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SPOTLIGHT

Five things your students should know about online scholarship searches and applications


There's little question that the digital age has democratized knowledge. These days, answering a question that once would have required extensive study and research may involve little more than a few clicks. Barriers to knowledge — including distance, expense, and institutional gatekeepers — have in many cases been made obsolete. That's an undeniable upside to the digital age. There is, however, a complementary downside: the sheer quantity of information may make it hard to digest. Data without context can be confusing. As technology historian George Dyson notes, "Information is cheap, but meaning is expensive."

As applied to the world of scholarships, those two facts — we have improved access to data, but we may not understand what it means — translate to a reality in which it is easier than ever for students to find out about scholarships for which they may be eligible, but data saturation may keep them from making good use of available resources. This article aims to help you give your students a little more sense of the forest rather than the trees.

Applying for scholarships isn't the same thing as filling out the FAFSA

When it comes to financial aid, filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is generally step one. Why? Because that one step sets students on the path to gaining federal and state aid. That's all great, but students may not understand that it's still a good idea for them to do a scholarship search. They'll have heard that FAFSA completion will get them considered for all kinds of aid, and may not have fully digested that most scholarships require students to apply for them individually (rather than filling out one over-arching financial aid application). In practical terms, they may need a nudge to understand that it's a good idea to do a search, select some scholarships which are a good match, and apply as directed.

Think "free" not "fee"

There are a number of scholarship search services available for a fee. Students pay money, and the service matches them with scholarships for which they may be eligible. Thinking that the for-fee service must be more tailored to their needs than a free website, students may think the services offer a good value. However, some of these fee-based sites may be scams, and several of the free sites are excellent. These sites have databases that are regularly updated with new scholarships and/or any changes to application processes or criteria. Besides TG's scholarship search engine on its Adventures In Education (AIE™) website, (www.AIE.org/scholarships/), other free and available search engines are provided by:

Scholarships have varied criteria

For many students, the negative voice in their heads will immediately begin squelching enthusiasm, shouting out gloomy pronouncements like "But I'm not a straight-A student!" "But I'm not an outstanding athlete or artist!" Part of your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to shine a light through the gloomy fog, reiterating to students that scholarships have varied criteria. Ranging from unique interests to where one lives to family background to none of the above, scholarships are available to a wide range of people, not just star athletes and exceptional scholars. It's in your students' interest to conduct a search and not dismiss their chances without trying.

Cutting and pasting may not be the best approach

Filling out applications isn't a favorite activity for many people. It follows, as night follows day, that students may be tempted to cut and paste a lot of text from one application into another application. This is not the best idea. Why not? Remind them how the criteria are varied! That means that when a student is applying, it is poor audience adaptation to use the same answers for different scholarships provided by different donors who are looking for different things. Explain to your students that while they should not misrepresent themselves, it is okay — advisable, in fact — to target answers to the kinds of qualities that best show how the student matches the given criteria.

Not every scholarship is listed in every database

Some scholarships may be new and therefore may not be in every database. Some scholarship information may only be available through a college's website, or through a local civic organization or other group. Some applications may be offline only. The point here is that it's worth checking multiple sources rather than to do one search in one database. Your students will benefit from checking with you, of course; that would be ideal. Short of that, you may want to broadly communicate that using one or more of the online search databases mentioned above is advisable, or that students can check your school's website for information about institutional aid. A little persistence and determination may lead them to an excellent funding source in realizing their college and career dreams.

In many ways, technology makes this a great time to be a student. Compared to their parents' generation, students today have an abundance of easily available information about funding sources. With your guidance, they can convert that information into meaningful knowledge on which they can act.