If you are a current high school or college student – or a parent or guardian, for that matter – one of the most beautiful words ever is “scholarship.” 

Scholarships are a form of financial support to help reduce the out-of-pocket expense of college. Students or their parents and guardians can apply for these through websites, different organizations, scholarship tools, and much more. Scholarships aren’t just for athletes and valedictorians. These college funding sources can be need-based, merit-based, or based on different things like a student’s hobby, field of study, or religion. And, most importantly, they’re FREE.

Kristin Balazentis, PNC’s Senior Vice President, Student Lending, has helped a lot of students with financing their higher education. She points out that scholarships can make a huge difference when it comes to paying the tab.

“We counsel families to put a lot of energy into seeking scholarships. Earning a scholarship now will help defray the cost of education, not to mention your financial position after earning a degree. It’s free money. And who doesn’t like free?”

The more scholarships you earn, the more affordable college becomes. The best news of all? There are untapped scholarships just waiting for strong student applicants.

Yet pursuing scholarships takes time and discipline. These steps will help get you much closer to the money you need for school.

Fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)

To qualify for your piece of the $120 billion in financial aid, including scholarships, set aside each year by the government, complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).  Schools use the FAFSA to put together financial aid packages, states use it to determine eligibility for state aid, and it is required for many scholarship applications. Some aid is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis, or from programs with limited funds, so the earlier students and families fill out the FAFSA, the better the chance to be in line for that aid.[1]

Figure out which type of scholarship is right for you.

There are many scholarships out there. There will also be many applicants. You want to boost your odds by applying for those scholarships for which you’re most qualified. That means taking stock of your academic record, talents, interests, and background.

Take the time to ask yourself some basic questions:

  • What field of study excites me the most?
  • What career path do I want to explore?
  • What extracurricular activities do I enjoy the most? Sports, arts, or something else entirely?
  • Have I demonstrated leadership through the activities in which I participate?
  • Have I or my family overcome hardships?
  • Are there aspects about me (race, ethnicity, gender identity, among others) that allows me to qualify for certain awards?  

Don’t rush through this part of the process. Answer these questions in depth, jot down your answers, and organize them. Don’t sell yourself short and be confident in how many talents you truly have.

The sooner you start your scholarship search, the better.

Once you have specific ideas about which scholarships may fit you best, it’s time to do your research. Think of it as a research project that can pay big dividends later.

“When talking to our customers about funding college, we advise them to begin the scholarship hunt early,” Balazentis offers. “It’s important to think about the bigger picture – not just the individual scholarships, but how they will reduce the total cost of attending a given school. Families should understand the total costs of attending a particular school and the impact that a potential award might have.”

The Internet is a great place to start. Many websites make it easier to find scholarship opportunities. For example, try the U.S. Department of Labor’s scholarship finder, listing thousands of potential possibilities. Elsewhere on the Internet, using the term “scholarship search” can also help you to find other similar sources of information.[2]

Don’t make these site visits a one-and-done, because the information on these websites is updated often. Keep returning for the most current information.

At the same time, there are things to watch for along the way. Before you divulge any personal information on an online application, make sure it can be trusted. Remember, scholarships are free! Never pay for scholarships and be wary of “guaranteed” money. The Federal Trade Commission offers tips for identifying scholarship and financial aid scams so you know how to keep your information safe and what to avoid.  

While there are plenty of resources online, you’ll find help offline as well.

Your school guidance counselor should have information about available scholarships—and should be able to provide advice as you move forward in the process.

Also don’t forget about the people in your personal network. These might be your neighbors, friends of your parents, family members, and many others who might prove helpful in your search. They may be able to point you to companies and local organizations that offer scholarships not found on any databases. That’s why it’s a good time to talk to everyone you know.

As one example, PNC sponsors scholarships as part of the bank’s commitment to higher education. In fact, Balazentis thinks it’s one of the best things PNC does.

“We want to be part of our customer’s financial journeys, including the first steps they take. Helping make someone’s higher education possible is one of the best parts of the job.”

To learn more about PNC’s Student Lending Scholarship Sweepstakes, visit  pnc.financialliteracy101.org/scholarship/ and register today.

Take your time filling out each application.

One benefit of applying early is not feeling rushed when filling out your application. By taking your time, you can follow instructions carefully and answer any questions in a thorough, thoughtful manner. Most importantly, the extra time gives you the opportunity to check your answers for spelling and grammar. 

Don’t skip opportunities that require essays or offer a smaller dollar amount.

Sure, writing an essay requires additional effort. But you likely write essays all the time in class. Isn’t it worth it to write one to earn scholarship funds?[3]

Make essay-writing part of your weekly schedule. If you find a scholarship that’s a good fit for you, yet requires an essay, never pass up the opportunity. Otherwise, you’ll be reducing the number of potential scholarships you could earn.

According to Balazentis, the same proves true for smaller scholarships.

“Yes, the $1,000 scholarship is not as flashy as a big award. Instead, think of it as $1,000 worth of hours you don’t have to spend at a part-time job--or $1,000 worth of student loans you don’t have to take out and eventually pay back. What’s more, when you secure enough of those small scholarships they can really add up in a hurry.”

Review and, if needed, revise your social media profiles.

Look at any posting history on your personal social media accounts through the eyes of the scholarship committee. Then decide if that’s how you want them to see you.

Scholarship judges might be giving your online persona a look. With that in mind, make sure that you’re putting you’re putting your best foot forward, so that they’re impressed by what they see.

Apply for everything you can.

You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. It’s that simple.

The best way to improve your chances of obtaining a scholarship is to cast a wide net. If you meet a scholarship’s criteria, nothing should stop you from applying. If you’re on the ball, you could earn more than one scholarship. Remember, someone will get that scholarship money. It might as well be you!

Plan Ahead

If you’re a parent, you shouldn’t wait until your children reach high school to think about funding higher education. In fact, the earlier you start planning, the better. PNC has many options for funding education including 529 plans, trusts, and educational savings accounts. Check out this page to get a head start. Paying for College: Resources to Help Finance Your Education (pnc.com)

As someone who has helped a lot of students finance education, Balazentis claims that it is never too soon to get started.

“One thing we try to always stress: Customers need to start planning as early as possible with college savings plans. The more work you do to mitigate needed borrowing, the better your financial quality of life after graduation.”

The bottom line is to start early, keep at it, and don’t get discouraged. While it may not be easy, and it might be time-consuming, the rewards in the end can most definitely be worth it. 

Want to learn more about the PNC scholarship? Visit Scholarship Registration (financialliteracy101.org) today!