In an earlier post, I mentioned my friend Katie, who is staring a $20,000 per year tuition shortfall squarely in its ugly, bloated, account-draining face. When I spoke with her and her parents about the situation, I offered that hackneyed, oft repeated (even in this blog) advice that is frequently given to students in Katie’s position: treat applying for scholarships as if it were a job. Afterwards, though, I began thinking how it is clearly one thing to talk about making a job out of the task, but – and especially for a busy high school senior – it’s a completely different thing to set about making up such a job for yourself.
Requiring some form of answer, I reflexively began doing what my educational background taught me to do: research. I took a couple swipes at the Internet, but as we all know, the Web is mostly full of us opinionated blowhards. And I do need the occasional break from the screen and keyboard, so I went to the library and began thumbing through some books on the subject (of which there are nearly as many as there are opinionated websites). In so doing, I stumbled across something that piqued my interest. In the traffic-cone orange Complete Idiot’s guide series, Ken Clark, a certified financial planner, has penned a volume on paying for college (not surprisingly entitled The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Paying for College). More interestingly though, Clark offers some tips in the book on how to formulate a “battle plan” for scholarship applications. Of the various takes on the scholarship-application-as-job model, I think that the one Clark has laid out is about the best I ran across in my digging. I’m going to share some of his suggestions here.
The first step that Clark recommends is to establish a routine for yourself. Not only will this make the application process more like the job situation that we discussed, but it will also help get you into the habit of actually sitting down and doing the work required by the job. Clark’s suggestion is that for every $1,000 of unmet need you have on an annual basis, you apply for 10 scholarships. Let’s use Katie’s case as our illustration here. She is looking at $20,000 in unmet need during her first year at Chicago Loyola. Using Clark’s formula, she needs to apply for 200 scholarships ($20,000/$1,000 = 20; 20 x 10 = 200).
Clark suggests that the applications be spread out over an entire year. However, allowing for illnesses and vacations and breaks (he’s a CFP – he’s very precise), the work should be spread out over 45 weeks. That’s all well and good, but in our scenario, we’re starting a bit late. We realistically probably only have six months in which to squeeze our 200 applications, which should take an estimated two to three hours to complete. So, Katie needs to find 400-600 hours over the next 26 weeks to fill out scholarship applications, or seven to eight applications – for a total of about 15-20 hours — each week. That’s a lot of work! Yep.
In the long run, though, especially once she starts to be rewarded for her efforts, the labor will be worth it. One way to make the routine more precise and manageable is to establish set hours and days. Use a calendar program with alerts or just a giant desk or wall calendar from Staples or Office Max to plan out application deadlines. Then pick a couple days each week to knock at some applications. Try to work on the same day(s) each week so that the routine becomes… well, routine. While Clark does use the two to three hour guideline, it is possible to come up with a handful of generic essays that can be quickly tailored to fit more than one application. These will certainly save time, but use such “canned” essays wisely: don’t waste your time and that of the selection committee’s with an essay and application that looks sloppily thrown together.
Be sure to save a copy of all the applications that you put together, and, as in Katie’s case, if you are short on time for the first year, you’ll be able to start earlier and work more efficiently for the second through fourth years – yes, they will charge you tuition for those years, too: don’t forget about them! The process should become easier with each passing year, and hopefully the money will keep rolling in, as well.
One last note: scholarship availability often differs based on your year of college. Don’t stop doing your research. Some funds that are available to you as a freshman may not be accessible during your junior year. There will also be other scholarships that you won’t be able to apply for until you declare a major or enter a program of study, usually during your last two years of college. It’ll take some effort, but the post-graduation feeling of relief from a college debt load will fell oh so nice.