FORT MYERS, Fla. (CONSUMER REPORTS) If you’re a high school senior or a college student looking for scholarships to help fund the cost of school next year, now is the perfect time to begin your search.
Local private scholarship deadlines tend to be in the spring, but applications for some of the biggest national scholarships are due in the next few months.
In fact, November is National Scholarship Month, designated by the nonprofit National Scholarship Providers Association to help raise awareness that fall is the time to start applying.
Unlike financial aid, these scholarships are based on merit, not financial need, though family income can be a factor in some cases.
For some scholarships, you’ll have to move quickly if you want to have a chance. The Elks National Foundation Most Valuable Student Competition, for example, awards up to $50,000 to students who demonstrate leadership. But applications are due Nov. 27.
Applications for the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Scholarship Program—which gives up to $40,000 per year—must be submitted by Nov. 14, and the James W. McLamore Whopper Scholarship, from the co-founder of Burger King, gives $50,000 awards to students, but you have to apply by Dec. 15.
How likely is it that you’ll win scholarship dough? Fairly decent, actually.
According to the 2017 Sallie Mae How America Funds College survey, almost half of families use scholarships for college. And, according to the survey, scholarships and grants covered 35 percent of college costs on average.
Though less than 1 percent (PDF) of students get scholarships that cover the entire cost of tuition and room and board, according to financial aid expert Mark Kantrowitz, there are thousands of scholarships that go beyond academic or athletic performance.
Among them are music performance, community service, and entrepreneurial experiences, says Kathy Ruby, director of college finance for College Coach, a college admission and financing consulting service.
Here are five ways to maximize your chances of getting money that can make a meaningful dent in your college bills:
Target merit aid. Colleges are one of the largest providers of grants and scholarships, Ruby says. Eager to get a diverse student body, colleges use merit aid to recruit students based on specific characteristics, such as your GPA, your field of study, and where you grew up.
Generally, private colleges offer more merit aid than public universities because they have endowments and don’t rely on state funding. But many state schools, especially in the South and West, offer generous scholarships to out-of-staters with solid academic records.
For example, the University of Arkansas’ New Arkansan Non-Resident Tuition Award scholarship gives up to 90 percent of the difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition for students from neighboring states who have a GPA of 3.2 or higher.
You can increase your chances of getting merit aid by applying to schools where your test scores and grades place you in the top 10 percent of the class.
Go to the College Board’s website, Big Future, to see how your academic record compares with students accepted at the schools you want to attend.
As you research and visit schools, ask admissions officers whether you are a good candidate for merit aid and what kind of profile students who get merit aid typically have.
“The criteria colleges look for shifts every year,” Ruby says.
Find your fit. Be strategic about applying. Scholarships with few or very broad criteria will have a lot more competition.
Spend your time searching for scholarships that really match your experience and interests. Use free online scholarship search services that can help you find those that fit: Cappex, the College Board, Fastweb, and Scholarships.com.
You fill out a profile to identify what’s unique about you, and the services match you with potential scholarships.
Go big and small. National scholarships are often more lucrative than those in your community, so targeting a few large scholarships is a good way to start.
But your odds of snagging a local one may be better because you’re likely to be competing against fewer students. Talk to the guidance counselors at your school to see which organizations they work with.
Churches, civic organizations such as Rotary Clubs, and local businesses are common sources. Go the extra mile by looking up the winners or going to awards ceremonies to see who scores the awards.
Focus on your career. Some professional organizations offer scholarships to entice people to enter the field, especially in hard-to-fill professions.
Check out the Department of Labor’s CareerOneStop tool, which lists more than 5,000 scholarships for undergraduate and graduate school programs. These include $2,500 from the American Association of Equine Practitioners for people studying veterinary medicine and $3,000 to $5,000 from the American Concrete Institute to support students whose studies relate to concrete (really).
Then there’s the $5,000 John Kitt Memorial Scholarship from the American Association of Candy Technologists, for college students with a demonstrated interest in confectionary technology.
Start early. You don’t need to wait until senior year to start thinking about scholarships. Begin researching potential scholarships when you first enter high school.
“Then you can start taking steps to meet the criteria rather wait and try to find what box you fit in,” Ruby says.