fit your personal characteristics.
Just one big piece of advice-none of these databases are comprehensive, so search as many as you can. To start, go to www.CityofCollegeDreams.org and use my free "Scholarship Surfer" tool to connect with and optimize these helpful resources.
Q: Is it really worth all of the work?
For every dollar of scholarship money you receive, you can potentially save more than two dollars in student loan principal and compounded interest. Better yet, by avoiding substantial student debt, you will open up a wide range of exciting opportunities and possibilities when you graduate. In the final tally, it's a simple equation: More scholarships = less debt = greater freedom. That's powerful motivation, to say the least.
Ben Kaplan is the creator of the new DVD, "Finding College Cash in Tough Times." He is hosting a free scholarship workshop on June 18 at 9:00 p.m. EDT that you can watch online or listen to on the telephone. Visit http://www.CityofCollegeDreams.org/workshop for more information.