Understanding Scholarships

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average cost of tuition, fees, room and board, for undergraduate students attending 4-year degree-granting institutions, ranges from $19,488 for an in-state student attending a public institution, to $41,468 at a private institution. Financial aid is available for students who need it, but most often this comes in the form of loans, which eventually need to be repaid with interest.

What are scholarships and grants?

In its simplest form, a scholarship is a monetary gift that an organization gives to an individual based on a set of standards. The term “grant” is often used interchangeably, but generally “grant” is used to denote a need-based monetary gift which takes into account you or your family’s financial situation, whereas a scholarship award is based on merit. In this guide, we’ll cover the latter.

Scholarships vary in their distribution, though most are intended to apply directly to funding education. More stringent scholarships may come with a contingency that the award money be only used toward tuition, whereas more lenient scholarships may allow award money to be put towards books or living expenses while you are in school.

What about the “scholarship trap”?

There is a common cautionary tale that a scholarship award might actually reduce the amount of money a student will receive from the school’s own grant program. Indeed, federal rules require schools to factor in outside sources of financing—scholarships included—when determining a financial aid package. As a result, when a student wins a private scholarship from an outside source, the school could reduce the financial aid package by the amount of the award. This is usually referred to as an “over-award” by schools or “displacement” by scholarship providers.

Though you may find such policies unfair, you should not let over-awards dissuade you from applying to scholarships. Depending on the school’s policies, an over-award might be remedied by shrinking the loan portion of a student’s financial aid package, as opposed to the grant portion. You should check with your school to know what to expect.

Who is eligible for a scholarship?

Perhaps you’re worried about competing against other students who may have better grades, higher test scores, or more impressive extracurricular activities. If so, there is good news for you: merit is a broad and subjective term. Merit-based scholarships are indeed awarded to individuals who best meet given qualifications, but merit can be measured in countless ways and applied to a wide range of activities. “Meritorious” really just means “deserving;” you are “meritorious” in many ways. Your job in the application process is to identify your merits and put them on display.

Remember, scholarships generally have a narrow focus, seeking to reward certain accomplishments, fund particular projects, assist a group of people, or identify and promote specialty niches. Some common targets include:

  • Older and returning students, or adult-focused education
  • Athletes (offered by the National College Athletic Association, the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, and by individual schools, to name a few)
  • Minority groups (as in the United Negro College Fund, the American Indian College Fund, etc.)
  • People with disabilities
  • Religious groups
  • Women
  • Students of military families (offered by the Veteran’s Association or the Department of Defense)
  • Foreign students wishing to study in the U.S.
  • Domestic students wishing to study internationally (this type of scholarship is typically offered by the student’s own school)
  • Need-based or financial aid
  • Special skill or academic focus (art and music, for instance)
  • Community-based
  • Career-specific

Where can I find scholarships?

The financial aid office at your school is likely equipped with tools and resources to help you or your child apply to scholarships. It may have libraries of books, catalogs or postings of scholarships, and computers you can use to search or prepare application materials.

There are also many websites devoted solely to searching for and finding scholarships, with a vast range of features and databases. It is useful to conduct a few broad searches on large government-sponsored databases to get an idea for the types of scholarships available, but remember that the goal is to find scholarships that are looking for applicants like you. If a website or search engine offers advanced search functions, do limit your search terms, but be creative as well: think of synonyms for terms you search and try multiple combinations of words and phrases depending on your output results. (If, for example, you are looking for scholarships that give money to young equestrians, you might also try “horseback riding,” “rodeo,” and “jockey.”) It can’t hurt to consult a thesaurus for synonyms just to be thorough. You might even reveal niche scholarships you’re eligible for that you hadn’t thought of in the first place.

An often overlooked method of finding scholarships is to actually take the initiative and ask around. Member of a club or association? See if they offer any scholarships. For example, your school’s alumni association may be inclined to help those from their alma mater. How about your employer? Ask HR to see if there is a tuition assistance program in place or if the company would be inclined to sponsor your education if it benefits the company. Lastly, anyone who is familiar with your personal strengths such as an advisor, teacher, or family friend is a great source as well.

Finally, be wary of scams that you may come across in your scholarship search. Some red flags are websites that “guarantee” you’ll receive a scholarship with their aid, have scholarships with no qualification requirements, or charge you any type of fee for their services. A true scholarship-giving organization will not expect you to pay money to receive an award.

How should I organize my scholarship search?

You’ll be working with an immense amount of information and it is crucial to stay organized. By writing down important dates, deadlines, and contact information as you go, you avoid having to go back and re-gather these often tricky-to-locate little tidbits. There is no wrong or right format to use to stay organized, just be sure to choose something that works for you. Your tracking sheet should include sections for:

  • the name of the scholarship
  • application requirements
  • the preferred method of submission
  • contact information
  • deadlines
  • columns for tracking progress
  • notes or any research that you have done on the scholarship or scholarship committee

How do I apply for a scholarship?

Most scholarships will require the student to complete an application form, write an essay, or even complete an interview. Here’s what you can expect.

The Application Form

This is the easy part – if you’ve done your research, all you need to do is put in the time, and follow directions.

  • The schedule: Since the process of filling out applications can be time-consuming and possibly daunting in volume, be sure to use your centralized tracking sheet to prioritize. You should take into account the amount of effort required for each scholarship, your propensity to win, and of course, deadlines. Follow a schedule, and then concentrate on one application at a time.
  • Follow directions: This is important. As mentioned above, scholarship applications are very particular in their requirements. You must provide exactly what they ask for, or you may be disqualified and your hard work will be wasted. Remember, committees are faced with the task of choosing one or a handful of winners from a large pool of applicants, and it makes their job easier if they can eliminate entries from the slush-pile for failure to conform. It is well worth your time to read and reread directions carefully.
  • Formalize your tone: Whenever there is an opportunity to write a response to a question (as in a short answer section, apart from the main essay), mirror the tone and language of the scholarship. The reasoning for this is twofold: not only does it require you to read the application and directions thoroughly and critically, but it also conveys to the scholarship committee (if only subconsciously) that you are an applicant who fits in with the culture of the organization.
  • Answer all optional questions: If a scholarship application gives you the opportunity to present additional information about yourself, take it! By taking the time to answer questions that are “optional” you have doubled your chances at winning a scholarship compared to students who skip these questions. A scholarship committee will obviously look more highly on the applicant who takes the application seriously and puts in the extra work. Also, you have the opportunity to present a tidbit or two about yourself that would be absent from a bare minimal application.

Writing the Essay

  • Brainstorm ideas: Scholarships occasionally ask pointed essay questions, but more often the prompts are designed to allow for a broad array of acceptable responses. Students who have difficulty writing are welcome to be creative here—use whatever method you need to get your mind moving!
  • Research: Before writing, you should research the scholarship advisory board or awarding body. Go ahead and google members of the committee for personal details— it can’t hurt to know your audience. Research past winners—their essays are sometimes posted, and reading through them can give you a good idea of what the scholarship committee is looking for.
  • A Note on Conformity: It can be tempting to stand out from the crowd by crafting an untraditional essay. This is ill-advised. Your individuality should show forth in the content of your essay, and not in the structure. Wacky formats come off as gimmicky and can underscore your professionalism. Whenever possible, stick to a standard essay format (introduction, well-organized body paragraphs, and a conclusion), and reuse the essay when possible, but not without but a bit of customized tailoring.


Once you have a solid draft of your application put together, get some critical feedback. If you can recruit a friend, fellow student, co-worker, parent, or teacher to look at your application, they might catch something you didn’t—this can be as mundane as a grammatical error, or as subtle as an undesirable message you might be sending unintentionally in an essay answer. Some individuals might have great skill at proofreading, and some might offer excellent thematic or structural suggestions for your essays, but not everyone is equally skilled—it is good to have multiple opinions and to consider them critically, but trust your judgment.

The Interview

Highly competitive scholarships may include an interview as part of their application process. If you make it to this step, congratulations! You are likely a top-tier candidate. In preparing for the interview, consider the following tips.

  • Research the organization thoroughly, including its members, its mission statement, any publications it may have produced, and any recent press or media attention it may have garnished. You’ll want to incorporate some of this knowledge into your responses in order to demonstrate that you are serious about the organization and that you are in line with their values.
  • If possible, try to figure out who your interviewer or members of the interviewing team will be, so you have an idea of what to expect on the day of.
  • Practice answering interview questions. You can find commonly asked questions from various interview-prep materials, but don’t be surprised if you hear a wild card or two. Interviewers will often throw a fun or random question into the mix to gauge your reaction under pressure.
  • Prepare a few questions to ask the interviewer as well, not only to demonstrate your interest in the organization, but also to show that you’re thinking critically.
  • On the day of the interview, dress professionally and be personable.

Happy scholarship hunting! Be sure to cast a wide net and apply to as many scholarships as you feel you are reasonably qualified to receive. The results just might surprise you, and even small awards can add up to taking a big bite out of the amount you might otherwise have to borrow to pay your tuition.

iGrad offers a scholarship search tool go to their website iGrad Scholarship Search Tool.

Source: iGrad

6 Splurges That Make It Difficult to Payback Student Loans

It’s exciting getting your first job out of college! You probably have the largest paycheck that you’ve ever received in your life, and nobody is there to tell you how to spend it. So it’s easy to go a little crazy with that new income and forget about those pesky student loans.

Let’s look at six areas in which college students and recent grads often splurge and discover some real-world examples of how to combat that spending impulse.

  1. Dining Out: This splurge is probably the biggest culprit of fun, but unnecessary, spending. I know once I graduated, dining out suddenly became a possibility with my full-time salary, and I started eating out much more than I ever had growing up or in college.

    And it’s great, even healthy, to eat out every so often, but watch how frequently you’re doing it. If you’re grabbing a $10 lunch at the Panera right next to your work every day, that’s $50 a week, $200 a month, and $2,400 a year!

    Cutting down to just 2 lunches out a week would be $20 a week, $80 a month, and $960 a year. That’s almost $1,500 in savings!

    Consider spending the $1,500 you’d save on prepaying your loan. Most loans don’t require you to start paying on your loans until six months after graduation. You could have a good $750 paid down in those six months by just eating out twice a week for lunch.

  2. TV Expenses: We all love to come home and turn on the TV, eat some food, maybe pour a glass of wine, and relax. But it can get really expensive!

    According to recent reports, the average American spends $85 a month on cable!1 That, of course, doesn’t include Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, and all the other streaming apps. It’s very likely that you probably are spending $200-$250 a month if you have cable and other streaming apps.

    Now if you’re feeling really drastic, you could cut it all, but I’d encourage you to start by cutting one or two. Cable might be your best choice, as it’s often the most expensive, and let’s be real: we don’t watch most of the shows anyway.

    If you’re a football fan like me, you could consider downloading the NFL app, looking into other streaming options, or going to a bar in town to watch the games.

    Let’s do the math on how much you could save. $85 a month is $1,020 a year, so just by cutting cable, you could save $1,000 a year. And you could use that money to pay the interest on your student loans so that you can pay them down faster.

  3.  Cell Phones: Phones can be pricey, especially if you get a new phone every two years and choose an expensive plan. But if you look into alternatives, you can save a lot of money on your cell phone.

    Prepaid plans are normally the best way to go, and what some people don’t realize is that most major cell phone carriers provide them.

    One option through a major cell phone carrier would be T-Mobile, which has a variety of prepaid plans that range from $3 a month if you don’t use your phone very much to $70 a month for one line.

    Another option is Verizon. With a prepaid plan through Verizon, you can bring your current phone, so you don’t have to worry about the cost of a phone.

    At Verizon, a 3GB prepaid phone plan costs $40 a month. That’s $480 a year. A 4GB (prepaid has odd; regular has even) phone plan costs $50 a month plus the $20 a month device cost. That’s slightly over $840. With a prepaid plan, you save $360 a year!

    If you’re still in college, $360 is about the amount you’d spend on books for a semester, so instead of pocketing that money, why don’t you put it toward the books you’ll need for your education? Plus, when you sell back your books at the end of the semester, you’ll still have some money left over for the next semester!

  4. Alcohol and Bars: When you’re a 20-something, the way to meet people is often at bars or social events that include alcohol. It’s just a part of the culture. But alcohol can get really expensive if you go out a lot.

    I’m not suggesting that you become a teetotaler (although I have several friends who are due to family history, and I have great respect for them). If you’re looking to save money on going out, you could consider setting a limit on the amount of money you plan to spend while out.

    Let’s say that you spend $25-$50 a week on alcohol between going to hang out with your friends and getting some wine to drink at home. That’s $100-$200 a month and $1,200-$2,400 a year! If you cut down your alcohol expenses to $10 a week, you’ll save a minimum of $60 a month and $720 a year.

    You could use this additional $720 to pay off your loan quicker, but be sure to check that it’s okay for you to do that. Or you could put it toward an emergency savings fund (where you have 3-6 months of income saved for any unexpected expenses).

  5. New Expensive Car: You probably drove a pretty old car in college, and it didn’t matter because everyone else did. But now, you might be a recent grad, and all your coworkers have nice, new cars. Since you can afford one now with your full-time salary, you might be tempted to buy one too, but don’t do it just yet!

    New cars can be expensive, and they depreciate in value very quickly. If you can—wait until you’ve had a chance to work a couple years, pay down (and maybe completely pay off!) your loans, and then trade in your old car for a newer vehicle.

    If you do really need a new car, I’d recommend getting a used car in great condition. It can save you a lot of money. See if you have any relatives who might want to sell a car or check out a site like CarMax.

    Used cars can get a bad rap, but often times, they are really a good deal. My fiance purchased a GMC Sierra truck for a ridiculously good price, and you can’t tell that it’s a couple years old. It looks brand new.

    If you want to get a new car, you might be spending around $525 a month2, which is $6,300 a year. 6k is a pretty substantial amount. If you have the average amount of debt of around $25,000, that’s about 25% of your loan before interest. In one fell swoop, you can tackle 25% of your loan by not getting a new car.

  6. Credit Card Interest: This splurge can apply to everyone because we all have material possessions we would like to have. For some people, it’s clothing, makeup, and accessories. For others, it’s books, fancy pens, and notebooks. And for still more, it’s firearms, power tools, and recreational vehicles.

    And it’s easy to see your credit limit of let’s say $3,000 and think of all the cool things you could get for yourself. Plus, if you use your credit card, you just have to pay it off slowly so it won’t really impact your loans, right? Not quite.

    Interest (if you’re paying it) is the worst way to splurge. Don’t pay more than you need to for a product, and if you buy it on credit, you are.

    Recent reports found that the average credit card interest rate is around 16%.3 That means that if you make a $1,000 purchase and just make the minimum payments on your credit card, you’re actually spending $160 more on that purchase alone.

    Now let’s consider how much you spend over the entire year, probably $30,000 for the average 20-something. If you purchase all of that on credit, you’re spending an extra $4,800 on all your expenses for the year.

    That’s almost $5,000, which again is 20% of your average loan. If you decide to forego the new car and don’t spend money on credit card interest, you can have almost half of your loan paid off just through these simple two steps.

    You also could put that money through an investment (where you’ll earn interest!), such as a retirement fund. Your future self will thank you!

    In sum, it’s important to think carefully about your spending and use your money wisely. Don’t forget the future in the midst of your exciting new job and full-time salary. The sooner you pay off your loans, the more money you’ll have to save for your dream house or ideal vacation, invest, or save for your retirement and your own kid’s college education!

See the full article here.

What is Forever GI Bill?

The Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act, also known as the “Forever GI Bill,” was signed into law on August 17, 2017, and brings significant changes to Veterans’ education benefits over the next few years. Most enhance or expand education benefits for Veterans, servicemembers, families and survivors. Here’s a list of the changes and when they go into effect.

Check out U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for what changes are effective immediately.

The Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act “Forever GI Bill” fact sheet provides an overview of what updates to this policy.

College Saving Plans

Saving up for college to assist with expenses in higher education can be ideal plan. If your family starts early enough, you may be able to save a substantial amount for college before you’re ready to attend.

State 529 plans and Coverdell accounts are two ways to set aside money for college students that can grow tax-free. There are restrictions. Be sure to research your state’s plan so you know the maximum that can be contributed each year, and how much can be taken out at a time.

State 529: A 529 plan lets you save for college in either of two ways: by prepaying tuition and by savings plans. Click here for more information.

  • Prepaid tuition plan
    Purchases tuition credits at participating colleges and universities at current tuition prices, and use them when the student attends college. Only a few states offer prepaid tuition plans.
  • 529 savings plan
    More traditional savings plan where money grows tax-free. All states offer 529 plans, and you don’t have to live in a state to participate in that state’s plan.

Coverdell Education Savings Account: The Coverdell Education Savings Account (ESA), is like an individual retirement account (IRA), but for education.

  • Covers all education
    elementary, secondary, and higher education costs.
  • Tax free
    Money in the account grows tax-free, and isn’t taxed when it’s used for the beneficiary for tuition, fees, books, supplies, or equipment for school.
  • Use with a 529
    You can contribute to both a 529 plan and a Coverdell ESA for the same student in the same year.

Additional resources for getting for college can be found here.