Parents: How to help your student with their scholarship search

A parent explores 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. The resources are out there — so how do you keep your student on track to attain scholarship funds without actually doing the heavy lifting for them?

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

Don’t let them wait until senior year 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.

Do urge them to think — and look — outside the box. Encourage your student to target scholarships that align all aspects of their life: volunteerism, career interests, family heritage, religious affiliation, and even their part-time job. Draw on your own experience, too. 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.

Don’t skip the college fair. Things have changed since you went to college. College fairs are a great opportunity for you and your student to glean helpful tips. Plus, talking to financial aid counselors, admissions representatives, and even other parents can alleviate your concerns about resources for college tuition.

Do tell them to look for smaller scholarships. Less than 20,000 students a year receive a full ride to college. Even though your student may not land a single scholarship that pays for college in full, still 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. Zaiser encourages families to be proactive and make connections 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 a challenge for busy high school students. “Parents have to be invested in the process,” Zaiser says. He offers some practical time-management tips: “Set a timeline, use a calendar, and ask your student about deadlines.”

Don’t 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. Keep them up-to-date on deadlines, and offer to review their applications for errors — but only after it’s completed.

Do offer encouragement. Planning for college costs can be stressful for families. 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.”

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