From choosing a t-shirt for college shirt day in elementary school to rooting for a favorite college sports team as they get older, many students start thinking about where they want to go to college long before their senior year of high school. Often absent from these early hopes is a tangible plan for how they will pay for that college dream. Many students and families assume that figuring out the financial aspects of paying for college and applying for scholarships must wait until senior year when they are going through the college application process. However, in order to truly promote a college and career readiness culture, it is important for students to initiate actions about scholarships, and other forms of financial assistance, in the years before becoming a senior. And it is necessary for schools to have resources and assistance available to support and gauge student progress on each student’s journey of considering, selecting, and resourcing their dream of college access.
As we celebrate National Scholarship Month during the month of November, take the opportunity to encourage students to start familiarizing themselves with the scholarship process, learn about the types of scholarships available, and even apply for some scholarships prior to senior year. Doing so will both inform their overall decision-making during the college exploration process and ensure that they are putting themselves in the best position to afford the college of their choice.
Helping Students Realize They Have Options
With the increasing costs of tuition, some students might not see a path to postsecondary learning in their future. Scholarships can play a key role in a student’s postsecondary path as many families want to minimize the financial burden of student loans after college. Encouraging students to learn about the scholarship landscape early in their high school career allows them to see options that they might not otherwise consider possible. Expanding students’ understanding of their options and opportunities for post-secondary participation through college scholarships gets them in a college-readiness mindset.
Getting Started Early
Scholarship applications often have a specific set of requirements students must meet in order to even be eligible. Many of these qualifications must be completed throughout the high school experience. These might include a certain GPA, volunteer hours, participation in extracurricular activities, or a portfolio of work to share. By having a sense of what will be needed, students can work to meet those requirements over time. They can thoughtfully plan for how they will go about accruing this information and make decisions with an informed understanding of the process. Providing information about scholarships at the start of high school or even earlier helps students connect their decisions throughout high school to their post-secondary requirements and goals. This prevents a feeling of disappointment from ineligibility or a frenzied rush to meet requirements during senior year.
Many Opportunities for a Variety of Students
Students and families often assume that scholarships are exclusively reserved for top-tier academic scholars or serious athletes. Though there are many available scholarships that are geared towards academics or athletics, there are a plethora of others that offer financial support to a wide variety of students. Scholarships are available to recognize essay contest winners, artistic achievements, volunteer service to the community, a desired career path, and other talents or achievements. Students are often surprised, and greatly relieved, that scholarships are available for effort as well as improvement in school and other domains of life, especially when they discover a scholarship that personally resonates with them. A college and career readiness platform can assist counselors in making sure their students have the tools to find scholarships to fuel their journey to college access and completion.
Across the country, and within every community, there are many organizations that offer scholarships--including veterans groups, cultural heritage associations and communities, local civic organizations, local businesses, local and national educational foundations, labor unions, and religious organizations. Students should remember that scholarship opportunities for lower dollar amounts add up and often have smaller pools of applicants. Encourage all students to expand their thinking around sources for scholarships and be creative in exploring opportunities for financial support. Schools can provide time, structured search tasks, and curated access to assist students in finding scholarships.
When Should Students Apply and How Can Districts Help?
While many scholarships are specific to seniors, there are some opportunities available for students earlier in their high school career. During freshman and sophomore year, counselors might encourage students to do practice scholarship searches so they understand how to find scholarships and have a sense of the process. Junior year is a prime time for identifying available and relevant scholarships and even applying for some. Counselors can invite students to begin exploring these options by embedding scholarship guidance and information in communications to families during junior year. Encourage junior year students to put together a resume or list of accomplishments and extracurriculars, practice writing application essays, and connect with or follow organizations who might be a source for college scholarships. You might even facilitate conversations between seniors and juniors about lessons learned and success stories for scholarship applications.
By the beginning of senior year, students should be ready to complete their scholarship applications. Many scholarship applications are due during the fall--be sure students are aware of due dates, the process for submission, and the requirements to complete the applications. Consider sharing access to a college and career platform, such as SchooLinks, that can give students access to a scholarship database and help them upload transcripts and letters of recommendation--all to streamline the scholarship application process.
To further explore college scholarship opportunities, invite students to visit:
- Scholarships.com: With a database that includes more than 3.7 million college scholarships and grants, this free site allows students to search for scholarships based on eligibility, application requirements, and award amount.
- Fastweb.com: This National Scholarship Database, created in 1995, helps students simplify searching for scholarships by using an algorithm to match students with scholarship opportunities based on their activities, strengths, and interests.
- Bold.org: After answering a series of questions, students gain access to a list of scholarships, fellowships, and grants that fit their specific experiences. Bold.org also offers funders the opportunity to create scholarships that are exclusively listed on their site.
As you support your students in their college exploration and career planning, it is vital to monitor whether students are making the important preparations for post-secondary planning long before senior year. In doing so, you can ensure that success in the senior year is the intentional result of thorough searches, thoughtful essays, and comprehensive applications--accomplished over the course of all four years of high school.