So you (or your kids) got into college. Good work. Now how are you going to pay for it?
Christopher Gray, who won $1.3 million in scholarship funds, knows a thing or two about downsizing his tuition bill.
The Shark Tank entrepreneur and founder of scholarship connection platform Scholly — which uses eight parameters, like GPA and location, to match students seeking aid with scholarships — gave us his tips for mastering the scholarship application hustle. (Gray received scholarships from the Bill Gates Foundation, Coca-Cola, Wal-Mart and the Horatio Alger scholarship, in case you were in doubt.)
Apply for the unconventional
Plenty of scholarships are based on academic achievement, location or background. But Gray advises reaching past the low-hanging fruit to the cherry options that get specific — that is, specific for you.
Says Gray, "For students who have ADD, who are widowed, left-handed, vegetarian, and all these other specific things — LGBT, Jewish, etc. — [Scholly] matches them to those opportunities. There’s even scholarships for people that are 6’4 or 4’9."
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Emphasize your essay
Your voice and your story are crucial to the efficacy of your scholarship application, says Gray, who advises against ticking off a laundry list of accomplishments.
“You really want to tell a story about who you are and what you’ve done, but in an organic way,” says Gray. “Rather than saying I did this, I did that, focus on one experience to kind of illustrate parts of your personality and your character, so the person reading the essay, who probably will never meet you in person, can get a strong sense of who you are.”
Follow the money — and your dreams
Scholarships aren’t the only thing funding most students’ whopping tuition bills. Gray says to apply to a range of schools, do your FAFSA, and see how much you can get every year in financial aid. From there, it’s a balancing act between financial need and academic goals.
“Really mapping out every year — what you get in financial aid and scholarships, and then comparing that balance to what the school’s going to give you, if anything, is really important to making that decision. Because you don’t want a lot of debt, but you also want the opportunity to go to the school of your dreams and have the best opportunity to get the best job, so if you do have a little debt, you can pay it off.”
In many cases, being a scholarship recipient means automatic inclusion in a far-reaching professional network.
“A lot of scholarships have alumni programs, so they allow you connect with other people who won the scholarship,” says Gray. “Build relationships within that alumni community, just to build your network to meet like minded people who can help you find other scholarships, or further your career."
Watch out for scams
The most obvious way to identify shady scholarships, says Gray, is to notice when they ask for TMI. “They don’t need your home address, they don’t need your social security number. They don’t need to know your favorite color. If the information [they’re asking for] is too personal, it’s probably not legitimate.” say Gray. “Some of these scams are marketing, and they just want to be able to collect emails and information.”
Other red flags include pictures of the winners on the website that look like stock Google images, or long paper applications that don’t have online access. And of course, says Gray, Google the organization or company sponsoring the scholarship to confirm that it’s legitimate.