As someone who went through four years of college mostly on someone else's dime, the wisdom I'd like to impart to you is simple:
Apply for everything you can get your hands on. No excuses.
There is no harm in applying for 100 scholarships. It takes time, yes, but the rewards greatly outweigh the (minor) sacrifice of sitting down at your computer for an hour and writing an essay about why you deserve $3,000 from an organization that supports education. Why shouldn't it support yours?
A quick and easy way to do this is to write one essay about why you are wonderful, and tweak it a bit depending on what the scholarship committee is looking for. Some scholarships require essays on specific points, but most of the time committees just want to know you care enough to write 500 words about yourself. Below are tips for applying for scholarships, and some advice on student loans.
1. Money is money: Train yourself to realize that receiving $100 is worth your time as much as $2,000, especially if you already have that essay ready. In other words, every little bit helps. Don't think that you need to save your energy by only applying for two or three large scholarships. Apply for 10-15 smaller ones, and you could end up receiving the same amount of money, with better odds.
2. Look everywhere: Scholarships are out there, and you don't have to look very hard to find organizations seeking college-bound students to give them money. Don't limit your scholarship search to your school bulletin board (do those still exist?) or scholarship websites like www.fastweb.com/ (though you should check those out). Ask your parents if their workplaces offer scholarships, and ask your favorite teachers if they know of any scholarships related to the subjects they teach. Read ads in newspapers (especially ones made specifically for teens, like, ahem, tb-two*) and use Facebook/Twitter/tumblr to search for anything related to colleges or scholarships. Go to tb-two.com for links to some social media pages about scholarships, and check out our story in next week's paper for helpful tips on how to use Twitter.For starters, here are some useful Twitter accounts: @scholarships01, @PayingForSchool.
3. Not all scholarships are academics-based: Don't think that to get money for college you need to have a perfect GPA or a high SAT score, or even a million community service hours. A lot of scholarships are based on other things, like involvement in a certain club, a particular skill set (sports, music, art, etc.), or being able to speak fluent Spanish. Many will award students who take the time to submit well-done applications, especially if the scholarship is not well known. In many cases, 10 students apply for a scholarship that will be given to three. Those are pretty good odds, right?
4. Even if the deadline looms, go for it. One tb-two* staffer saw an ad a couple of weeks ago about the Tampa-based Bailey Family Foundation scholarship two days before the application deadline. She received $5,000 a year for four years. (See story below.)
Only if you have to ...
Student loans should be a last resort. I know they are often necessary, but turn to them only after you've exhausted your other options. And don't forget about getting a job. Instead of flinching at the word "work," keep things in perspective.
Generally, college classes do not take up as much time during the week as high school does. If you can strike a balance between studying, working and having fun, it can be painless. Trust me. Try working only on the weekends, or only on the day that you're done with classes by noon. Even working every other weekend adds money to your pocket that can go toward books or a loan payment, and, yes, fun things, too.
If you have to take out student loans, shop around. Make sure you're getting the lowest interest rate you can - those extra cents (dollars?) add up over four or more years. And see if you can work out a system while you're in college to pay off loans as you go; every little bit you can chip off the loan block will help. I know it's hard and scary to think about life after college before you've even started, but it'll be a lot scarier when you get out if you're saddled with tens of thousands of dollars in student loans.
College is expensive. For me, it was worth every penny, but still expensive. Above all, don't forget this: Every little bit, and every effort, counts. Any scholarship received is money you wouldn't have if you hadn't taken the time to apply for it. It can mean not having to worry about splurging on that $30 dress at Target, or treating your date to a movie, because you have taken care of your important expenses. It can mean taking that one extra awesome class that Bright Futures won't pay for. Or going on a study abroad trip that your parents are happy to fund because they didn't have to spend all the money they had saved for your education.
Michelle Stark is a 2010 graduate of the University of South Florida.