How to Win Scholarships in 2018

This year, according to the College Board, college tuition rates and fees are expected to rise faster than family incomes, again.

As of June 2018, the average annual cost for private college will come in at $46,950 (including $33,000 in tuition), and the in-state cost for a year of public college will be $20,770 (with tuition of $9,648). At an expected growth rate of just over 6% a year, the price tag for a year at a private college could rise to $56,766 by 2020.

It also means that the average debt load of $37,000 for 2017 college graduates could climb higher—much higher—in the next few years. The good news is that most students —more than 70%—receive some form of financial aid. Better yet, thousands of dollars in available aid go unclaimed each year.

So what’s the best way to maximize your—or your child’s—share of available scholarship funds? Think ahead, do your research, put in a little extra effort, and get creative.

Related: Scholarships 101: Your Introduction to Getting Free Money for College

Think ahead

Start early, even before your senior year of high school. You can begin earning scholarship money as early as ninth grade and save scholarship funds in an escrow account, where they can earn interest until you begin paying tuition bills.

Clean up your online presence by making sure that your social media accounts present a professional image and highlight your interests, accomplishments, and aspirations. Schools and scholarship-bestowing organizations want students and recipients they can be proud of and who are serious about their futures. With a growing number of scholarship funds and schools checking students’ social media presence during their search process, you’ll want to burnish your online image anyway.

Do the research

Don’t enter any scholarship contests that ask for application fees. There are billions of dollars worth of available scholarship funds that do not require fees waiting to be claimed. In addition, be wary of signing up with any scholarship sites or search engines that require a fee to access their databases.

Instead, start by using free, reliable scholarship search engines such as Cappex, Good Call, Fastweb, or TFS Scholarship (and CollegeXpress!). Many of these sites use reliable algorithms to match you with scholarship opportunities you may be uniquely qualified for based on income, background, gender, region, extracurricular activities, and academic interests.

Related: The Best Scholarship Search Sites, Books, and More

Next, check with your local religious community, school, and civic organizations for local and regional scholarships that aren’t likely to be listed on national search engines. If you have been affiliated with an extracurricular program or organization or do volunteer work, check to see if these affiliated groups offer scholarships.

See if your municipality sponsors a “promise program.” Promise programs partner local municipalities, including states, counties, cities, and even neighborhoods, with philanthropists or corporations that promise to cover in-state public college costs for qualified students that are not covered by other grants. Georgia, Florida, Texas, San Francisco, Detroit, and Washington, DC, are just some of the municipalities that offer promise programs for local students.

Extra effort counts

Some education consultants estimate that supplying optional information on free scholarship search engines can generate twice as many matches, which means twice as many opportunities to earn free money for college.

Play the numbers by applying for as many applicable scholarships as possible. Keep in mind that smaller scholarships often have fewer applicants than those with higher monetary rewards, so your chances are higher. But before you spend too much time on any one application, look carefully at all the requirements so you do not waste time on a scholarship for which you are ineligible.

Related: The Ultimate List of Easy Scholarships

Focus on applications that require longer essays, as these tend to have fewer applicants. Don’t introduce yourself in the essay; many scholarships require blind application materials and will disqualify materials with names or other identifying information. Be sure to highlight anything that sets you apart from other applicants, including hobbies, career interests, and, particularly, volunteer work.

After you have completed essay sections for the first few applications, you will find that there are sections you can reuse for each new application, thereby leveraging the hard work you’ve already completed.

Before you hit the “Send” button, make sure you proofread each application and essay carefully. You can consider running all of your writings through a site like Grammarly if you’re looking for grammar and spelling assurance. The tool scans writing for spelling and grammar mistakes, ensuring you put your best foot forward.

Related: Make Your Scholarship Applications Stand Out in a Crowd

Get creative

Finally, look for scholarship money awarded in your areas of interest; for example, social justice, the environment, speech and debate, or music and theater. Some scholarships are open to any student who has participated in an area of endeavor, while others are designed for students with particular professional aspirations.

For example, the Glenn Miller Scholarship Competition offers 20 awards of $4,000 each for vocalists and instrumentalists. The deadline is March 1, 2018, and the administrators stress that they hope to assist the “musical leaders of tomorrow” and that they are not looking for “Glenn Miller look-alikes or sound-alikes.” In other words, save money on the saddle shoes and zoot suit, and focus on the music.

Related: 60 of the Weirdest College Scholarships

Budding filmmakers can earn up to $15,000 for college, as well as the chance to work with a Disney film crew, by entering the Teendrive365 Video Challenge by February 28, 2018. Sponsored by Discovery Education and Toyota, the contest challenges students in grades nine through 12 to create a 30-60-second video that highlights the importance of safe driving for fellow teenagers.

Also by February 28, 2018, LiveCareer’s Education Opportunities Contest will award $1,500 scholarships to three students who do the best job answering the question, “Which personal or educational accomplishment will you be the proudest to share with future employers and why?” in 200–800 words.

If you are looking for the option of working with a peer, consider entering the Paradigm Challenge, which asks students to work alone or in teams to come up with creative ways to reduce waste and communicate those ideas effectively by its May 1, 2018, deadline.

Don’t forget to sign up for CollegeXpress for free to be automatically entered to win a $10,000 scholarship! And make sure to check out our Scholarship Search tool and follow @CollegeXpress for more scholarship opportunities.

Note: Did you know you could win a $10,000 scholarship for college or grad school just by registering on CollegeXpress? This is one of the quickest, easiest scholarships you’ll ever apply for. Register Now »