In 1934, Henry James wrote in A Backward Glance, "Summer afternoon—summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language." Few would probably argue with James, and hopefully you'll get to take advantage of some lazy summer afternoons relaxing with friends and lounging by the pool. While you're there, we also advise you to think about college—specifically, how to pay for it. No matter how far along you are in high school, you have some important tasks to do, and summer is the perfect time to get started.
If you're going into your sophomore year: You're most likely more concerned with catching up on sleep this summer than thinking about paying for college. We know high school graduation seems like a long way off, but this summer would be a great time to sit down with your parents to discuss how you'll be paying for college. Do they have some money set aside that will help offset the cost? Do they plan on taking out PLUS loans? Or do they expect you to foot most of the bill? No matter what, accept what they say with gratitude and realize that your parents are doing the best they can with what they have.
[Learn more about different kinds of student loans.]
Regardless of your parents' contribution, chances are they'll want you to take part in the discussions about financing your education. With college tuition more expensive than ever, more than likely they'll throw the word "scholarships" out there several times over the next three years. We know it seems early to start searching for free money for college, and you do have plenty of time, but if you're eyeing one of the more prestigious scholarships, you'll need to start researching what you need to do in order to qualify. Many of these scholarships require big projects, and all of them require outstanding grades.
Even if you're not shooting for the most distinguished scholarships, scholarship programs and admissions offices are going to take a good look at what activities you participated in during high school. Now's the time to pick a few things that sound interesting, be it trying out for the football team, auditioning for the school play, or running for student council. Some of these activities will begin before the school year starts, so you'll want to plan accordingly.
If you're going into your junior year: College may still feel far away, but there's definitely truth to the old saying, "the early bird gets the worm." This summer, set aside some time to evaluate the last couple years of high school. Did you participate in some interesting activities? Were your grades up to par for what colleges and scholarships are looking for? It's definitely not too late to start cracking open the books and applying yourself. When you decide to start applying for colleges and scholarships, you'll be very glad you did.
This summer would also be an excellent time to get a job, if you don't have one already. Employment teaches us some great lessons about time management, the value of money, and the importance of hard work. Admissions offices and scholarship evaluators look favorably on students who have evidence that they can hold down a job. And if you're expected to pay for part or all of your college tuition, you'll be grateful for every penny you have saved.
Having some volunteer experience under your belt is also ideal when it comes time to start filling out applications.
If you're going into your senior year: You'll probably be using this summer to research colleges—you may even be touring a few college campuses. Before embarking on a cross-country college road trip with your parents, make a list of all the questions you want to ask while you're there.
When you visit the financial aid office, take note of the different scholarships it offers. Are there merit-based scholarships, such as music or athletic scholarships? How many are available? What is the value of these awards? Also, what is the college's policy toward outside scholarships? If you bring in outside scholarships, many colleges will subtract the value of that scholarship from your overall financial aid package, but some will subtract it from your student loan first, which is ideal.
[Avoid these assumptions about college financial aid.]
This is also the time to buckle down and really start researching and applying for scholarships. Before the school year ends, visit the counseling office at your high school to learn about scholarship opportunities in your community. Ask your local community foundation or Dollars for Scholars chapter about scholarship opportunities. And finally, turn to the Internet: Search engines such as Fastweb.com, Scholarships.com, Zinch.com, and Google are great places to get started.
No matter how far away high school graduation seems, it's never too early to start thinking about scholarships. Get started with your scholarship search as soon as possible, and regularly check The Scholarship Coach for scholarship opportunities and advice. Upon graduation, you'll be glad you did.
Michelle Showalter joined Scholarship America in 2007 and is an alumna of Luther College in Decorah, Iowa.