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How this New Jersey teen earned $500,000 in college scholarships — with a little help from mom

Join us at 1 p.m. ET Thursday for a live chat on Facebook with our featured college savings expert, Lynette Khalfani-Cox! Post your question on Facebook or send us questions ahead of time at yfmoneymailbag@yahoo.com.

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Soon millions of high school seniors will be opening their college acceptance letters and deciding where they’ll spend the next four years. And with the average cost of a four-year (public) college degree now topping $36,000, there’s more pressure than ever for families to come up with smart ways to lower those costs.

Lynnette Khalfani-Cox, a longtime financial coach and author of “College Secrets: How to Save Money, Cut College Costs and Graduate Debt Free”, is something of an expert in this area. When her daughter Aziza, 18, was accepted to seven universities last spring, they knew they would have to be creative in finding ways to cover her tuition. Not only did Aziza have her sights set on out-of-state schools, which would mean paying much higher tuition rates than locals, but like many other middle-class families in the U.S. today, their household income would likely be too high to qualify for need-based financial aid.

Using some clever scholarship strategies, they were able to wrangle nearly $500,000 in scholarship, grant and award money offers from all of the schools combined. In the end, Aziza accepted her offer from the University of Texas at Austin. With tuition and room and board combined, UT would have cost her family over $42,000 per year. But with a mix of institutional scholarships and local scholarships, the family was able to reduce their costs to just $5200 per year.

Khalfani-Cox recently launched an online course where she teaches families how to win college scholarships.

“It's about empowering yourself and knowing the resources that are out there,” Khalfani-Cox told Yahoo Finance. “And there's a ton of them, not only to help you get free tuition but a whole bunch of other college freebies, too.”

We asked Khalfani-Cox to share her best tips:

Photo: Lynnette Khalfani-Cox

Scholarship committees are looking for two things: leadership and charity work.  

“College scholarship committees love to reward students who have gone like one step above and beyond,” she says. Her daughter was not only president of her school’s French club, but she decided to launch a new multicultural club to help foster racial and cultural harmony in her New Jersey school. The scholarship committee at notoriously tightfisted New York University was so impressed, it awarded her daughter a coveted $50,000-a-year scholarship through their Martin Luther King, Jr. Scholars Program.

Committees also love to see students who are engaged in their communities. “Don't feel like you have to cure cancer or anything,” she says. “Make it whatever it is that the student likes to do.” If they’re into the outdoors, get them engaged in a community garden group. If they love literature, maybe they could tutor younger or disadvantaged kids in your community.

Merit-based aid is your friend.

As college costs rise, competition for need-based grants and scholarships has never been tougher. Khalfani-Cox, whose middle-income household earnings edged her daughter out of those opportunities, recommends harnessing the power of the student’s academic performance for merit-based aid and scholarships. The best source of merit aid can be the universities or colleges themselves, which are eager to attract top talent.

All of Aziza's scholarship awards were based on merit. The largest of them all — a special waiver offered by UT that reduced her tuition from the out-of-state rate to the in-state tuition rate — saved her over $27,000 alone.

“If a kid is in the top 25% of the incoming student population, you can be sure he or she is going to get some merit-based aid,” Khalfani-Cox says.

Start building your resume in your early teens.

Yes, teenagers should have resumes, Khalfani-Cox says. It can be difficult to reach back in time and try to recall a decade’s worth of activities and extracurriculars your child has been involved in. Khalfani-Cox recommends keeping a file on your computer at home with a running list of all their achievements and activities, much like a professional resume. “Even my 10-year-old has a resume,” she adds. “Schools themselves and private scholarship committees...they all like to know what you've been doing.”

They key activities scholarship committees and schools will look for are sports, volunteer work, part-time jobs, and community engagement.

Don’t wait till senior year to apply for scholarships.

“People think they have to wait until a kid is a senior in high school to start applying. And nothing could be further from the truth,” Khalfani-Cox says. “There are scholarships out there that are available to kindergartners.” The prime time to start sussing out scholarship opportunities is when kids are in middle school.

Forget Google — your friends and family can be a great source for scholarships.

“So often when students are applying for a scholarships, they’re thinking about themselves, what they've done,” Khalfani-Cox says. “Think about your parents. Think about your grandparents.” Aziza won a $2,000 annual scholarship ($8,000 in total) through, of all places, her grandmother’s insurance company. She qualified because her grandmother was a policyholder, but many major employers have scholarships and grants available to children of employees.

“You don't know, maybe [you have a family member] in a sorority or a local business club or a community-based organization. Write down the names of all of them and then go approach those organizations.”

Get colleges to pay you to visit.  

Khalfani-Cox spent hundreds of dollars taking Aziza on campus visits across the country before she realized some schools have special “fly-in” programs. The programs vary depending on the school, but two universities (Emory University in Atlanta and The University of Texas at Austin) offered Aziza all-expenses paid campus visits. Other schools offer to reimburse families for travel expenses or offer academic credits in exchange for a student’s visit.

“Families are spending hundreds of dollars, sometimes thousands of dollars, and they don't even know that they could be recouping those costs or not paying them at all,” she says.

Mandi Woodruff is a reporter for Yahoo Finance and host of Brown Ambition, a weekly podcast about career, life and money.

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