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Get Ready for FAFSA Season!Guest Contributor
By Paige Buttels
When it comes to scholarships, your high school junior can never start the search too early. It's a great idea to help them put a plan in place now, especially if the pandemic has left them with extra time in their schedule. But they could also start the process this summer when they have more downtime.
Their scholarship plan should include a calendar where they can set reminders about starting tasks and alerts for due dates. Alerts on a smart phone or even an old-fashioned paper calendar can work — especially if it’s connected with a parent or mentor who can provide a verbal reminder.
Spring of junior year is an ideal time for school counselors to educate students and their families about options for scholarships and give them tools to start their research.
It’s also a good time for students to assess where their energy and time can best be spent. They may not be aware that scholarships and merit aid offered by colleges are often larger than outside scholarships and easier to get than a national $2,000 scholarship that might have thousands of applicants.
You can help your student figure out how much time they have to spend applying for scholarships and set priorities. And make sure they avoid potential scams by NEVER paying a fee to apply for a scholarship.
Ideally, by late spring or early summer, students have fine-tuned the list of colleges and universities they plan to apply to and can start their research there.
You can help your student get started by providing links to scholarship information (if available) for some in-state public and private colleges. Remind them that, if they can’t find the information they’re looking for on the website, they can contact the school’s admissions office.
Students should look for whether they are automatically considered for scholarships when they apply to the school or whether they need to fill out any additional applications. They should also check to see if the schools have set guidelines on what GPA and test score a student needs to receive merit aid. They might be surprised to see that simply bumping up an ACT or SAT test score can result in thousands of dollars more in grant money. They should make plans to retake a test if they are only a point or two away from a scholarship threshold.
Next, your student can explore other scholarship options. I recommend they start with the Naviance website. The bulk of the scholarships are added during the winter and spring months, but it’s still a good idea for them to familiarize themselves with the site.
After that, they should check to see if any local foundations, businesses or civic groups, or any religious groups or community organizations they belong to, provide scholarships. They should also find out if there are scholarships available through a parent’s workplace.
Finally, they should look at national scholarships, focusing on professional associations within a specific field of study or scholarship opportunities that support specific ethnicities or unique background situations, such as students with an incarcerated parent or in the foster care system. To get them started, look at online platforms such as JLV College Counseling, College Greenlight (focused on scholarships for first generation and underrepresented students), FASTaid, Cappex, Peterson's and Going Merry.
Even if an essay prompt for a particular scholarship changes from year to year, students can still be ahead of the game if they do a little prep. Encourage them to organize their thoughts around some particular questions. What are some accomplishments they can point to? What is an obstacle they have overcome? What are their career goals? Why do they want to attend a particular college? How have they demonstrated leadership? If they were writing a recommendation letter for themselves, what points would they emphasize? What have they done that shows their interest in the field they want to study?
Students and their families should know that students can submit the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) beginning October 1. While scholarships are nice, need-based aid is going to make up the bulk of the money many students receive — and most schools require the FAFSA in order to allocate merit aid, too.
The FAFSA asks for financial and tax information for both students and their parents or guardians, so it's something you'll be doing together. Put October 1st in your calendars — and maybe this will be their chance to nag you for once.
No amount of preparation will matter if a student misses a key deadline. Encourage your student to start a spreadsheet where they can track scholarship information and important dates. Besides due dates, they should also be setting alerts for when scholarship opportunities are typically posted.
Finally, make sure you and your student are realistic. It’s the rare student who finances their entire college education through scholarship money. Encourage them to apply for scholarships but remind them that it shouldn’t be a full-time job. Still, if they carve out a bit of time this spring and summer to prepare for scholarship applications, once the school year starts, they’ll have one less thing to worry about their senior year.