As the cost of college continues to soar, scholarships have become an essential part of college payment plans. Scholarships covered 17% of the average college bill, according to Sallie Mae’s most recent How America Pays For College report, with an average scholarship haul of $8,843.
Scholarship dollars varied widely, however, based on the type of school attended. Students at a four-year public or state university received, on average, $6,469 in scholarships, compared to $16,527 for students at four-year private universities.
Nonetheless, free money can certainly make a dent in your college tab. And knowing where to look for them is key to the process. Here are a few hints:
1. Search online sites
Scholarship matching websites are still a great source of scholarship information. There’s the U.S. Department of Labor’s scholarship search tool, as well as sites such as Fastweb, The College Board and Cappex. Each site’s search tools are a little bit different, but in general, you’ll be filling out an online questionnaire on everything from your ethnic background to gender to intended major, and seeing what scholarships match your criteria.
2. Skip paid services
“The results will not be better than the free services,” says Mark Kantrowitz, financial aid expert and publisher of Cappex. “The free services update their databases in real time, while paid services license a database that is updated once a year or once a quarter. If you have to pay money to get money, it’s probably a scam.” Kantrowitz recommends searching at least two free sites to give you the confidence that you’ve found all the scholarships for which you’re eligible. However, you can consider certain one-time fee apps like Scholly, which costs $2.99 for a one-time purchase in iOS and Android and helps you aggregate scholarship opportunities.
3. Check the financial aid office
The school you plan to attend may have scholarships available that aren’t listed elsewhere. Give the school a call—either as an incoming student or once you’re attending—and ask for information.
4. Look locally
Your school guidance counselor should know whether there’s any money to be awarded from groups in your area to graduating seniors. Your librarian might also be able to point you toward information on local awards. “Look for small local scholarships on bulletin boards outside your guidance counselor’s office, and near the jobs and careers section of the local public library,” Kantrowitz says. “Also look in the coupon section of the Sunday newspaper, where some national scholarships are advertised.” Groups such as your local Rotary, Kiwanis, and Elks clubs are good places to check, as well as your church.
5. Ask your parents
Do your mother or father work for a company that offers scholarships? If they’re not sure, have them check with their human resources department. Companies such as Verizon, Intel and Siemens offer awards to employee children and dependents, and 11% of employees overall offer this kind of benefit, according to the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2015 Employee Benefits report.
6. Keep applying
Scholarships aren’t just for incoming freshmen. In fact, while freshmen received an average of $5,793 in scholarships, according to Sallie Mae’s most recent numbers, seniors received a whopping $20,292. It pays to keep researching as you work your way through school.