THE BLOG
01/11/2013 04:55 pm ET Updated Mar 13, 2013

Why a $500 Scholarship Is a Big Deal

A recent column discussed the basics of paying for college, and included a brief mention of private scholarships. Parents see these scholarships as part of the "millions of dollars" in scholarship money that goes unclaimed, while students see them as a long shot that isn't worth their time; after all, if a scholarship is posted on a national Web site, aren't thousands of people applying?

The truth is somewhere in the middle of your own backyard. A nationally-advertised scholarship is likely to get thousands of applicants -- then again, someone has to receive it, and the only way that someone is you is if you apply. At the same time, there are scholarships with very reasonable application requirements that go unclaimed; it's just that these scholarships are more likely to be promoted through your high school, not on a national Internet site.

And there's the challenge. The Kiwanis Club isn't going to post their local scholarship for all the world to see on the Web, so the announcement is sent to your school counselor, who puts it in a newsletter that's sent home (that you don't read) and posted on a scholarship bulletin board in the high school (which your senior doesn't read). Multiply that one missed $500 scholarship by 37,000 high schools, and there's your millions of unclaimed dollars -- and we haven't even talked about the scholarships from the Rotary Club, The DAR, and the Moose lodge.

But wait -- it gets worse. Now that you know to look at the newsletter (or the school counseling Web site), you share this exciting scholarship news with your senior at the dinner table, who greets this opportunity for free college money with a response that includes a grunt, a request to pass the potatoes, and the phrase that makes you feel like a failed parent:

"$500? Big deal."

It's easy to understand why your child feels this way. With all of the stories about the high cost of college, $500 wouldn't seem to make that much of a difference. In addition, your senior may not scour the school's financial aid bulletin board, but they are savvy enough to realize a scholarship requires a new essay, since they probably can't recycle one of their college application essays to ask for college cash. More essays? In January? Please.

It's also easy to understand why your child may feel this way if they don't understand what $500 really means -- so that's where you begin.

"Oh, I don't know. $500 is a school year's worth of pizza, or a quarter of what a good summer job will pay -- or your book bill for a semester."

"Book bill? But aren't you paying for that?"

And now that you have their attention...

"Besides, the theme of the essay is community service, and you've done a lot of that."

"Yeah."

"And that's also the theme of the essay for the Elks Club, and the Kiwanis Club, and the Knights of Columbus. That's $2,000 in scholarships, with one essay."

"Yeah?"

"It's also the essay topic for these 12 national scholarships worth $48,000. And since you've already written the essay..."

"Yeah! I'll get started right now!"

"What? No dessert?"

It's easy to get lost in the numbers of the college and scholarship application process, and forget the life lessons that dwell beyond the data. Just like a paycheck, a college scholarship is not an end unto itself, but a story that is lived $500 at a time. It's never too late to show your child how to cherish the writing of each chapter -- especially if that chapter is one more essay.

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