How College Scholarships Can 'Show You the Money'

Say it again, Tom:  Show Me the Money!

In the 1990s movie "Jerry Maguire," a temperamental pro athlete demands that his agent, played by Tom Cruise, repeatedly shout out four simple words: "Show me the money!" And back in 1994, when I was a college-bound high school junior, it seemed as if every college I hoped to attend bellowed a similar demand: "Let's see the cash… No dough, no go!"

I was caught in the classic middle-income financial-aid crunch. It's a dilemma many families face when their income and assets are too high to qualify for substantial need-based grants, but not high enough to pay tuition bills comfortably. The obvious options: take on piles of debt or settle for a much cheaper school.

Fortunately, I stumbled upon a third way: Over the course of my senior year in high school, I applied for three dozen scholarship awards. With a healthy dose of determination, some dogged detective work and more than a little elbow grease, my efforts paid off. When the dust settled, I had accumulated more than two dozen scholarships worth $90,000--funds I could use at any school I chose.

These days, I answer thousands of questions on the topic. Here are answers to four of the most frequently asked questions. Paying for college may be a challenging game, but it’s a whole lot easier if you understand the rules.

Are scholarships only for exceptional students?

Many students mistakenly assume that they must have sky-high GPAs or amazing SAT scores to win merit scholarships. Although some scholarships use grades and test scores to evaluate merit, others use criteria such as extracurricular activity participation, leadership ability, community service involvement, artistic talent, special interests or hobbies, obstacles overcome, unique personal characteristics, family affiliations and much more.

Furthermore, when grades do become a factor, some scholarship programs only require that applicants meet a minimum grade-point average (such as a 2.5 GPA). As long as an applicant meets that minimum bar, his or her academic performance isn’t considered at all. The bottom line is that contrary to popular belief, "merit" is not another word for "academics."

When should I begin looking for scholarships?

For many students, the process begins during the junior and senior years of high school. The earlier you can start, the better.

Some students may want to start searching for scholarships as early as seventh or eighth grade because of the many learning programs and contests for younger kids that include scholarship awards (often in the form of a cash prize or U.S. savings bond).

But it's never too late to get in the scholarship game. Once students select their academic majors and potential career paths in college, a wide range of corporations, foundations, professional associations and community groups likely offer scholarships in those specific fields. Several parents I have interviewed not only helped their kids earn college cash, but also helped themselves win scholarships to go back to school.

How can I find scholarships on the Internet?

A nice way to get your feet wet is with free Internet scholarship search databases. You fill out questionnaires and these databases match you up with scholarships that fit your personal characteristics.

Just one big piece of advice--none of these databases are comprehensive, so search as many as you can.  For tips and advice on how to use each of the top scholarship databases, check out my Scholarship Super Camp.

Is it really worth all of the work?

Back when I was a high school student, I didn't fully appreciate how expensive college was and how excessive student loan debt could impact my life choices for much longer than just the typical four years in school.

Now I realize that for every dollar of scholarship money you receive, you can potentially save more than two dollars in student loan principal and compounded interest. Better yet, by avoiding substantial student debt, you will open up a wide range of exciting opportunities and possibilities when you graduate.

For example, if you might like to travel abroad after college, or finally take that garage band of yours to the big-time, such dreams are much more viable if you don't already have excessive loans weighing them down. The same is true for taking a job that may not pay well up front, but is closer to what you love.

In the final tally, it's a simple equation: More scholarships = less debt = greater freedom. That's powerful motivation, to say the least.

Ben Kaplan's picture

A Very Brief Biography

Ben Kaplan is one of the nation's leading experts on college admissions, scholarships, financial aid, educational savings and investing, student success, and youth personal empowerment issues.

He serves as the "mayor" of the City of College Dreams and has authored 12 best-selling books and CDs, including his new instructional DVD, "Finding College Cash in Tough Times."