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Archive for Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Not all scholarships looking for all-stars

August 18, 2009

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— It often seems that the star athlete, musical prodigy or class valedictorian has a lock on lucrative college scholarships. Yet there are ways to get financial assistance for higher education even if a student isn’t team captain or doesn’t make the grade on academic merit.

Many universities and private sponsors make scholarship money available to students who don’t particularly excel on the field or in the classroom. In fact, fewer than 1 percent of students receive athletic scholarships, says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of college financial-information Web sites FinAid.com and FastWeb.com.

“There are plenty of scholarships out there that don’t require you to be a star athlete or the top of your class,” Kantrowitz says. For example, the David Letterman Scholarship at Ball State University rewards students with “an average yet creative” mind, he said.

“There’s even a scholarship from a duct-tape manufacturer for making a prom outfit out of duct tape,” he adds.

Time is money

If you need aid for the school year beginning this fall, apply now because many deadlines have already passed.

“There are still some scholarships with August deadlines that pay the award in September, but once we get into the fall, what you’ll find will be entirely for the next academic year,” Kantrowitz says. “Start searching now so you know what’s available.”

The first step when looking for financial aid for any student — all-star, academic or average Joe — should be to fill out the U.S. Department of Education’s Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. Completing the FAFSA helps determine whether a student is eligible for aid from the school as well as federal and state governments in the form of grants and low-interest loans. The FAFSA can be found online at www.fafsa.ed.gov.

“If you’re looking for ways to help finance your educational expenses, absolutely, unequivocally, filing the FAFSA is the most important thing, and is the starting point,” says Richard Bellows, executive director of financial aid at Butler University.

The FAFSA, which has to be refiled for each school year, can be submitted as late as the end of the academic year for which you’re looking for aid — but it’s best to fill the form out early each calendar year.

Filing in January or February means there’s more money to go around, but aid is still available for students who start school this fall and haven’t submitted the FAFSA — if they file as soon as possible, Bellows says. He noted that needy students can still qualify for the federal Pell Grant, for example.

“There’s still the opportunity for some financial aid, but if you don’t file the FAFSA and you don’t look into it, you’re not going to know whether you’re qualified.”

Those getting ready to begin their senior year of high school should use the time they have to prepare and research financial-aid deadlines and school procedures, says Cindy Bailey, a senior policy analyst and former executive director of education finance services at College Board, a not-for-profit organization that serves students.

“One of the first things they should be thinking about is where they want to go to school, the tests they have to take, the timetable and then beginning the conversations with institutions,” she says. “Most colleges will be happy to talk to kids about their financial aid options early in the process.”

It’s beneficial for students to use other areas in which they excel — whether their abilities are in cooking or mechanical engineering — as a means for obtaining scholarships, Kantrowitz says. Students looking for niche scholarships should create an “accomplishments resume,” where they list hobbies and areas in which they excel, he said.

“There are essay competitions, artistic competitions, competitions for every hobby under the sun,” Kantrowitz says. “If you want to attract schools’ attention or scholarship sponsors’ attention, pick your favorite hobby and try to go all the way in that hobby.”

Do your homework

Once students have outlined a clear picture of what they’re good at, it’s time to do the homework.

“They can use (the resume) as a basis to start searching for scholarships that match their background,” Kantrowitz says. For instance, FinAid.com provides a list of scholarships for average students as well as scholarships for volunteering and community service.

Students and their families should look at scholarship search engines and publications about the student’s financial-aid options, adds Bailey.

Applicants should also discuss scholarship options with high school guidance counselors and university personnel. In addition, some fraternal organizations and unions sponsor scholarships for students whose family are members, she said.

Says Bailey: “Research as much as you can.”

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