Really Free Money: Strategies for Scholarships

teenage student giving thumb up while using laptop

If you’re like most college students, your financial aid package is a mixture of loans, grants, work study, and scholarships. And if you’re like many of your peers, you may be pretty vague about the details of your package. No question about it, college financing is confusing; that’s why colleges and universities employ experienced professionals to staff their financial aid offices.

But even if you avoid financial details, here’s one principle you need to remember: you want to borrow as little money as possible. You’ll have to pay back loans, whereas you won’t have to pay back scholarships and grants. Therefore, you want to apply for as many scholarships and grants you can.

Unfortunately, many students don’t bother applying for scholarships. Often, they assume they won’t qualify; sometimes, they think the application process isn’t worth the award. Above all, they’re simply unaware of the breadth of scholarships available. The fact is, if you’re a college student in decent academic standing, you qualify for scholarships! Here are some tips to maximize your scholarship earnings:

Get Creative – and Confident. Devote time to researching possible scholarships. There are scholarships for academic excellence, of course, but also for students from certain backgrounds or geographic areas, cancer survivors or their family members, and individuals with specific career goals or interests. Start by applying for the Returning Student Scholarship at Castleton (due March 4th). Next, look at resources in your community: businesses and service clubs, such as the Rotary or Lions Club, often offer scholarships. VSAC maintains a database of scholarships for Vermont residents (also due March 4th). Finally, check out Fastweb, College Board, and Finaid.org to search for scholarships. On Fastweb and other sites, you may have to spend some time filling out questionnaires to be matched with scholarships; however, your effort could be worth hundreds – or even thousands – of dollars.

Get Organized. Make checklist of all of the items you’ll need – essays, letters of recommendation, transcripts, etc. – to apply for each scholarship. (You’re applying for than one, naturally.) Include the scholarship’s deadline at the top of the checklist. You may even want to maintain a folder for each application.

Get Deadlines. Remember: the deadline is the absolute latest date you can apply. Play it safe, and make sure your application materials are ready at least a week in advance.

Get Help. If you have any questions about any aspect of your scholarships applications, check in with a faculty member or any of the counselors at Academic Support. We can also assist you with scholarship essays. Whether you need help getting started or want someone to review your draft, you can visit the Writing Clinic or schedule an appointment with Bill Wiles, our Writing Specialist. Call 468-1347 or stop by to schedule an appointment.

Like college itself, applying for scholarships takes time, effort, and organization. Expect to devote several hours to each scholarship application. Although you may prefer to use your free time to relax or socialize, think of your scholarship search as a part-time job: one that will help you on your journey to your ultimate goal. Now, that’s exciting!

Good luck and don’t forget to stop by with questions!

-Dorothy A. Dahm

Majors and Minds: Should You Change Yours?

confused1Maybe you always wanted to be a teacher. You enjoyed your time in elementary school, and you love babysitting, right? But then you got to college, took your first education course, and discovered the field is not for you. You still want to work with children, but you’ve decided to pursue social work instead.

Or maybe you came to college because of the nursing program. Your parents encouraged you to become a nurse: that way, you’d always have a job. But you’re really enjoying your psychology course: you actually look forward to doing homework. You’re thinking of becoming a counselor and switching majors – if your parents don’t explode, that is. Then there’s your friend who started off as an exercise science major, but wants to enter the nursing program.

If this sounds like you, you’re not alone. Studies suggest between 60 and 80% of undergraduates change their major at least once. Sometimes, this results in a happier, more successful student: if you love what you’re doing, you’ll be motivated to work hard and reach your goals. But a switch can also add years – and debt – to your college career.

Here are some questions to ask yourself before you change your major:

  • How much time and money would a change cost? Figure out exactly what classes you would have to take to complete a degree in your new field. On the VSC Portal, under Web Services, select Student Academic Planning and then Program Evaluation. This tool allows you see what classes you would need to take to meet that major’s requirements. Your current adviser, a professor in your new field, or any of us at Academic Support can help you figure out how much time your new program would take. Adding semesters or even years to your education isn’t necessarily a bad idea, but seeing exactly what is required can help you decide if the change is worth it to you.
  • How closely are your major and career goals aligned? Without a nursing degree, you can’t become a nurse. However, many liberal arts graduates find themselves in fields unrelated to their college major. For example, English majors work in finance and law enforcement, art history majors in human services, philosophy majors in broadcast journalism, and theatre majors in business management. Employers are often more interested in transferable skills –ability to work independently and with others, time management, writing, and verbal communication – than they are in your precise degree. If you have a career goals that doesn’t coincide with your present major, you may not have to change your academic program. However, you should definitely pursue internships and work experience in your chosen field.
  • Would a minor work just as well? Perhaps you’ve discovered a passion for art, biology, or Spanish. That’s wonderful; finding new interests is an important part of college life. You may want to change your major, add a second major, or select a minor. Think carefully before you make this decision: do you love this new discipline enough to fulfill the major requirements? Would taking several courses to complete a minor be enough to satisfy your curiosity?
  • Does the new major make you more excited about your education? If the answer is an emphatic “Yes,” then switching majors – or adding a new one – is a good idea. College, unlike high school, is not compulsory. You are not here because you have to be. You are here to study a discipline that fascinates you or prepare for an exciting career. Higher education is a privilege, and it should be enjoyable.

 Only you can answer these questions. But just make sure you weigh your options carefully – and start every new path with a whole heart.

– Dorothy A. Dahm