While a student's first instinct may be to aim for high-dollar, national college scholarships, experts say this may turn him or her into a "little fish in a big pond." Instead, local scholarships may often offer less competition and a greater chance for success.
Some national scholarships offer big awards, like the National Merit Scholarship, which gives students $2,500, or the Elk National Foundation Most Valuable Student Scholarship, which provides a small number of students with scholarships of up to $50,000 over four years.
But national scholarships aren't always significantly higher in value than local scholarships, experts note.
The difference in award amount between local and national scholarships is "usually non-existent," Thomas Jaworski, independent educational consultant and founder of Quest College Consulting, wrote in an email. "I find that most local scholarships are as competitive monetarily ($500-1500) with national scholarships ($1000-2000), with better odds to win."
Students who aim to win multiple local scholarships can end up significantly outpacing those who apply only for highly competitive national scholarships, some experts say.
Here are steps students can take to find and win local scholarships:
-- Ask guidance counselors about local scholarships.
-- Research past local scholarships.
-- Use existing community connections.
-- Apply for local scholarships strategically.
Ask Guidance Counselors About Local Scholarships
A student's school can be a wealth of information and a great jumping-off point in the search for local scholarship dollars.
"The absolute first place to visit for local scholarships is your school counselor's office or the school's website," Jan Smith, a financial literacy expert at ECMC, a nonprofit organization that assists student loan borrowers, wrote in an email. "Many local businesses truly want to help out students in their hometown and will approach the school counselor for getting the word out about their scholarship."
Smith says guidance counselors often create a space in their office dedicated to scholarships, complete with a list of scholarships and deadlines.
Research Past Local Scholarships
Winning scholarships can take significant research and time.
Jean O'Toole, a scholarship strategist and author of "Scholarship Strategies: Finding and Winning the Money You Need," says one trick to doing this efficiently is to research past local scholarships and winners.
"Contact the school's guidance office and ask to be emailed the senior awards night program from the previous year. You can get a list in advance of all of the local companies and organizations that are giving away money. Then the next question is who won last year, why did they win and who decides?"
Once a student identifies last year's local businesses that may be offering college scholarships, she says it's time to determine who selects the scholarship winner -- whether a school staff member or company employee -- and reach out to that decision-maker.
Use Existing Community Connections
Places of worship, the local chamber of commerce and local businesses are examples of where a student might start in their search for community-based scholarships.
By tapping into organizations and businesses where students already have connections, experts say, students may increase their chances of getting a scholarship. A parent's employer, for example, may offer an annual college scholarship.
Apply for Local Scholarships Strategically
Students should start with the most-local scholarships -- like those open only to students attending a specific high school or in a certain club -- before slowly expanding the search and widening the net, Jaworski says.
"Most public schools have scholarships from booster clubs, sports teams, alums, etc," Jaworski wrote. "Then to look in their immediate local community (Rotary Clubs, Chamber of Commerce, Women's Club), slowly expanding the boundaries, surrounding communities, county, state, etc. The more local the scholarship, the better the percentages are to 'win' the scholarship because there are less students who qualify, and most qualifiers do not apply."
While some experts emphasize local scholarships, they say applying for a mixture of national and local scholarships is the best strategy.
"We also tend to tell students to check for scholarships at large national retail chains or other known businesses, but it might make more sense to apply for local businesses (in addition), such as mom and pop restaurants, locally owned auto services or bookstores, local churches and other places or clubs where students have a local connection," Smith wrote. "In my hometown, the local Ruritan club offers scholarships for seniors and often the amount has been awarded to seven applicants for $1,000 each."
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