Thousands of dollars in merit-based scholarships are given away each year -- here's how to get your share.
When searching for scholarships, part of the challenge is to follow the best advice you can find. Another part is to ignore advice that's misguided. Here you'll find the truth behind seven scholarship myths, as excerpted from Benjamin Kaplan's book, How to Go to College Almost for Free (HarperCollins, 2001).
Myth 1: "Only students with high academic achievement win merit-based scholarships."
The real story: Students with all sorts of talents and interests win scholarships. In fact, many of the best scholarship programs are designed for students who devote their time to such diverse fields as music, the arts, foreign languages, community service, science, leadership, writing, and oratory, to name a few.
Furthermore, many scholarships that do consider grade-point averages use them only as preliminary cut-off points. Once you've cleared this minimum bar, grades don't impact your chances of winning some money.
Finally, even when GPA is used as an evaluation factor, it's only one aspect of a student's application. One of the largest scholarship programs, the Coca-Cola Scholars Program, is known for selecting students who don't necessarily have top grades. Other programs use a definition of academics that includes areas of interest and study outside the traditional school curriculum.
Myth 2: "Star athletes are the only big scholarship winners."
The real story: Just as the letter grades on your transcript aren't a prerequisite for winning scholarships, varsity letters earned on the playing field aren't a requirement, either. Although a few merit-based contests are targeted at athletes who excel on and off the field, for the vast majority of contests, athletic prowess is just another element of a student's record -- equivalent to having a skill in any other field.
Myth 3: "The student with the most extracurricular activities generally wins."
The real story: As is the case in many other aspects of life, winning scholarships is about quality, not quantity. Some people think that to win these awards, you must have devoted your entire high school career to participating in extracurricular activities. On the contrary, most scholarship winners distinguish themselves by the devotion demonstrated to an activity or activities, rather than by the sheer quantity of their involvement.
Myth 4: "Entering scholarship competitions is just like applying to college."
The real story: Actually, scholarship contests demand a different approach than the college admissions process, because contests are characterized more by direct head-to-head competition. While college admissions officers compare students primarily to a standard, scholarship contests directly compare students to one another. Because of this heightened competitive environment, students who devise creative techniques to make themselves stand out from the crowd have a distinct advantage. In this way, a good scholarship application will likely be a good college application -- but the reverse is not necessarily true.
Myth 5: "Scholarship competitions are conducted on a level playing field."
The real story: Every scholarship contest has biases. This is not to say that scholarship judging is unfair. Rather, it's just that each contest is looking for students with particular qualities. The ideal application for one particular scholarship contest may place you out of the money for another. Because of these biases, it's essential to define each contest's ideal applicant and to develop a strategy that emphasizes personal attributes consistent with that definition.
Myth 6: "The record you've already accumulated determines whether you'll win scholarships."
The real story: What you do after you decided to apply for scholarships is just as important as what you did before. This holds true regardless of how little time you have left until a particular scholarship application is due. Content strategies, for instance, increase your chances of winning by adding depth and breadth to your existing record. Likewise, packaging strategies help make your application stand out by highlighting talents, communicating passions and emphasizing potential. So don't fall into the trap of thinking that your die has already been cast. What you do now can make all the difference in the world.
Myth 7: "Students should focus their time and energy on only one or two scholarship applications."
The real story: Applying for scholarships is a numbers game. A variety of factors outside of your control can affect the outcome of any given contest. Only by applying for large numbers of scholarships can you minimize the effects of such factors. As the saying goes: Don't put all your eggs in one basket.