Parents: How to help your student with their scholarship search

A parent and student explore scholarship info.

Do’s and don’ts for helping your student search for scholarships.

If your college-bound student is looking at scholarships, they’re not alone. Nearly two-thirds of college graduates receive gift aid.

“It’s free money,” says Richard Sorensen, president of Falcon Management, which runs TFS Scholarships, a database of over 7 million scholarships. “College is expensive, and scholarships provide a way to alleviate some or all of that expense. Every student should apply for scholarships.” And it’s true — the resources are out there, so how do you keep your student on track to get scholarship funds without doing the heavy lifting for them?

Empower them with these do’s and don’ts.

Don’t let them wait until senior year of high school to apply. “The earlier you start, the more informed you’ll be,” advises Greg Zaiser, vice president for enrollment at Elon University in North Carolina, and the parent of a high school senior. Ideally, high school students should start applying for scholarships during their junior year — and begin researching in their sophomore year.

As a parent, you can help your student determine where to research. Getting started can often feel confusing and overwhelming. A typical first step could be encouraging them to set up a meeting with their high school guidance department or the financial aid office of their future college. The professionals there will be able to direct your student to relevant or college-specific resources and scholarships. In addition, there are a number of great online resources available to help them fully understand what scholarships are available and how to apply for them. The Get College Ready Planning Guide, for instance, is full of financial information and guidance to help your student navigate the college planning process.

Do urge them to think — and look — outside the box. Encourage your student to search for and target scholarships that align with any aspect of their life. To help narrow down potential options, check out online scholarship databases like TFS Scholarships and the Wells Fargo Scholarship Center. These resources often have advanced filters to help identify specific scholarships your student is qualified for based on their major, school, disability, cultural background, volunteerism, etc.

You can also draw on your own experience. Your employer may offer a scholarship, especially if you work for a large company. If you served in the military, steer your student toward scholarships for dependents of veterans.

Do tell them to look for smaller scholarships. Fewer than 20,000 students a year receive a full ride to college. Since your student may not land a single scholarship that pays for college in full, encourage them to consider applying for smaller awards. A $500 scholarship may not seem like much — until it’s time to buy textbooks. “Sometimes students are looking for a $25,000 scholarship, but they can receive six $5,000 scholarships and end up with more aid,” notes Zaiser. Another plus is that there’s usually less competition for smaller awards.

Don’t act as a scholarship liaison for your student. Many scholarship applications require recommendations from a teacher, coach, or other influential adult in the student’s life. Talk with your student about which adults might be appropriate to write letters of recommendation, but don’t reach out for them. Let them make the request and champion that relationship.

The same holds for other connections in the scholarship search. Zaiser encourages families to be proactive and work with a college’s scholarship office. But take note: your student should be reaching out, not you. “We love it when students approach us with specific questions,” he says. “It’s perfectly fine for them to ask, ‘What is the cost of attending your college and what kind of scholarships are available?’”

Do remind them about deadlines. Scholarship criteria and deadlines vary, which can make staying on task and on schedule a challenge for busy high school students. “Scholarships are easy to put off, until the deadline is right on you,” says Sorensen. “Parents can really help their kids stay on track by helping them track everything that is required for each application, setting a schedule to get everything completed, and sticking to it.” This could be something like committing to four hours a week of searching and applying.

Even though it’s their responsibility to get all the components of the applications together, you can help by offering some friendly reminders along the way — for instance, encouraging them to ask for the recommendation well in advance of when they’ll need it or suggesting they send a polite reminder to their references several days ahead of that deadline just to make sure everything is on track.

Don’t ever complete their applications or essays for them. Your student needs to write their own essays and fill out their own applications. If they’re struggling with the essay and turn to you for help, “tell them to write it, walk away from it, then revisit it with fresh eyes,” Zaiser says.

You can act as quality control, however. Common mistakes like not adhering to a specific word count or forgetting to proofread an essay could lead to your student’s application being ineligible. Offer to check their work for errors before they hit send.

Do offer encouragement. Zaiser offers parents this reminder: “For most students, college is the most major decision they’ve made at this point in their lives,” he says. “One of the best things you can do is recognize the enormity of the stress and be supportive.”

While the work of applying for scholarships will fall on your student, Sorensen says if they’re diligent, the hard work will pay off. “Apply for as many scholarships as possible,” he says. “It’s a numbers game. The more you apply for, the better chance you have to win. It’s not something you do once or twice. It’s a continual process that you do week after week.” As their parent, provide encouragement as they work through their applications. After all, it’s their time to shine!

A good place to start your scholarship search is with our Scholarship Resource Center, providing access to billions of dollars of scholarships.

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