outside scholarships

Securing the Bag: A Student Guide on Applying for Outside Scholarships

Let's face it — college is expensive. While financial aid and student loans are often the only resources considered, there are other ways to ease the financial burden.

Growing up in the United States, there’s a basic understanding that two areas of our economy are overpriced: healthcare and education. For the latter, many students who want to pursue higher education view the cost of a college degree as a necessary evil. But having known the inflated cost of higher education for quite some time, it still comes as a complete surprise when the billing statement is finalized a few weeks before the school year starts. Despite the generous financial aid packages that many colleges provide, they rarely account for the entirety of a family’s complex finances and often include student loans and work study contributions — a bit counterintuitive to making college affordable. But, with most students on break and stuck at home this summer, now is the perfect time to apply to outside scholarships to help fund costly educations.

To start, what exactly are outside scholarships? According to CollegeBoard, outside scholarships are “those given by an organization that isn’t your college or the federal government.” This definition encompasses a lot; outside scholarships can therefore be managed by a wide variety of organizations, but they’ll usually come from nonprofits, private companies and foundations. Most sources of financial aid usually come from your college or the federal government, but if you have exhausted scholarship funding from them, then outside scholarships can be extremely valuable.

However, before you start the search for these extra resources, be sure to familiarize yourself with your college’s policies. If you’re currently receiving financial aid, many colleges use outside scholarships to lower less desirable forms of aid first, like student loans and work study contributions, before lowering grants. If you are not receiving financial aid, then each dollar in outside scholarships can only help you.

Therefore, it could be a wise choice to determine how much scholarship money you’re aiming to secure before you start applying, especially if you’re on financial aid. Doing so minimizes the chance that the outside scholarships you receive will lower your institutional aid, which is counterproductive.

Knowing this information, the tips below are a great guide if you’re looking to apply to outside scholarships.

1. Start applying for outside scholarships early

Compared to other sources of funding, one of the benefits of outside scholarships is that they are offered throughout the year. So, regardless of when you start applying, you can almost always find something that you’re eligible for. That being said, it’s a good idea to start the search as soon as possible. Not only do you give yourself more time to find scholarships that are a great match for you, but you also have more time to write application essays and secure the necessary materials.

Many highly publicized scholarships market themselves as being extremely easy to enter with no essay required, but the chances of winning them are close to zero. Any scholarship worth your time will require an essay, and ones with larger rewards will ask for a letter of recommendation, your transcript and perhaps additional questions. By giving yourself as much time as possible, you’re giving yourself a greater chance at being a competitive applicant.

Applying to outside scholarships, unfortunately, is a numbers game, and starting early also helps you catch any deadlines that might be coming up this month. However, as you apply to more, you’ll likely find that you can repurpose old essays for scholarships with similar prompts. The process gets easier over time.

2. Search locally

Another way to increase your likelihood of securing outside scholarships is by searching locally. There are some national, full-tuition scholarships that are really attractive on paper, but the competition for them is huge. Statewide and citywide scholarships tend to have smaller award amounts, but the competition for them is much smaller as well.

A quick Google search into “(city/state) scholarships for college students” is a great start to finding local sources of funding. Doing so for Arizona, for example, brings up results like the Arizona Community Foundation, a nonprofit organization that manages over 100 scholarships. The foundation’s scholarships are geared toward Arizona residents, but some are open to everyone.

Public high schools and libraries in your area can sometimes have scholarship directories as well. The Phoenix Public Library, for example, has a page dedicated to scholarships sorted by various criteria, including deadlines. This resource is extremely useful if you’re looking to apply to outside scholarships during a specific timeframe, like this summer.

3. Find outside scholarships that match your interests and identity

This piece of advice is obvious, I know. But because private donors and organizations fund outside scholarships, the criteria for them can be as specific as they like. There are scholarships reserved for college students with specific majors, career goals and even hobbies, and thinking about your own interests when beginning your search can help narrow the applicant pool.

Likewise, there are scholarships based on eligibility factors, such as your identity. State of residence is one, but the diversity of outside scholarships means that their criteria runs the whole gamut as well. Factors like your gender, ethnicity, orientation and personal living situation can help you find niche scholarship funds. Many companies also have dedicated scholarships for their employees’ children, so parents and relatives can be a useful source for finding outside scholarships.

4. Look through vetted databases

While one of the benefits of outside scholarships is that they are offered throughout the year, one of the downsides is that they are usually not monitored by anyone, excluding the sponsor organization. Websites like Scholarships.com, Unigo and Fastweb have extensive databases with outside scholarships, but many listings are often outdated or fraudulent.

As mentioned earlier, scholarship databases from public organizations, like high schools and libraries, are usually updated more frequently. The Department of Labor also has a scholarship finder website with more than 8,000 listings. Your college will likely have a vetted scholarship database as well.

Otherwise, print databases can be a useful tool, like The Ultimate Scholarship Book by Gen and Kelly Tanabe. Scholarship listings in this book are indexed by various categories and interests, but not by deadline.

The insane price of college tuition, however, can make applying to outside scholarships unattractive. After all, how will a couple thousand dollars affect the upwards of $60,000 college costs each year? A good workaround is to focus on applying to renewable scholarships, since they can last throughout your college education. Looking far in advance into scholarships with large awards is beneficial too. But, it’s important to keep in mind that any scholarship money is valuable if it means you don’t have to take out as much in loans. The interest rate for undergraduate federal student loans is 4.53%, and the average student borrower “pays off their loans in their 40s,” meaning that outside scholarships you receive now can reduce the burden of repaying loans long after you graduate.

The college education system in the United States is criminally overpriced, but there are resources that can help students pay for their degree. By applying to credible, niche scholarships whose criteria are a perfect match for you, you’re increasing your chances of securing outside scholarships. With so many opportunities available, the scholarship you win could be the one that no one else finds.

Brian Xi, University of California, Berkeley

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Brian Xi

University of California, Berkeley
Environmental Economics and Policy

Writing for you and myself, Cal freshman.

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