When Shanice Miller was a high school senior, panic set in when she realized just how much college was going to cost her—and that she’d have to foot the bill herself.
Applying for a plethora of scholarships, which resulted in her graduating with zero student loans—and a $10,000 refund. She then parlayed her experiences into a book, “How to Graduate College Debt-Free With Money in the Bank,” as well as a career as a scholarship coach.
Her professional title is unique, but the need for her services certainly isn’t. According to the Independent Educational Consultants Association, for every 476 public school students in the U.S., there is only one counselor. And, on average, most public high school students receive a mere 38 minutes of personalized, one-on-one college-admissions advising.
Factor in the cost of tuition and fees that outpace inflation and it’s not hard to understand why families are turning to outside professionals for advice on how to pay for higher education—and avoid student loan stress.
Enter Miller, who helps would-be students identify potential scholarships and offers an oft-needed dose of accountability by setting deadlines and arranging check-ins to keep the application process on track.
We recently asked the pro about her best tips for finding—and winning—scholarships. So whether you have a child on the way to college or you're thinking of going back to school yourself, her know-how could help you score free funds.
LearnVest: Why do you think people often overlook applying for scholarships?
Shanice Miller: There are a lot of misconceptions. People assume that it takes a lot of time, or that if you have an average-to-low GPA or SAT score, you won’t qualify. Also, a lot of parents think that they earn too much money for their kids to qualify for scholarships. But these are all big myths!
There are merit-based scholarships that do not ask for the parents’ income—they are only concerned with the student’s achievements. Many scholarships also don’t require you to list your GPA or SAT score because they’re more interested in your hobbies, passions and leadership skills.
And scholarship searching and winning doesn’t have to take as much time as you think it will—if you know where to search and what to put in the application.
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This must be where you come in. What exactly do personal scholarship coaches do?
A personal scholarship coach can help save you time, energy, stress and money. You won’t need to spend hours on scholarship search engines because we’ve already done the research. We know where to find the unknown scholarships that only five people apply for.
And we’ve been through the process many times, so we can help you fill out applications faster. On average, my clients only spend two to three hours a week on the scholarship process, which includes the time for our sessions.
Here’s an example: A family I worked with was thinking of enrolling their son into the military because they were concerned with how they were going to fund his college education and they didn’t want to take out student loans. Turns out his love of science, among other interests and strengths, made him eligible for a bunch of scholarships.
By the time he began college in the fall, he had a full ride to Old Dominion University—in fact, he received a refund check from the college—and the parents saved more than $68,000 on the cost of their son’s education.
Where should students start looking if they want to apply for scholarships?
Places in your local community are the best resources, including banks, churches and foundations. Since these scholarships are open only to members of the community, there's less competition. And the applications usually take less time to complete, so students can apply to more of them, increasing their chances of getting money for college.
Unlike highly advertised national scholarships—where you have a 1 in 200,000 chance of winning—with targeted local scholarships, the chances of winning are more like 1 in 20.
How soon should students start applying for scholarships?
As soon as possible! I actually suggest starting in ninth grade because the earlier you start creating a plan for scholarships, the earlier you can start implementing strategies that can make your child more desirable to the judges.
By starting early, your child will also have more time to qualify for scholarships and fill out applications, without missing deadlines or being too stressed out during a period when they are also dealing with a lot of other senior-year activities, like college admission essays and AP exams.
Not many people know this, but there are also college scholarships awarded to kids in elementary and middle school. Since fewer people are thinking about scholarships so early, there will be less competition, making them easier to win. My philosophy is: It’s always better to be too early than to be too late.
What about adults going back to school? Are there scholarships for them?
There are. Generally, I recommend that adult learners, graduate students and students who are already in college look for scholarships based on their strengths and passions. But adult learners can also qualify for both merit-based scholarships and need-based scholarships.
Even if you make six figures, you may be able to qualify for need-based ones, based on your unique circumstances. I once helped an adult client returning to school who never considered applying for scholarships because he thought he made too much, but he was able to get $3,000 toward his education without writing a single essay.
What are the biggest scholarship hurdles you see?
Usually, teachers, advisers and family members tell students to apply to the well-known scholarships that require you to write eight essays or fill out 10 pages of short-answer questions. That may make students feel overwhelmed because it’s too much work for something they feel like they won’t win.
Additionally, students are told to go through the scholarship databases, but
seeing all of the scholarships that they don’t qualify for can make them feel discouraged. That’s why I recommend staying away from those databases, and looking into local scholarships instead.
What do you think scholarship selection committees look for when reviewing candidates?
They really want to see their students succeed. And they believe that a student who can demonstrate an immense passion or interest in a specific area will have a higher chance of success. Scholarship committees are more interested in hobbies, achievements and leadership skills than they are with GPA and SAT scores.
What tips can you offer students who are just starting to fill out their applications?
Double-check to make sure that you meet the eligibility requirements for the scholarship before you even fill out the application, and aim to beat—not just meet—the scholarship deadline. And as you apply and reapply, try to find ways to improve your applications or essays as you go along. Lastly, always have someone proofread your application to check for spelling and grammatical errors!
What about rejection letters? How can you stay focused if you’ve been turned down?
Rejection letters sting. It’s like getting a bad grade on an assignment that you worked really hard on. But a rejection isn't plastered across your forehead—no one even has to know, unless you tell them!
The good thing is that a rejection won’t sting for long, because if you’ve applied to many scholarships, you should receive a winning letter very soon. Until then, see what you can enhance in your applications—and keep applying. Get back out there and tell yourself that you’ll hit the next one out of the park!
Any parting advice?
The hardest part is just getting started. It can feel overwhelming at first, but every time you do an application, the process will get a lot easier.
So find one scholarship that you’re eligible for, fill out the application and submit it. Once you’ve completed that one, repeat the process with a second one and just keep going. It’s better to take on one at a time, rather than gathering 20 scholarship applications and then not filling out a single one.
LearnVest Planning Services is a registered investment adviser and subsidiary of LearnVest, Inc. that provides financial plans for its clients. Information shown is for illustrative purposes only and is not intended as investment, legal or tax planning advice. Please consult a financial adviser, attorney or tax specialist for advice specific to your financial situation. Unless specifically identified as such, the people interviewed in this piece are neither clients, employees nor affiliates of LearnVest Planning Services, and the views expressed are their own. LearnVest Planning Services and any third parties listed in this message are separate and unaffiliated and are not responsible for each other’s products, services or policies.