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The Great Scholarship Hunt: How to Save $40K on College

02/17/2015 08:05 pm ET | Updated Apr 19, 2015

"There are tons of college scholarships out there. You just have to find them."

I've heard this mantra more times than I can count -- and as a former high school English teacher, I used to repeat it sagely to scores of 11th-graders.

But I must admit: For all the head-nodding that parents and teachers do when this conventional wisdom is uttered, it's begun to ring a little hollow for me. You see, with Daughter #3 now in her 11th-grade year, I'm taking stock and examining some assumptions that didn't exactly prove true for Daughters #1 and #2 during their college and scholarship searches.

And recently, I had a big realization: In 27 years of teaching and parenting, I've never actually met a student who's received more than $3,000 of assistance from writing a bunch of time-sucking essays.

So, I set out on a mission: Find the most effective strategy for an 11th-grader to rack up serious merit-based scholarship dollars. My guiding question was, how can a good student vie for the best possible combination of merit-based awards -- within a realistic commitment of time?

After reading many conflicting articles, I reached out to an independent college admissions consultant to clear up some of the confusion. Enter Dr. Jennifer Bernstein, president and founder of the New York-based consulting firm, Get Yourself Into College, Inc.

The Big Myth of Big Scholarship Books

My first priority? To identify (and bust) any major merit scholarship myths.

So, I asked Dr. Bernstein about the books. You've seen them -- those giant tomes on bookstore reference sections that promise the complete, ultimate list of little-known scholarship opportunities. The ones that whisper to parents that gold nuggets are waiting to be unearthed -- if your teenager would just agree to spend every weekend writing scholarship essays about civic duties, volunteering, garden compost and world peace.

According to Bernstein, investing in one of those scholarship encyclopedias (or searching online through scholarship directories) is the biggest mistake parents make. These contests demand huge time commitments from students -- but the potential return on investment is low.

"It's overwhelming," she maintains. "And, many of these awards are only for one year."

Myth officially busted. My daughter will not spend her senior-year Saturdays writing five-paragraph essays on flower arranging for the Garden Club.

Shifting the Focus to Schools

It's common sense, really. The smartest way to start looking for free money -- especially for a strong student -- is to comb through the websites of a range of colleges, gathering as much information as you can find on their merit-based awards.

Consider the relative insignificance of scouting out that $500 Garden Club contest in light of the bigger research imperative: Which private colleges might slash my annual tuition bill by $10,000 each year for the next four years (a very realistic goal, according to Bernstein) -- just to get my kid to attend?

The best time to start is in the 10th grade year, Bernstein says. And she advises researching far more than just the school's record of awarding merit scholarships. Equally important are the profiles of the past winners. What are these people like? And what disciplines or accomplishments will make your student an equally strong -- or stronger -- candidate?

And the payoff for families goes beyond just the potential for scholarship grants, Bernstein reminds. The time of researching and discussing scholarship opportunities gives parents and students the chance "to come together, in meaningful, exciting discussions that help them transition into the next phase of their relationship."

She's right, of course -- and it's a good perspective check.

But What About Getting More Money?

While it's great to get a $10,000 discount on tuition, that amount may still equate only to about 20 to 30 percent of the annual costs of a private college. As I do the math, the preachy English teacher in me starts itching to bring up essay contests again. I mean, maybe if I get my daughter to read Atlas Shrugged on her spring break, she'll be all primed and ready to win the $20,000 Ayn Rand Society grand prize scholarship...

But then again, maybe she won't dazzle the judges with her answer to the question, "Who is John Galt?" And all things considered, wouldn't it be better just to win good old-fashioned prize money than to get funds that'll go directly to a college bursar's office?

Bernstein offers an emphatic yes.

"Most of my students don't apply for essay competitions that are directly tied to scholarships," she explains. "Instead, they focus on general essay competitions and getting their writing published." She recommends publishing venues that range from the Teen Ink journal to local newspapers. As for contests, The Atlantic & College Board Writing Prize awards $2,500 to $5,000 -- and the JFK Profile in Courage Essay Contest awards prizes of up to $10,000.

Essay contests that are not tied to scholarships give students maximum flexibility for handling college expenses. But they do more than that: They signal to college admissions officers that this is a student worthy of publication and national recognition. This type of prize not only increases chances of acceptance to top colleges -- it also ups the likelihood of merit-based awards.

I think I have perhaps discovered the key to enlightened scholarship hunting. The optimal approach to large merit-based grants, it seems, lies in a well-timed combination of two key efforts:

  1. Ferret out the best school-based awards.
  2. Compete for a carefully chosen handful of national recognition, prize and publication opportunities.

Final thoughts

In the end, private colleges are competing against the lure of in-state tuitions. And good students have plenty of merit-based options that don't require them to become part-time essay writers. The strategic part involves planning ahead, being a smart college researcher and helping students learn to write strong, original essays.

The rest is on your kid -- to become the kind of leader, thinker and doer that admissions counselors just can't resist.

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