There's a myth that millions of dollars in scholarship money goes unclaimed every year. But the truth is that thousands of dollars might be going unclaimed by you or your friends. Whether you're in high school looking into attending college or you're in college now, you might very well qualify for several scholarships. Even if you don't have great grades, you might qualify for a unique scholarship for a variety of reasons, such as your hobbies, unique skills, ethnicity or hometown. While there is no such thing as free money for college, seeking out these scholarships can help to relax the serious financial burden college represents for many students.

Origin of the Unclaimed Scholarships Myth

The myth that there are millions of dollars available in unclaimed scholarship money each year has been around since the mid-1970s. Though it has persisted for decades, it isn't as true as many students and some counselors make it seem: the myth originated from a National Institute of Work and Learning study, which estimated that billions of dollars went unclaimed from employers' tuition assistance programs. This money isn't tied up in unclaimed scholarships, but rather are funds set aside by certain employers for staff who meet a set of criteria set up by the company. Staff who meet the criteria can gain access to money to help finance undergraduate and graduate educations: sometimes, this manifests as a "payment match" program where an employer will cover as much tuition as the staff member is able to pay in each month.

Common Scholarship Scams

Some companies use the "billions of dollars going unclaimed" myth to lure unsuspecting students into falling for scholarship search scams. Many legitimate companies offer free scholarship searches. If a company insists that you pay money to access its services, this is probably a scam. And if a company tries to entice you into purchasing a subscription to get access to insider information about scholarships, this is likely a scam also. Often, revealing these scams is as simple as researching the subscription program or search company online: if a wide number of complaints exist, it is usually a good idea to steer clear of the paid program. Just as well, if the service requires payment up front for a trial period, it is fair to suspect a scam.

Strange and Unusual Scholarships

Although there aren't millions or billions of dollars going unclaimed every year, you might be missing out on scholarships that you could personally claim. Often referred to as "random scholarships," a number of businesses and foundations offer unique scholarships based on unusual traits. For example, scholarships are available for people of all sizes, ranging from money set aside specifically for tall people to money set aside for people with dwarfism. Another scholarship is available only to students who read an essay about sprinklers and fire safety online. People who work in a supermarket deli or bakery have their own International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association scholarship. There's even a scholarship for graduate students pursuing potato-related studies.

You Have to Apply

Some people miss out on scholarships that they qualify for because they mistakenly think they'll be automatically entered into the competition due to their high grades or achievements. Like in many other situations, this is not the case. To receive a scholarship you will need to put your foot forward and make yourself a candidate, either by applying with an essay or asking to be considered by your school or state program. Asking your academic counselor for help with this will often reveal the appropriate path to apply. Although some schools or regions offer automatic scholarships, such as for the top 10 percent of a high school graduating class, most merit-level university scholarships require an application. Even if you get accepted into the university, you'll still need to apply for its scholarships. The school's Financial Aid website will almost always explain the process for application – and if not, it is worth calling the office directly for instructions.

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