College Scholarship Hacks: The Scoop on How and Where to Find Them

By Ronna Mandel

college scholarship

Neda Farid and son Darius, who secured a scholarship to NYU, at his high school graduation. PHOTO BY AL FARHOUMAND

Funding college is an increasing struggle for families – especially those with too much income to qualify for financial aid, but too little to cover tuition. Scholarships and grants can help fill funding gaps, and your search for them should go hand in hand with your search for the right college.

Scholarships and grants do not have to be repaid, and some organizations use the terms interchangeably. However, scholarships are usually merit-based, meaning students qualify for them through SAT scores, GPA or other criteria. Some colleges and universities offer scholarships based on talent, to students from underrepresented school districts and to those planning to enter certain fields of study. Professional organizations, foundations and companies also offer scholarships to encourage students to pursue particular careers.

Grants are usually need based, meaning a student must demonstrate financial need to qualify. “This is what the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) does,” says Dean Kulju, director of student financial aid services and programs at California State University, the nation’s largest public university system. “It determines the amount the family is expected to cover. Any amount beyond that of the student’s college expenses is financial need.” Need-based grants are offered by state and federal governments, and sometimes by colleges and universities.

Families should research both types of aid, and students should plan to continue their search once they enter college. “Once a child becomes a college student and is attending an institution, they have to renew the process annually if that scholarship or grant came from their school,” says Kulju. And some scholarships are only offered to continuing students, because associations and organizations know that students may change majors. Connecting with faculty who teach in their chosen major is a good way for students to learn about these scholarships.

Planning Your Search

Generally, students apply for institutional and outside scholarships in the fall of senior year. College and university scholarships tend to be awarded in early spring, and outside scholarships in late spring and early summer. But ninth grade is not too soon to start your scholarship search – especially if your sights are set on a talent-based scholarship that requires lots of extracurriculars.

college scholarship

Dean Kulju, director of student financial aid services and programs at California State University, stresses the importance of filling out the FAFSA form. PHOTO COURTESY CALIFORNIA STATE UNIVERSITY

Parents should have open conversations with their kids on the importance of scholarships, and start those conversations early. “Many students have no concept of the merit scholarships and other financial aid that’s available, and the difference it can make in choosing School A or School B,” says Patti Winkel, Pasadena-based director of counseling outreach at Collegewise, a nationwide college counseling network. “Parents might care more than kids.”

If you are planning to spearhead the scholarship search because your kids are overwhelmed by AP classes, SAT prep and writing college-admissions essays, talk this through and make it clear who is responsible for what. You don’t want anything to fall through the cracks. Most experts agree that, at minimum, students should submit their FAFSA form.

If you don’t want to shoulder this burden – or the burden of persuading your child to handle the search – yourself, you might consider working with a college consultant. “They do the bugging, the nagging and motivating so parents don’t have to,” Winkel says. This will cost you, however. And working with one isn’t a guarantee. “Never pay someone who promises to get you scholarships,” says Kulju. “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”

If your kids will be flying solo in their scholarship search, help them see what is in it for them. “Kids need to consider the search for scholarships as a very lucrative part-time job and do a cost-benefit analysis,” says Brenda Gant, a Glendale mother of three college graduates and one current student. “Then they’ll see how, if they get a scholarship, those five hours of time they put into a particular search paid off.”

Finding Outside Scholarships

Start your search for outside scholarships in your own back yard. “Do a Google search by entering ‘scholarship’ and your ZIP code or ‘scholarship’ and your hometown’s name,” says Gant. Also check with your employer, because some companies, including The Walt Disney Co., offer scholarships for children of employees. High school guidance counselors, and even teachers, might also have information about available scholarships.

Also helpful can be online search tools, which provide lists of possible scholarships based on a profile created by the student. Among the most widely used of these sites are,,, and Kathy Ruby, director of college finance at College Coach, says she likes because the profile lets you get really specific. “You get to answer lots of different things,” she says. She also recommends an app called

When using these tools, Ruby suggests students set up a general profile first and get more specific as college application time draws nearer. “If you register on the search tools early, and create a profile in ninth grade, don’t forget to go in and revise it every few months because your GPA will change,” she says.

college scholarship

Patti Winkel, left, Pasadena-based director of counseling outreach at Collegewise, says parents might care more than kids about the scholarship search. She’s pictured here with Tara Swoboda, director of Collegewise-L.A. PHOTO BY NOOR HADDAD

Your search should also include community organizations such as:

  • chambers of commerce,
  • clubs such as Kiwanis and Rotary,
  • high school alumni organizations,
  • assistance leagues and
  • community scholarship funds.

Organizations, associations and unions offering scholarships range from the federal government and Fortune 500 firms to entertainment, law enforcement and engineers. Ruby recommends paying attention to scholarships upperclassmen at your child’s high school are getting as well.

How To Qualify

Outside scholarships can be awarded based on a number of factors. Grades and test scores, ethnicity or heritage, religion, unique talent or skill, community service, special needs and learning differences can all play a role. “Parents should sit down with their student and list all the unique things about their family and the student,” says Ruby. “This is a research project.”

L.A. mom Neda Farid, whose son Darius starts at NYU this fall, says, “While there’s a lot of money out there, our efforts were placed solely on securing as many

full-tuition scholarships from the universities as possible.” Gant adds that, as dual citizens of the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, her children were eligible for scholarships awarded by the Saudi government. “Those financial awards were contingent upon a student majoring in a limited number of fields including engineering, medicine and business,” says Gant.

college scholarship

Kathy Ruby, director of college finance at College Coach, leads a parent information session. PHOTO BY M. DIRK MACKNIGHT

Also be on the lookout for unique scholarships such as those the National Grocery Association awards to students going into grocery or food management, and the John Kitt Memorial Scholarship from the American Association of Candy Technologists. There is even a Chick and Sophie Major Memorial Scholarship Duck Calling Contest! “There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of scholarships waiting to be awarded to the right candidate. It’s key to find one that aligns with your interests and goals,” says Ruby.

Scoring Institutional Scholarships

Each college and university awards merit-based scholarships differently, depending on who they’re trying to recruit, according to Ruby.

Farid says Darius’ good grades were a major factor. “All of the big-ticket scholarships were based on academic merit,” she says. “The key to having the most options and yielding the highest number of scholarship dollars is to academically prepare with a strong transcript, supplemented with extracurriculars and a record of consistent collaborative community service.”

If your student has set her or his sights on a talent-based scholarship, preparation should begin years before college is on the horizon. For an aspiring musician, for example, participating in private music lessons, school bands, symphony orchestras and ensembles, as well as in community orchestras and nationally recognized competitions, demonstrates a seriousness, time commitment and collaboration skills that set a student apart. “The very first step in preparing a student for a talent-based scholarship is to ensure a clear and established pattern of consistency,” says Farid.

Private colleges and some public universities may not offer merit or talent-based scholarships but may still offer generous need-based scholarships. This information is often available on the school’s website. “Some colleges will be very specific about what kind of scholarships they offer to first-year students,” says Ruby. “This may be a bit of a generalization, but public universities tend to say, ‘If you have this GPA and this test score, this is what you can expect to receive.’” On the other hand, private universities and colleges might be more vague. “You must apply for admission by a certain deadline to be considered for scholarships. That’s the important piece,” says Ruby.

college scholarship

Brenda Gant, a Glendale mother of three college graduates and one current student, pictured here with son Omar Khawaja, says students should consider their scholarship search as a part-time job. PHOTO BY JEFF HUGHES

Students hoping for big scholarship dollars should also consider looking beyond the top-brand schools, and consider campuses that are less sought-after, but where an excellent education is still available.

Don’t Miss Out

Families will never know what kind of money is available for their children’s education unless they seek it out. Kulju and Ruby emphasize that completing the FAFSA is the place to start.

Many parents think they earn too much for their kids to qualify but could be pleasantly surprised. If your family income is less than $250,000, you might have a shot. And even if it is more, you likely won’t qualify for need-based aid at a private college, but you should still apply because college costs continue to climb and things could change.

The University of California has also created the Blue and Gold Promise, a financial aid program intended to expand access to the UC system. The state of California offers the CAL Grant program and the Middle Class Scholarship, and you can find information about how to apply for those at

As a general guideline, Ruby recommends what she calls the three E’s: “Start early, give it lots of effort and be exceptional.” Search close to home and online for as many scholarship opportunities as you can find based on your student’s interests, career path and talents. Check out what’s available in your community, through professional organizations and colleges and universities that interest your child. And don’t forget to fill out that FAFSA and check out need-based options as well. Good luck!

Ronna Mandel is a La Cañada-based writer and mother of one college student and one high-school student.

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