or the high-school senior, choosing one college out of thousands is a formidable task. More overwhelming is hunting for scholarships and grants among the hundreds of thousands available each year from private businesses, individuals, and colleges. Where do you begin? And how can you boost your chances of snaring some of that money?

Start your search early. Students often don't give college much thought until their last two years of high school. "But we think you should look at scholarships and grants much earlier than that," says Richard Flaherty, president of College Parents of America, an advocacy organization in Washington, D.C.

That's because what you do throughout high school may bear on scholarship and grant eligibility later. The point is not to shape your high-school experiences around a campaign to win money for college. But whatever interests you choose to pursue during high school—in academics, extracurricular activities, community involvement, or athletics—can make you eligible for certain scholarships and grants. "If you don't find that out until your junior or senior year of high school," Flaherty points out, "you may not qualify because you didn't know" what qualifications and experiences you'd need.

"The downside," Flaherty adds, "is that you'll have to monitor the scholarships and grants (you set your sights on) because these come and go." Below we'll look at sources that will help you keep up-to-date. But before you start scouring sources, you need to take another step first.

Where to search

Scholarship scams

Bet on that "sure-thing"
scholarship and you may
miss deadlines for
legitimate aid applications.
Know yourself
Poring through huge listings of scholarships and grants can be disheartening and a waste of time—unless you do some self-assessment first. That will help you zero in on awards you have the best chances of winning. You even may want to write a personal profile, looking at factors such as:
  • Your intended major—Locking into a career choice at age 14 or 15 may not be right for you. But if you already do have strong leanings as to the work you want to pursue someday, that may steer you to scholarship/grant prospects designated for students in certain fields of study.

  • Your interests—Even if you don't know yet what your life's work will be, assess where your interests lie now. Look not only at academic areas, but also at what you like to do in your free time, what sorts of volunteer work you enjoy, the talents you have, and so on.

  • Your family background—Some scholarships and grants target people belonging to specified ethnic, racial, or religious groups, or living in certain geographic areas. Your parents' membership in civic organizations or unions may make you eligible for some scholarships and grants. Or awards may be available to you through your parents' workplaces.

Where to search
The World Wide Web has a wealth of scholarship/grant information you can obtain free. Key sites include:

Even though the Internet is jammed with scholarship/grant information, Flaherty recommends not relying on it alone. "A more comprehensive approach," he says, "would include a trip to the [school] guidance office or the library—not only for the publications located there, but to get input from the guidance counselor and the librarian. They will have insights as to how to begin your search to meet your needs." Your counselor or librarian also may know about local scholarship/grant sources—civic groups, churches, businesses, individuals—not found on the Web.
     A self-assessment will
     help you zero in on
     awards you have
     the best chances
     of winning.

Remember that
your credit union
has loans to
fill the gap

that scholarships
and grants won't.
What about search services?
By visiting the Internet, your guidance office, and your library, "You'll find more information about scholarships and grants that meet your criteria," Flaherty contends, "than any scholarship search service could find for you."

The search services he refers to have proliferated in recent years. As college costs keep soaring, more students and their parents clamor for financial assistance—and feel tempted to pay someone to help them find it. Some scholarship search services are legitimate, some aren't (see "Scholarship Scams" for points on spotting the frauds).

Flaherty recommends using a reputable search service only if "you're intimidated by the process," he says, "or you have no research capability whatsoever." Otherwise, you can do the same searching yourself for free. If you do use a service, ask for names of people in your area who've used the service in the past. Talk to those people directly, rather than relying on customer testimonials the service provides.

Bear in mind that even if you hire a search service, plenty of the work still will fall on you. Only you know all your qualifications and interests. Only you can fill out the application forms with the pertinent information. "All the service will do is identify programs for you," Flaherty notes. "But you're going to have to do some extensive work up front and to apply for the grant or scholarship."

Scholarship scams
A postcard arrives in the mail promising to find you a college scholarship or grant, if you pay a fee. Should you bite? The Federal Trade Commission in Washington, D.C., and the College Parents of America cite these warning signals that a scholarship search service may be a fraud:

  • "The scholarship is guaranteed or your money back." No one can guarantee you'll get a scholarship or grant—period.

  • "You can't get this information anywhere else." The search service looks in the same sources you can search yourself.

  • "I just need your credit card or bank account number to hold this scholarship." A telltale sign of a scam aimed at tapping into your accounts.

  • "We'll do all the work." They can't. You still have to fill out the application forms.

  • "The scholarship will cost some money." A scholarship is supposed to be free money, remember?

  • "You've been selected by a national foundation to receive a scholarship" or "You're a finalist" in a contest you never entered. Too good to be true? It is. No legitimate scholarship or grant falls into your lap that easily. They're probably asking you to send money, too, to claim your award. Beware.
If a service is a scam, using one can hurt you in more ways than one. Not only are you out the fee—usually a few hundred dollars—but search services may talk you into waiting to apply for other kinds of financial aid. If you do that, betting on that "sure-thing" scholarship you've been promised, you may miss the deadlines for legitimate financial aid applications.

©1999 Credit Union National Association Inc.