6 Top Tips for Finding College Aid

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The cost of college strikes fear into all but the wealthiest students and parents. But there's plenty of financial assistance out there, if you plan ahead and know where to look. Here's some advice from an admissions expert.

This guest post comes from Aristotle Circle College adviser Pam Proctor. Pam is the person interviewed in the video above and is the author of The College Hook: Packaging Yourself to Win the College Admissions Game.

Your search for money for college should begin long before you submit your applications – in the junior year of high school, in fact. Often students and parents wait too long to maximize aid opportunities. As you’re planning ahead, pay attention to these promising ways to put money in your pocket at admission time…

  • Prep for the PSAT. The PSAT that students take in October of their junior year serves as the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. Scoring big on this test could set you up for significant merit money – or for admission to top colleges. Harvard, Princeton, Amherst, and Davidson are known for generous scholarships based on family need. When it comes to merit aid, follow the lead of one student who prepped hard with a tutor for his PSAT the summer before junior year and became a National Merit semifinalist and later a finalist. He won a $40,000-per-year merit scholarship to a big-city university at the top of his list, along with entry into its honors program and a slick new dorm. For more information on the PSAT, check out the National Merit website.
  • Call Dollars for Scholars. A good place to start your search for aid is your local Dollars for Scholars (DFS), a network of community foundations with 1,100 chapters coast to coast. Local philanthropists funnel scholarship money through DFS to worthy students in their communities, and you could come out a winner. Be sure to contact DFS in the fall of your senior year to find out what scholarships are available and what documents you’ll need to verify your finances. To find a DFS chapter near you, go to this page of the Scholarship America website.
  • Choose colleges that need you. Schools a little bit down the pecking order in the rankings may recruit you because of your “hook” – a special talent, passion, or achievement that sets you apart. (See Avoid the Top 5 College Admission Mistakes.) Take the case of a multicultural student with a string of science awards. Although she didn’t qualify for financial aid because her family’s income was too high, she won a $30,000-per-year merit scholarship at a hot university in the South that wanted her diversity and scientific brainpower to bolster the student body.
  • Apply to Questbridge. If your family’s income is under $60,000 a year, be sure to submit an application to Questbridge. This is a nonprofit organization that matches high-achieving, low-income students with 30 of the top universities in the United States, as a means both to gain admission and to pocket fat financial aid packages. Don’t be daunted by the lengthy application or the strict deadlines, which begin in September of your senior year. If you’re accepted as a Questbridge finalist, the payoff could be a full ride to a school such as Washington & Lee, University of Southern California, Rice, Vassar, or Yale. Go for it!
  • Transfer from a community college. Acing your grades at a community college could save you money up front and set you up for big bucks at a four-year college when you transfer – especially if you earn the coveted Phi Theta Kappa award. That’s the two-year college equivalent of Phi Beta Kappa, the highest academic honor available at four-year colleges. By going this route, you could follow in the footsteps of a community college student from Florida whose Phi Theta Kappa distinction paved the way for $88,000 in merit money over two years at a leading private college in California.
  • Shoot for the Ivy League. If you’ve got top grades, super scores, and a drop-dead “hook,” set your sights on the Ivy League. Many of the Ivies, including Harvard and Princeton, offer significant need-based financial aid to families earning well over $100,000 a year. Harvard boasts that families earning up to $180,000 are eligible for some financial aid, while Princeton’s website indicates that for the class of 2014, 46 percent of families earning $200,000 and up – typically with two students in college – received some financial aid.  For those earning $80,000-$100,000 per year, financial aid packages at Princeton covered 100 percent of the $36,640 tuition plus 47 percent of the cost for room and board.

So when you’re applying to college, always remember this principle: The college admissions process isn’t just about admissions; it’s also about paying for the college experience. If you play this game wisely, you’ll greatly increase the odds not only that you’ll get into the college of your choice, but also that you’ll be able to pay for your schooling without breaking the family bank!

Stacy Johnson

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