>Q&A: Aid Guru Mark Kantrowitz

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When it comes time to finance a college education, students and families often bypass scholarships in favor of student loans. That can be a mistake because unlike loans, scholarships are essentially “free money for your college education,” says Mark Kantrowitz, a financial aid expert and author of the new book Secrets to Winning a Scholarship, published in February. The typical student is eligible for anywhere between 50 and 100 scholarships, and every year more than 1.5 million scholarships worth more than $3.5 billion are given to students by donors, philanthropists, and corporations, according to Kantrowitz, who is also publisher of Fastweb.com, a free scholarship-matching website, and FinAid.org, an online provider of student aid information.
Only a small percentage of college-bound students receive enough scholarship money and need-based aid to pay for the entire cost of college, but that shouldn’t discourage students from applying, Kantrowitz said. The vast majority of full-time college students using scholarships at four-year colleges, or 69 percent, used less than $2,500 in scholarship funds to pay for a year of school, according to the book. That may seem like a small amount, but as Kantrowitz writes, “every dollar you win in scholarships is a dollar less you have to borrow.”
Bloomberg Businessweek’s Alison Damast recently spoke with Kantrowitz, who shared tips on how students can maximize their chances of winning a scholarship. Here is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Alison Damast: The title of your book is Secrets to Winning a Scholarship, so students and families who pick it up will be looking for some inside tips. What do you think is one of the best-kept secrets about the scholarship world?
Mark Kantrowitz: One of the best tips in the book tells you how to double the scholarships you match on scholarship search sites, which in turn doubles your chances of winning a scholarship. Students who answer all of the optional questions, in addition to the required questions, on the personal profile form on these sites get double the number of awards as students who just do the bare minimum. For example, it takes half an hour to fill out the full personal profile on the Fastweb scholarship site, but not everyone does it because there is a long laundry list of questions. It is important to answer all of them because each question triggers the inclusion of a specific award on a scholarship database. For example, the search engine is not going to show you a scholarship oriented toward single parents, for example, unless you tell us you’re a single parent. It can be a little tedious to answer all the questions, but it doesn’t take that much time and it doubles your chances.
Students are often overwhelmed during the college application process and don’t get around to applying for scholarships until later in the academic year, a tactic you don’t recommend. How early should students and their families start investigating and applying for scholarships?
A lot of families start trying to figure out how to pay for school after they get their letters of admission. That is a mistake. Some of the scholarship deadlines can be as early as August or September of a student’s senior year, and half of them are in January. Even if they start applying for scholarships their spring semester, they’ve still missed half of the scholarship deadlines for their senior year of high school. Another thing people tend to forget is that scholarships are available not just for high school seniors, but juniors, sophomores, and freshmen. There are even scholarships for kids in kindergarten through eighth grade, like the Jif Most Creative Peanut Butter Sandwich and the National Spelling Bee. You’re not going to find scholarships for younger children on online free scholarship databases like Fastweb because of federal privacy law, but you can see a list of them on FinAid.org.
Contrary to popular belief, minority students are less likely to win scholarships than white students enrolled at four-year universities. As you note in your book, minority students represent 33.8 percent of applicants, but only 28.5 percent of scholarship recipients. Why do you think this is the case?
My educated guess is when someone establishes a new private scholarship, they are establishing it for people to participate in activities that they have an interest in. Wealthy Caucasian individuals are going to create scholarships that match their interests, which in turn will have a greater affinity for Caucasian students. For example, there are a number of equestrian scholarships out there. Minority students don’t participate in equestrian sports to the same extent as Caucasian students. I don’t think there is any explicit discrimination going on. It is just how it tends to (work out). The reality is even with high-profile organizations, the share of scholarships that minority students get is disproportionately low.
Many of the scholarships today are fiercely competitive, especially the larger, more lucrative ones. What are the odds that a student will actually win a scholarship?
People overestimate their ability to win merit-based awards and underestimate their eligibility for need-based aid. The odds of winning a private scholarship are slim. About one in 10 students receives a private scholarship, and the average amount received is $2,800 per year. But students have this impression that private scholarships are much more abundant than they really are, and when they don’t win, they feel they are being cheated. The reality is that every scholarship sponsor is trying to find the students that best match their criteria. If you happen to have a B average, no interesting hobbies or extracurriculars other than watching TV or video games, well, you are probably not going to win a scholarship.
If the odds are really so slim, is it worth a student’s effort to apply?
I recommend to every applicant that they apply for every scholarship they are eligible for. For some, it might be a half dozen; for other students, it might be 200. Typically, a high school senior matches for between 50 and 100 awards on scholarship-matching services. That does sound daunting and a lot of students think it is too much work to apply for scholarships. The things students don’t even realize is that after you’ve entered your first half-dozen scholarships, it becomes much, much easier because you can start to reuse your previous essays. You’ll probably have to tailor them to each scholarship application, but it doesn’t take all that much time and you could easily churn out all of your scholarship applications in a few weekends. For every scholarship you win, you will probably get eight or nine denials. Some of the time, students just won’t understand why they didn’t win because they may think they have a really outstanding application. It is not just a matter of skill. There is an element of luck there. It is a bit of a roll of the dice.
In the book, you list a number of common myths about people who win scholarships. What is the most commonly held one?
One that is pernicious is that smaller scholarships are not worth the effort. I often hear from students who say a $500 or $1,000 scholarship is too small to be worth their time. That makes the scholarship easier to win because probably fewer students are going to be applying. The scholarships you get do add up and they add lines to your resume that can help you win other scholarships. Winning a scholarship is a stamp of excellence. It tells the other scholarship providers that someone thought highly enough of you to invest their money in your future. If they have two students — one with a lot of little scholarships and one who has won nothing — the scholarship committee will probably go with the one who won a lot of little scholarships because that is the more proven student.

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