Scholarships can boost your resume and help defray your college costs at the same time — and there may be more scholarships that you qualify for than you think. But searching, applying, and meeting deadlines can be a daunting task. The Accelerator interviewed Rebecca Shelow and Susan Arnold-Christian of the Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Diversity (CEED) at Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering on how to make the most out of your scholarship search. And don’t forget to check out the Accelerator’s very own scholarships page.
Rebecca is the CEED Fiscal Manager, and Susan is CEED Assistant Director who works closely with many prospective students from minority backgrounds. Although Susan does not specifically work with undergraduates, much of what she says can be applied to college students’ search for scholarships.
Can you first talk about Virginia Tech’s scholarships for engineering students in a nutshell?
REBECCA: We have about a little over 100 scholarships that are both endowed, which means a long-term donation from a donor, and operating, which refers to a donor making a one-time donation for students with certain criteria. Each engineering department has its own scholarships that vary in amount.
We make it easy for our engineering students to apply by having them fill out a comprehensive application that puts them in the pool for all upperclass scholarships. Freshman applicants must first send a resume to be invited to apply for our freshman scholarships.
The scholarship criteria can be based on nearly anything. Some have few restrictions like having a minimum GPA, some are need-based and are determined through a student’s FAFSA, and some are for students from certain high schools or geographic locations, or who participate in certain activities.
Do any scholarships at Virginia Tech go unclaimed for the year?
REBECCA: Sometimes the donor’s criteria is too restrictive, and we cannot award the scholarship for that year. But we aggressively advertise to high school students to let them know what scholarships are available to them, and we watch for students coming into Virginia Tech from certain areas of the U.S.
What would be your advice to engineering students when applying?
REBECCA: The first, most important thing a student needs to know is just to apply. Read your emails and make note of those due dates. Answer questions, meet deadlines, and pay attention.
Also, if your scholarship requires an essay, know that a lot of students apply for so many scholarships, write one boilerplate essay, and attach it to all their applications. Not every essay prompt is the same, so you need to make sure you’ve answered the question. Even if an essay is very well written, students will get low scores on it if they did not answer the question.
SUSAN: So I work with student programs and I do help review scholarships for freshmen for the engineering school, and I work with high school students to see where they can find scholarships.
I think with any scholarship process, it’s competitive. Many students who come to Virginia Tech are used to being the academic rockstar at their high schools. But this university has all of those rock stars, so the playing field has become very level and scholarships are that much more competitive. So it’s important to know that getting a scholarship now is more than just academics and the 4.0 GPA: Leadership experiences and community involvement really helps set them apart.
How can students balance the scholarships search with their other school obligations?
SUSAN: There are quite a few things to prioritize. Things I hear from successful students are: Create an email address that is only used for your scholarship stuff. So when you go out to those Fastweb-type sites and submit an email, you know it’s going to a special inbox for your scholarships rather than your normal inbox where it can become overwhelming.
Another is to not just go after big scholarships, but small ones that may only be $500, $1,000, or $2,000. Local scholarships through a relative’s company, churches, high schools, and local organizations will have a smaller applicant pool and thus, less competition.
I know one woman who said she paid off her entire freshman year with scholarships, but she added that searching for them became a part-time job for her during high school. When she wasn’t studying, she was digging into and researching scholarships, so it does take quite a bit of time if you’re going after a lot of money.
When is the best time to look, or how early in advance should students be looking for scholarships?
SUSAN: Start scoping out opportunities as early as you can, like in your junior year of high school if you’re looking to get scholarships as a college freshman. You don’t necessarily have to apply that early, but just be aware of what’s out there for you, and mark those deadlines on your calendar for next year.
On the topic of scholarship websites: Are they reliable, and do they actually provide a good idea of what opportunities are out there?
SUSAN: One thing I tell students is to check out an organization with the Better Business Bureau (LNK) and make sure they are a legitimate organization. Be aware of scholarship scams that make you pay a fee to find funding. This is because donors who are offering scholarships will not hide their money — they want to draw as many applicants as possible, since the money is usually earmarked in an organization’s budget for scholarships only.
What’s one piece of advice you’d give students if you only had to say one thing to them? Tips and tricks that students might otherwise overlook?
REBECCA: Whoever notifies you of an award, thank them. Donors want to hear from students, and we have had donors pull scholarships because the winning student did not send a “Thank you” note. Students need to make sure they follow through on every little detail of the process in order to get that scholarship.
SUSAN: What I do tend to see is that some high school girls are not as comfortable bragging about themselves as some of their male counterparts. For instance, if a young man talks about his work experience mowing lawns one summer, he might explain how he promoted his business and managed the financial side of things as well, making it seem like more than just door-to-door lawn mowing. But I have noticed that some young women do not write about their experiences in the same way, even though it’s necessary to show that you’re capable of explaining what you learned from that job — no matter how insignificant you may think it is.