When you're starting to think about college, one of the most critical elements to consider for most students is money. Whether you're planning to take out financial aid or will be reliant on federal loans and other sources of external funding, planning ahead for your college tuition is always a smart idea. For many students who are struggling to afford their education, local scholarships can be a tremendously valuable source of funding.

Why Look for Scholarships?

People often think of scholarships as free money bestowed on only the best and brightest seniors from some university or another. While some schools do offer scholarships, they are also granted by private companies, faith-based communities, nonprofit community organizations and private donors. There are a wealth of varieties of scholarships and scholarship opportunities for students who are interested in continuing their education after high school.

While some students have families with enough money to see that they can pay for college on their own, most students will need some kind of financial assistance, be it loans or scholarships. Looking for scholarships and being proactive about your scholarship search is the best way to figure out what opportunities are available to you. While it can be very difficult to get what is called a "full ride" scholarship, there is a great deal of funding available for students who are interested in financing their education.

By spending some time searching for scholarships, you are investing in your own future. Looking for scholarships that are related to the area or discipline you plan to pursue can help you defray costs if you decide to go on to graduate school. Searching for scholarships is also a great way to get familiar with organizations that are related to your interests and potentially build relationships with the people there. In addition, you may learn more about the field of your interest and find potential employment opportunities for after graduation.

What Kind of Scholarships Are There?

There are many kinds of scholarships. For students who did exceptionally well on their PSAT standardized tests, they may be eligible to receive a National Merit Scholarship. These awards are given to students who have scored in the high 90th percentile on their practice SAT. National Merit Scholars generally get about $2,500 from the National Merit Organization, but they can get even more money from colleges if they are listed as their first choice schools on the National Merit Scholarship Application.

Beyond these scholarships, universities often offer money to students who have exceptional academic, artistic or athletic abilities. It may seem counterintuitive to offer students money when tuition is what keeps the doors of your institution open, but colleges and universities have a reason.

Colleges and universities with illustrious alumni become well-known and thus become more attractive and prestigious, raising their profile and increasing their donations. Schools like to attract students who they believe will be a credit to the institution, and by offering the talented one's money, they increase the likelihood of their matriculation.

Beyond merit scholarships and university-funded scholarships, which don't require much work outside of general applications, there is a world of scholarship opportunities out there for students who are motivated to seek them out. Almost every large corporation or network or other similar company has a philanthropic arm. Companies like Microsoft, Apple, Hewlett-Packard and others in the tech space are just some examples. These companies offer students hundreds of thousands of dollars every year for their education.

Where Else Can You Look for Scholarships?

In addition to big tech companies, virtually every other large corporation has scholarship opportunities for students who are planning to study something related to the discipline practiced by the company. These companies are happy to help the next generation of professionals in their field, as they see it as an investment in their future. If you have a particular passion, skill set or interest and have demonstrated it in your high school years, is it a good idea to research corporate scholarships related to that topic. It could be a source of advice and funding.

Beyond corporations, there are also scholarships offered by nonprofit organizations and community organizations. Organizations that organize around personal identity issues like religion, ethnicity, heritage, gender, sexual orientation and other identity markers are often also interested in giving money to students from their community. There are often donations taken specifically for that purpose, and researching these options is a good idea for students who are looking to find funding options and are involved in organizations like this.

Hobbies are also a good source of scholarship funding. If you are involved in a sport, an artistic or creative pursuit or some other activity outside of school, you may want to begin to look there for scholarship money, especially if you consider this activity a particular strength of yours. Start by researching the activity, or asking any of your instructors or teachers if they are aware of funding opportunity for people who are skilled in that particular area.

What's a Full-Ride Scholarship?

A full-ride scholarship is a term given to the scholarship bestowed by a university that grants the student a tuition-free four years at their institution. A full-ride scholarship is called a full ride because it covers the cost of tuition, room, board and all of the student's on-campus expenses. It is essentially the ability to go to college for free.

This is clearly the most desirable situation to find yourself in if you find yourself able to attend college at all. Unlike local scholarships, full-ride scholarships are offered by the school, and they tend to be to motivate students who are either exceptionally strong students or exceptionally strong athletes to attend their college. Full-ride scholarships are generally not "applied for" per se. They are instead awarded at the discretion of the academic institution based on their review of the applications.

Generally, if a school feels strongly that it wants a student to attend, it makes sure that it offers every incentive to get him or her. For schools with large endowments and the ability to make financial grants, giving a full-ride scholarship is a way to virtually guarantee that a smart and competent student will elect to attend your institution. It's also a dream scenario for families with multiple children to send to college and who are looking for any sort of financial relief.

What Are Local Scholarships?

On the other end of the spectrum from federal scholarships like the National Merit scholarship and the kinds of grants and awards offered by schools, corporations and universities, there are local scholarships. Local scholarships are opportunities for education funding that are given out by local organizations and local individuals in your community or your geographical region. Students who want to seek out financial assistance and monetary awards should look into local scholarships as soon as they've decided they want to go to college.

Local scholarships may be given by any sort of organization. From leadership organizations like the Masons and the Knights of Columbus to local charities and churches to ballet schools, animal stables and other local organizations that have a vested interest in the life of their community. By sending students to school with their money, these organizations can help to promote bright futures for the best and the brightest among their community. This enriches the community and also helps to promote their own values as they are supporting the kind of people they want to see succeed.

How Do You Find Local Scholarships?

Local scholarships may be available in any number of places and given by any number of donors. A good place to start is your local library. Librarians know how to do research and in many cases may know resources in the area that have a scholarship mission. If they don't know any scholarships offhand for you to apply to, they will certainly know places where you should reach out and research in the case that they have something that makes sense for you.

Once you've done that cursory research, talk to school guidance counselors and see if they are aware of anything you've overlooked that might be helpful to you. Guidance counselors' jobs are to find opportunities for students and doubtless yours will have advice information and other useful material for you to use.

Finally, you should check the internet. Google scholarships in your community and in your areas of interest. Look for local organizations in your state, in your city and even in your neighborhood. There's no telling where funding may come from, so it's best to leave no stone unturned when it comes to looking into local scholarships.

Who Is Eligible for Local Scholarships?

As with all scholarships, eligibility is on a case by case basis. Some scholarships are open only to undergraduate students entering their first year at school. Others are open to students who are pursuing graduate education. Still, others may require that you major in some certain discipline or that you participate in a particular activity throughout your tenure as a student in order to continue receiving student aid. Local scholarships vary greatly in their eligibility requirements.

Some local scholarships may be awarded for only one year at a time while others are dedicated to a student for the entire four years they are in school. While it can be complicated to keep track of all scholarship eligibility requirements, particularly if you are receiving multiple sources of aid, it's worth it to stack as many scholarships as possible in order to get the maximum amount of awards you qualify for.

When Should You Start Looking for Scholarships?

It is never too early to start looking for scholarships, especially local ones. Since local scholarships are the ones most likely to have restrictions that may make you ineligible, it's a good idea to look around and see as early as you can what is available. This goes for larger scholarships, too. If you're a sophomore or a freshman in high school, you can begin to look at the kinds of scholarships that are available, even if you don't know exactly what you want to study.

The earlier you begin to compile a list of scholarships and the earlier you begin to do research on the kind of funding that's available, the better prepared you will be to fill out scholarship materials when the time comes. Early preparation also means you'll have a good sense of what kinds of awards are available to you and what kinds of credentials you'll need to submit in order to qualify for them.

If you start seeking scholarships early enough, you may be able to pinpoint the kinds of academic improvement you need to do in order to make yourself eligible for full-ride scholarships and other academic awards. As with everything, the longer you have to prepare, the better your chances of yielding a great result.

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