7 Things You Need to Know About Private Scholarships

Learn the realities of competing for private college scholarships.

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Winning private college scholarships can certainly help make college more affordable, but you need to know the realities of competing for college cash. A handy resource to turn to is a new book, Secrets to Winning a Scholarship, by Mark Kantrowitz, the publisher of Fastweb, a popular scholarship search engine.

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Before you start hunting for private scholarships, here are seven facts about these awards that you need to know:

1. Private scholarships don't represent the biggest source of college cash. I suspect most families believe that private scholarships, which students can earn from organizations like the Rotary Club or by creating a clever prom outfit out of duct tape, is where most of the money for college is hiding. Not true. The biggest source of scholarships and grants is the federal government and then the colleges themselves. Private scholarships represent the puniest source.

Here is the breakdown of sources of college grants: federal government (44 percent), colleges (36 percent), state governments (9 percent), employers (7 percent), and private scholarships (4 percent).

2. Full-ride scholarships are extremely rare. While many parents dream that their children will receive full-ride scholarships, they should definitely not count on it. There are less than 250 private scholarships that provide enough money to pay for all college costs. Among full-time college students, a mere .3 percent receive a full ride to college from any sources.

3. Scholarships can reduce your financial aid award. If a teen wins a private scholarship, the college could shrink his or her financial aid package by the amount of the award. So if a child wins a $3,000 scholarship, the college could cut the aid package by $3,000. Why is a student penalized for winning a private scholarship? Federal rules require that a college consider outside scholarships when calculating a financial aid package. Ideally you'd want the college to reduce the loan portion of a student's financial aid award and not grant money. You need to ask schools about their policies.

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4. You should apply to less popular scholarships. Many students, according to Kantrowitz, don't want to apply for scholarships that are worth less than $1,000, but these scholarships can be easier to win. Students also tend to dismiss competitions requiring the submission of art, poetry, or writing.

5. Some majors are more lucrative than others. Students who major in a STEM field (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) are more likely to win a scholarship, Kantrowitz says. In one survey, 23.2 percent of math/statistics majors and 17.6 percent of engineering students earned a scholarship, while only 9.5 percent of business majors won one.

6. You'll have better luck with local scholarships. There can be less competition for local scholarships. Ask your guidance counselor about local scholarships and also check out the jobs and career section of your local library. You need to do the footwork because some local scholarship sponsors don't want their listings in the national scholarship databases.

[Find scholarships in your own backyard.]

7. Do some volunteer work to increase your chances. Many scholarship providers include a requirement that recipients be engaged in volunteer activities. Sponsors would rather see a student who sticks with one volunteer activity for a long time than one who hops around to various charities.