How to Get Scholarships in a Bad Economy

Six tips for getting more grants as part of your college financial aid package.

A freshman enters the admissions and financial aid building at Harvard University.

A freshman enters the admissions and financial aid building at Harvard University.

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Financial aid experts say the current economic troubles will very likely make the competition for scholarships more fierce than ever. They expect about half of all college students to receive at least a little free money to fund their education. To maximize your chances of getting aid in these tough times, experts recommend that students:

1) Be the early bird. Start applying for scholarships and lining up low-priced college options right now. "You want to make sure you are the first one in line," says Cheryl Maplethorpe, director of financial aid for the Minnesota Office of Higher Education. Many grants are awarded on a first-come-first-served basis, she notes. And many low-cost colleges are cutting off applications especially early this season. College students who haven't already filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid this year should do it as soon as possible. (High school seniors have to wait until January to apply for next fall.) You can search for nongovernmental scholarships by asking your high school counselor, your college's financial aid office, and your college's department for scholarship possibilities and advice. Many are also listed on websites like this one, scholarsite.com, or the College Board.

While there aren't many private scholarships still awarding money for this academic year, students can—and should—start applying now for private scholarships for next year, because some of the biggest and best private scholarships, such as those offered by the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation, have October deadlines. And the most popular cheap four-year schools in California, including San Diego State University and Sonoma State University, will stop taking next year's admissions applications for many types of students November 30.

2) Ask the boss. Check with the student's and parents' employers to see if they offer any kind of education or scholarship benefit.

3) Try low-cost colleges. Prepare applications (including transfer applications for students already in college) to some low-cost, in-state community colleges and public universities to provide a "financial safety school" option, says Eileen O'Leary, assistant vice president of student financial services at Stonehill College in Easton, Mass. That way, even if you don't get any free money, your bills still will be much lower.

4) Become a catch. Prepare applications to at least two (or even more, to increase your chances of setting off a scholarship bidding war) public and private schools for which you'd be a catch because of higher-than-average grades or some special skill or talent. Students whose grades or test scores are higher than the school's average have a good chance of receiving merit grants. "Put as much detail as possible into your college application," says Sandra Bartholomew, dean of enrollment management at Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vt. "Colleges have money to award for lots of nonacademic credentials" like leadership, community service, environmentalism, visual and performing arts, etc., she adds.

5) Fill out forms in January. As soon as possible in January, fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid to qualify for aid next fall. While it is easier to complete the form if the student and parent have also filed their taxes, it is better to fill out the FAFSA with estimates (which can later be corrected) early than to wait past February 1. Students hoping to attend one of the approximately 300 schools that also require the College Board's more exhaustive CSS/Financial Aid Profile application should also complete that before mid-February.

6) Appeal. Draft an appeal letter if the student has any financial difficulties not covered by the FAFSA, such as a parent's job loss or mortgage problems. The student should send letters explaining the problem (with documentation, if possible) to any target schools and private scholarship programs, financial aid officers say. The letter to schools should request a "professional judgment review."