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How to get college scholarships

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By Ken Begley

“An ounce of sweat will save a gallon of blood.”

General George Patton

The same quote can be used for college scholarships.  Work hard in high school and prevent paying off college student loans for decades to come.

Let me stop you right here.

If you’re a high school senior, or the parents of a high school senior, and are just now thinking about college scholarships, then you are going to be sorely disappointed in the rest of this column.  

I’m sorry, but this column is really focused on the parents of eighth-grade students entering high school.  A truly successful plan of attack in getting college scholarships begins there.

I’m not kidding.

My eldest is graduating this year from high school, and I could write 500 pages on scholarships and what I’ve learned over the past year and a half in applying for them.  This column will be a down and dirty version.

The bad part is, I spent three years as a director of student financial aid at a college many years ago and didn’t know how stupid I was on the subject.  Thank you, Jesus, for people like Mrs. Lolita Blanton who is the sophomore through senior high school counselor.  She’s a valuable resource who earns every dollar of salary paid her many times over.  Get to know that woman.

College is expensive.  We found that room, board, tuition, books, fees, and pocket money will cost about $17,000 and more a year at a public institution.  

We found that even though we don’t make much and have five kids, we did not qualify for any federal or state grants.  We would have to borrow pretty much everything to send our daughter to school.  Most people are in the same boat.  

So what do you do?

Plan early to go for scholarship money.  

Now, just because you turn in scholarship applications doesn’t mean you will get them.  We’ve completed about 15 applications.  We’ve won some, and we’ve lost some, but they all seem to have the same basic criteria:

1. What was your score on the ACT (College Entrance Exam)?

2. What classes did you take and what were your grades?

3. What awards have you won?

4.  What public service projects have you participated in?

5.  What student organizations have you participated in?

6.  What real-world work experience do you have?

7.  Prepare an essay on a selected topic or topics.

This is why it is important to begin working and encouraging your child in the right direction upon entering high school.  You can’t do it all in the last year of school.

If your kid is a genius, then they might only need to take the ACT once and score a wonderful score (36 is perfect on this test).  My daughter took the ACT exam as a freshman, and then six times more.  Each time she succeeded in getting the score a little higher, until the last time when she broke into the 30’s with a 31.  We found late in the game that there are computer programs that can tutor your child for the test.  They do give many great hints on how to take the test, as well.  It seems that the high 20’s is the break-off point for many scholarships.

Your child needs to get involved in as many organizations as possible.  Luckily, my daughter did this on her own.  I really thought this was a pain at first.  I didn’t see the point in it, and thought she should just work more hours at her part-time jobs and save her money.  I was wrong.  Universities select scholarship winners who are incredibly involved.  They want that type of commitment to carry over to their institutions.  

The good thing is, most organizations will allow you to participate in other events where you can win awards, be elected as club officers, and do service projects.  Washington County High has many organizations.  I highly recommend the FCCLA (Family, Career, and Community Leaders of America) which is run by Mrs. Sarah Raikes.  

This is a highly dynamic program that is continually involved in leadership, service projects, and district, regional, state, and national competitions involving academics.  It’s also the largest and most successful chapter in the state.  Get to know Mrs. Raikes.  She’s another one that earns her pay a few times over, and has all the energy of the 82nd Airborne dropping in on Iraq.      

It’s good if your child can work somewhere to get real world experience.  It doesn’t matter where, but they do like to see a student who has earned their own money somewhere.  Universities still appreciate a kid that knows work isn’t something that only their parents do.

Finally remember to concentrate on grades, and especially English.  Your child must learn to write well on those scholarships.  We would review what our daughter wrote and offer suggestions.  Many times we would allow others to read and comment on it.  It never hurts to get a second opinion on any of it.

I could write much more, but I’m going to end it with what Washington County High’s freshman counselor, Mrs. Tracy Abell, told me to say to you parents.

• Keep a notebook documenting their awards, accomplishments, clubs and sports they have participated in, any community service/volunteer hours they have completed, and real-world work experience. Scholarship applications request this information and students are often scrambling to come up with these things. Keeping them documented in a notebook will make a quick reference for them when scholarship time comes.

 • If a student knows they are college bound once high school is over, they need to plan, in advance, their schedule to meet the Pre-College Curriculum. They also need to plan for Advanced Placement courses that can give them opportunity to earn college credit if they pass the AP test.

 • Get to know your school counselor well. If the counselor is familiar with your future plans, they can keep their eyes open for possible scholarships for which you might qualify.

• Participate in scholarship searches on the Internet and at the local level from area businesses or from large corporations.

• Fine-tune your leadership skills. You can do this by being involved in extracurricular activities and take a leading role in these activities. Colleges are looking to recruit leaders who can make a difference in their school.

Parents of the Class of 2013,  it is time to get busy!