4 tips to land the college scholarship you need, from an entrepreneur who's helped students raise $8 million

  • Getting more college scholarships is possible for anyone willing to do the work.
  • Start by researching schools with the most aid available, and re-negotiating any offers you get.
  • Keep looking throughout the school year, and look for smaller, local scholarships that add up.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

Springtime is college season, and if you’ve already decided where you’re going to school in the fall, it’s time to start thinking about how you’ll pay for it.

While student loans are an option, there are a few other things that should come first. After all, it might be possible to get enough funding to avoid taking out multiple loans, or student loans altogether, with enough scholarships.

Nitiya Walker, founder of scholars program Seeds of Fortune, has helped women of color earn more than $8 million in scholarships. In her experience, there are four things almost anyone can do to increase their total aid package and lower their need for student loans. 

1. Apply to the right schools

Walker says a big part of of getting scholarships is looking in the right places. 

“The biggest load of scholarships you’re going to get is from the institution itself,” Walker says. “It’s the most stable scholarship fund that you’re going to be able to tap into, and certain schools provide more scholarships and grants than others.”

She suggests looking for schools that offer higher amounts of scholarships, which can be found by a quick search. “There are about 100 colleges across the country that are 100% need-met [colleges]. They are going to try to match your tuition bill as much as possible, correlated to your family’s income,” she says. 

While this list does include top schools like Harvard, Brown, and Princeton, it also includes smaller colleges across the US. And, while some of these schools may be more competitive, it might be smart not to automatically rule them out, Walker says. “With the transition to SAT optional, the playing field has been leveled for a lot of students when it comes to being able to get into those 100% need-met schools.”

2. You can (and should) negotiate your financial aid package

The financial aid number you get on your first acceptance letter shouldn’t be the number that shows up on your first tuition bill. You can negotiate the total amount of financial aid that’s offered, and it’s worth trying, Walker says. 

“The college has already accepted you, so you know they want you. You can go and negotiate at the financial aid office,” she says. Oftentimes, this starts by asking for a re-assessment. 

Changes since you applied can increase your chances for scholarship dollars, like re-taking the SAT or ACT and earning a higher score, or an increase in high school GPA. Additionally, a sudden change in a parent’s employment (especially during the coronavirus pandemic) or other family changes could increase scholarship dollars.

Even if neither of these situations apply, it’s still worth re-negotiating for the benefits or skills you’ll bring to the school, she says. “It doesn’t always have to be about GPA. It can be their leadership, it can be their merit. It can be that diversity in thought that they’re going to bring to the campus,” she says. 

3. Don’t overlook smaller, local scholarships at home

The scholarships from schools can be huge, but Walker says that’s no reason to overlook smaller scholarships from your hometown. 

“A lot of times students tend to go for the national scholarships,” she says. “[With local scholarships,] you’re only competing against the top students, or the students that did the most community service in your county, city, or state.” 

She recommends looking into local chapters of national organizations, such as the YWCA or the NAACP, for local scholarships given out by the chapter. “Tapping into their parents’ unions could be great. There are also a lot of scholarships at the chapter level from sororities and fraternities,” she says.

4. Don’t stop looking after school starts in the fall

Walker says that there are plenty of opportunities to keep earning scholarships throughout the school year, even after the start of your first quarter. 

Walker did this herself when she was in college. “I spent my whole fall semester in the college advisor’s office,” she tells Insider. “A lot of times, local scholarship organizations don’t have a direct connection to students, so they’ll go to the school’s advisors.”

Making a good connection with your advisor will make a big difference. “Obviously, [those advisors] are virtual now, so students are going to have to put in a little bit more work and email them.”

But, having a connection with those advisors could pay. “The students that are reaching out to their advisors will be the first ones to know when those opportunities are funneling into the school.”

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