By Nikki Martinez Most students and parents are under the impression that you need to either be an Olympic-caliber athlete or have perfect test scores and grades to qualify for some free money, but that’s not necessarily the case. With proper planning, research, and ambition, many students can qualify for and receive a college scholarship that is right for them. Types of College Scholarships and How to Plan for Them Merit In order to snap up a partial or full merit scholarship, colleges look for students with a rigorous course load, high marks, and exceptional standardized test scores. However, you should not only focus on A’s and that perfect 2400, but also on being a well-rounded student with clear goals and ambitions. Decide what it is you like to do and where your talents lie, and get involved. Do you enjoy public speaking? Join the Debate Team or try out for Mock Trial. Have an affinity for numbers? Become a math-lete! Can’t think of a club that you’d want to be a part of? Start your own! What colleges want are talented students who can add value and diversity to their student body. But don’t wait until April of your junior year to join the Future Farmers of America and expect to win your school of choice’s FFA award. What colleges want in a scholarship recipient is commitment and responsibility in academics and extracurricular interests. Some universities offer scholarships to students who have excelled in a certain field and want to pursue a related major. For instance, the University of Houston’s Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management offers college scholarships, upon admission, to students who have displayed academic rigor and interest in the specialized field. Department scholarships are yet another reason why staying on top of grades and activities is paramount. Athletic Apart from the skill you’re born with, the only secret to being a great athlete is hard work. Dedication to your sport and a desire for competition are crucial as well. Getting an athletic scholarship means being the best at your sport not only at your school but being better than most athletes of your kind in the nation, so you’ll have to play and train for years, plus have the right people see you perform. Chances are if you’re good enough to get a scholarship, people will be buzzing about you without your having to get your name out much. But if you are an athlete and think you may be eligible to receive some money, talk to your coach about sending schools your reels, or having scouts come out to see you play. Need-based Need-based college scholarships are given to students who don’t have the finances to attend college. Lately, among educational institutions with staggering endowments, the family income eligibility has broadened considerably to include not only lower-income families but also middle- to even upper middle-income ones. For instance, at Harvard University, admitted students whose families make $60,000 per year, or less, will receive 100% financial aid. However, if you are not attending one of these institutions, you can still receive a need-based college scholarship if you’re willing to do the work. As soon as you submit your first application, visit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid website, better known as FAFSA. You’ll need it to apply for any kind of federal financial aid, including scholarships. Other places to get college scholarships Corporations Ask your parents, relatives, and friends if their companies offer scholarships to college students. It’s a tax write-off for them, and a chance to burnish their public images. Companies tend to want to reward high school students who are considering a professional field related to the product they are selling. For example, Tylenol gives away up to $350,000 in scholarships to “future doctors, nurses and other health professionals.” The quickest way to find such an offer is searching the internet until you see one interesting and fitting for your idea of your future goals. Your Local Place of Worship If you are an active member of a church, synagogue, mosque, temple, or any other religious congregation, find out if they are offering scholarship money to high school students. The criteria are usually less stringent than merit-based scholarships because they want to see their members do well and hopefully give back later on. Contact the administration or leaders of your particular house of worship early senior year. Your Community Sometimes just being a member of the community is enough to earn you free money. Jump on the web and Google your city hall, local businesses, community centers, and groups around town that have members and money to give back. Important Details to keep in mind: Make sure your application is perfect. You wouldn’t want to miss out on cash because of a few careless spelling errors or a field left blank. Especially for college scholarships that attract many applicants, whoever is making the choice will have to first chop apps that aren’t completely filled out and proofread. Have an extra set of eyes (or two) look over each application and, if applicable, essay, so you get a fair shot at winning. The Essay. Speaking of essay, if your application requires a written portion, here are some quick tips that are just as important as perfect grammar and spelling: * Be likeable: Stay positive, optimistic, and relatable in whatever you write about. * Be different: If the people who award scholarships are reading dozens, maybe hundreds, of essays, how is yours going to be different? Think of what makes your experiences and high school career unique. You don’t have to be a spectacular writer to achieve this, just… * Be authentic: Don’t make up a heartwarming anecdote—unless you have one, or be hilarious and snarky—unless you really are. The best writing comes from someplace true. * Sell yourself: Give the readers a reason to believe in your aptitude. Regardless of the prompt, discuss somewhere your ambition and dedication in everything that you do. It’s what they are ultimately looking for in the right candidate. Get your dates straight. If you’re applying for several college scholarships, stay organized! Be aware of when the due date is, or whether the application is rolling. Find out if it’s first come, first serve or if whoever is evaluating the applications reads them all at once. These small details can count for a lot. There are tons of resources available for students who are looking for college scholarship money. The bottom line is, as early as you can, optimize your time in high school by being involved, and always work hard. Each student has a talent or skill, something to offer to the school that’s right for them. Thinking ahead and being aware is a good way to find what you’re looking for.