Tips for winning scholarships

FinAid.org's Mark Mark Katrowitz.

Tess Vigeland: Mark Katrowitz has written a new book about how to pay for college. He's well-known in financial aid circles for his all-encompassing website FinAid.org, which we mentioned earlier in the show. The new book is called, "Secrets to Winning a Scholarship."

Welcome back to the program.

Mark Katrowitz: Thank you for having me.

Vigeland: All parents who are trying to pay for their kid's education are really looking for the magic bullet: How to pay as little as possible, get them as much help as possible. Of course, the free ride is the pinnacle of that. But you say that whole idea is a myth. How so?

Katrowitz: Less than 0.3 percent of students win enough of money to pay for their entire tuition. So the idea that you can get a completely free ride through scholarships is pretty rare. Many families will have to rely on money from the federal and state government and from the colleges themselves.

Vigeland: If the free ride is a myth, how much of a student's education should parents realistically expect to be covered by scholarships?

Katrowitz: A lot depends on the talent of the student. The more talented you are, the more money you will win.

Vigeland: Sure.

Katrowitz: If we were to average it across all students, we're looking at maybe 5 percent of money to pay for college is coming from the private sector scholarships.

Vigeland: Five percent! That sounds really low.

Katrowitz: But every dollar you win in a scholarship is a dollar less you have to borrow. So it can help reduce your out-of-pocket costs.

Vigeland: Yeah. Well, in the book, it's quite clear that a lot of parents miss out on scholarship money, because of some pretty basic things. What are the mistakes that parents are making when it comes to applying for those?

Katrowitz: First of all, families often wait until the spring of the senior year of high school to start trying to figure out how to pay for college. And just for the scholarships for high school seniors, they've missed half the deadlines, half the deadlines are in the fall and half the deadlines are in the spring. And there are scholarships that you can win in the ninth, 10th, 11th grade in high school. There are even scholarships you can win in grades kindergarten through eighth grade. For example, there's the JIF Peanut Butter & Jelly sandwich contest. It's a real contest and it has a top prize of $25,000.

Vigeland: Sounds delicious. You also tackle some of the myths around minority students and low-income students winning the majority of the scholraships. Is that true? And if not, does that mean that kind of everybody has pretty much the same chance of winning one?

Katrowitz: 72 percent of scholarship recepients are Caucasian, even though they represent only 62 percent of the college student population. The only race that has a higher odds of winning scholrships than Caucasian students are American Indian and Alaskan natives.

Vigeland: There are always quesitons surrounding what these scholarships then do to your potential for getting financial aid. What is some advice you have around negotiating that aspect of paying for college?

Katrowitz: First of all, every college has what's called an "outside scholarship policy." If you're receiving need-based aid and then you win a scholarship, that reduces your eligibility for need-based aid, because it's reducing your financial need. The colleges have some fleixbility, however, in how they reduce your needs-based financial aid package.

Vigeland: So that's a real key quesiton to ask the financial office.

Katrowitz: Right. Ask the college financial aid administrator "what is your outisde scholarship policy?" And then you can potentially use that to negotiate, not eliminate the reduciton aid package, because they really don't have any choice in that matter, but how they reduce it.

Vigeland: You also talk in the book about all the scholarship scams that are out there. What should parents be aware of and how common are they really?

Katrowitz: If you have to pay money to get money, it's probably a scam. Because scholarship providers are about giving away money. They'll have some plausible sounding method of getting the money from you. They might say it's the taxes or that it's an application fee -- and it may be an innocuous amount, say $3. But even if they give away every dollar that they say they do, they're getting more revenue from these fees than they are paying out in scholraships.

Vigeland: Any other final tips for students going through this right now?

Katrowitz: One of the best tips in the books is to answer all of the optional questions on scholarship matching profiles. A lot of students only answer the required questions, but the optional questions are there to trigger the inclusion of awards. So students who answered the optional questions are going to match about twice as many scholarships as students who answer just the required questions.

Vigeland: Wow. That is a good one. Mark Katrowitz is the author of a new book called "Secrets to Winning a Scholarship." He's also the founder of FinAid.org. Mark, thanks so much for coming in.

Katrowitz: Thank you for having me.

Vigeland: For more on financial aid, go to our Makin' Money blog. We've got a post about getting rid of the FAFSA from the authors of "Why Does College Cost So Much?"

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