How to Win College Scholarships and Avoid Scholarship Rip-Offs

By Sam Rosensohn

This is the time of year when high school seniors are likely to be approached by unscrupulous companies guaranteeing scholarships, grants, or financial aid packages that promise tens of thousands of dollars.

It’s legitimate for a company to charge a fee to compare a student’s profile with a database of scholarships that pay big. It’s not legitimate for a company to promise scholarships or grants it doesn’t own or control.

The cost of college since 1969 has risen over 600 percent. The spiraling cost has long paved the way for financial aid scam artists to prey on college bound students.

Aware of the escalating fraud in college education assistance, Congress passed the College Scholarship Fraud Prevention Act of 2000.

Project Scholarscam, headed by the Federal Trade Commisson (FTC), created a sharp list to help detect fraudulent marketing schemes. Project Scholarscam cautions students to look and listen for these telltale lines:

The scholarship is guaranteed or your money back.

You can’t get this information anywhere else.

I just need your credit card or bank account number to hold this scholarship.

We’ll do all the work.

You’ve been selected by a national foundation to receive a scholarship.

You’re a finalist in a contest you didn’t enter.

If you get invited to an out-of-town “no pressure” seminar on financial aid or scholarships, ask for local references before you make the drive.

“Be wary of success stories or testimonials of extraordinary success – the seminar operation may have paid shills to give glowing stories,” the FTC notes. Again, this pertains to out-of-town seminars offered by groups that you, your school or your friends know little about.

Project Scholarscam offers additional tips on how to avoid fraudulent marketing schemes at www.ftc.gov/bcp/conline/edcams/scholarship/index.

So enough of the dark side of town – how to get the legitimate money and without paying a nickel up-front?

Students should go to their guidance counselors and ask for a list of local organizations that offer scholarships. Local organizations generally advise guidance departments of their scholarships.

Since many local service clubs belong to a national organization, inquire if the national organization also offers a scholarship. The local chapters of the American Legion, Rotary Club, Elks Club, Knights of Columbus, and Lions Club, all belong to national organizations, which offer scholarships, some of which have $25,000 awards.

Once you’ve exhausted local service organizations then look at the scholarships offered by local religious organizations. A good person to contact is the cleric in charge of a local house of worship. If you belong to a house of worship, you have an edge. But if you don’t that doesn’t count you out. And again if you win locally look to see if that particular church, mosque or synagogue has regional or national scholarships.

If a parent belongs to a union at work, or if a student is thinking of working in a field that has a union, go on-line and see if that union offers a scholarship. The Air Line Pilots Association, the American Federation of Teachers, The National Association of Letter Carriers, and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers all offer scholarships. They all have web sites, which list the funds available and the criteria necessary to apply for the money.

Students can win a scholarship if their parents or grandparents served in the military. The 25th Infantry Division Association sponsors the 25th Infantry Division Association Scholarship for children and grandchildren of the unit. This tip comes from Gen and Kelly Tanabe’s wonderful book, 1001 Ways to Pay for College. This is a good book to own, particularly since the price of college, according to the College Board, was up 6 percent in 2003-2004 in private institutions, and up 14.1 percent in public institutions from the previous school year.

The trick is to get into scholarship mode. They’re plentiful; you just have to start looking for them. One of my favorite stories is about a student discovering a scholarship, because of a brain-pounding headache. He was about to gulp a Tylenol down, and while reading the fine print on the bottle he discovered the manufacturer offered scholarships. That head-busting headache generated $1,500.

According to the New York Times there are more than 700,000 scholarships available from over 25,000 providers annually. The web site SallieMae.com boasts that its database currently contains over 2.9 million scholarships worth over 16 billion dollars. Meritaid.com says that its site lists $11 billion in scholarship money. Since some deadlines are in the spring of junior year, the time to get rolling is now.

A smart way to start searching beyond the backyard for scholarships is to go to the Internet. Take a look at Free Scholarship Information, http://www.freschinfo.com; The College Board, http://www.collegeboard.com; Scholarships.com, http://www.scholarships.com; Petersons, http://www.petersons.com; CollegeNet, http://www.collegenet.com; ScholarshipExperts, http://www. Scholarshipsexperts.com.

About ten years ago, I won $24,000 from the U.S. Congress to pay for a master’s degree. The James Madison Fellowship is issued to one schoolteacher in the state of Connecticut annually.  Sounds like big stuff, huh? Don’t be fooled. The competition wasn’t nearly as steep as you might think.

I called Todd Beckman, a program clerk, who works for the James Madison Fellowship, to ask how many people applied for the award I won in 2000. That year there were 18 applicants from Connecticut. Often, the competition isn’t very thick.

In New York that year, 16 people applied and two won $24,000 prizes, and in California they had 16 people apply and there were three $24,000 winners.

So get into search-mode and be aggressive. Start locally and remember – you don’t need to pay someone to help you find money for college.

Sam Rosensohn is the founder of College Planning Partnerships, which offers prep classes for the SAT and helps students to prepare for college and write college essays. He can be reached in Clinton at 860-664-9857 or at sam@satprepct.com