How to Pay for College

Practical Financial Aid Advice for High School Seniors

by Annie Shao, age 18

    To all high school students: college applications are not the last important task of senior year. In an age when college is more expensive, financial aid is becoming more limited. Now, more than ever, it is important to be on top of your scholarship and financial aid applications.
    In many states, scholarships are becoming less common and more selective. Major federal sources of financial aid, such as Pell grants, are becoming tougher to get. Also, the number of families applying for federal aid like Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) skyrocketed during the past year. More people are going to college, so schools need more money to accommodate the growing number of students.
    Therefore, the cost of tuition is steadily rising.
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With the economic downturn, more families need financial aid. Unfortunately, the financial aid pool is shrinking, so people who apply for aid get less money than in the past.
    Although financial aid is becoming less available, it’s still extremely important to apply for it. After all, no one will give you a scholarship if you don’t let them know you need one. Remember, even if the dollar amounts are diminishing, money is money. Even a small amount helps you pay for college. File for FAFSA even if you don’t think you’ll get any money. Some colleges even require their students to file this application. You also need to file a FAFSA to qualify for federal student loans and some scholarships. It’s a good idea to apply for multiple scholarships, especially in this climate.
    You may groan and roll your eyes, and think about how terrible filling out even more applications will be. But these applications don’t have to ruin your senior year. If you plan well and know where to look for information, scholarship applications shouldn’t be a burden. Here are some tips I picked up through my experience of applying for scholarships:
•    Before you can even think of applying, you have to know where to look. A word of wisdom—applying for and receiving a scholarship should never cost you anything. This includes paying for a website to find scholarships for you. There is a multitude of free databases that are very resourceful. and The College Board provide access to millions of scholarships. Many sites like these also let users personalize their searches to narrow the scholarships to the ones they’re eligible for. Some high schools, like Memorial, even list scholarships along with their requirements and deadlines on their school website.
•    Don’t just stop at the Internet—high school counselors and teachers know about scholarships too. Also, rotary clubs, local banks, churches, jobs, and other organizations often offer scholarships.
•    The easiest scholarships for me to find were the ones that were from the schools I got into. A lot of schools will email you their scholarship applications after you apply, or once you are admitted. 
•    Keep your deadlines straight so you don’t accidentally miss a scholarship opportunity. I have found it helpful to write my deadlines in bright ink in my personal calendar. Writing something down usually helps me remember it, and with the bright ink, I’ll never miss the deadline because it pops out at me. Also, by writing out your deadlines, scheduling what you need to do to finish the applications is easier. If you’re not a paper-calendar-person, then use your phone or electronic calendar.
•    Reduce unnecessary stress by finishing your applications early. Many scholarships are awarded on a first-come, first-serve basis. Not only are you more likely to receive financial aid if you apply early, it makes your life easier. Can you imagine having to write multiple quality essays the night before a scholarship application is due? It’s never a good idea to do anything last minute, especially for something that matters so much.
•    Although it’s good to submit applications early, this should never take a toll on the quality of your work. Take as much time as you need to write strong essays, and always make sure to proofread them multiple times. After reading my essays out loud to myself, I had my teachers, parents, brother, college friends, and peers read them before I turned anything in.
•    Here’s another not-so-secret technique that many seniors discover too late—reuse your essays. If two different essay prompts are basically the same, why write an extra one? Use your previous essay as a starting point for your next essay. Colleges and scholarship committees know that students recycle essays; no one expects you to produce ten well-written pieces for each of your applications. However, don’t just copy and paste your essays; you should still reread and revise them to make sure they fit the prompt.
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    Don’t make your senior year and paying for college headaches—they really don’t have to be. As long as you keep your dates straight, and spread out your workload, scholarship applications should not be overwhelming.

[Source: USA Today]