AND MY GOD WILL MEET ALL YOUR NEEDS ACCORDING TO THE RICHES OF HIS GLORY IN CHRIST JESUS ~ Philippians 4:19
If you’ve looked into the price of college lately, you know how daunting that price tag can be. Our daughter decided before her freshman year of high school that she wanted to be a doctor so we knew that getting as much merit based aid and scholarship money as possible for her undergraduate degree was going to be important. She started her journey towards her Congressional Award Gold Medal at the end of 8th grade year and her focus was on being scholarship ready all through high school.
In all honesty, I feel like starting early and staying focused is the only way to successfully get a significant merit based award. If your child is a junior and you are just now trying to build a resume then you’re going to have a busy year. We survived the process and our daughter ended up with 3 full tuition scholarships to private colleges as well as significant awards at other competitive universities. We aren’t experts by any means, but I would like to share with you some things we did (and learned) along the way.
· Start Early – Merit based awards are hard to come by so you have to stand out among the crowd and showing a long history of involvement, leadership, volunteer work, etc. is very beneficial. Our daughter started working towards the Congressional Award, which focuses on 4 areas: Personal Development, Physical Development, Volunteer Service and executing an Expedition/Exploration. Working towards this goal kept her focused and goal oriented and ensured she was spending a meaningful amount of time on activities instead of just dabbling. Being scholarship ready senior year is going to take a lot of time and dedication leading up to it.
· Focus on Meaningful Activities – Being well-rounded is great, but it’s more important to show passion and dedication. Don’t just join clubs at school, seek out leadership roles. Don’t jump around from one interest to another, show demonstrated interest in something. For Makayla that was the medical field. Most of her time outside of school was focused on her dream of being a doctor; she attended medical camps, volunteered at our local assisted living and hospital, was accepted to and participated in the only cadaver lab offered to high school students in the country, and spent 2 summers volunteering at St Jude in Memphis. This gave her a cohesive narrative and showed the scholarship committees that she was dedicated and focused.
· Work on earning the best ACT or SAT score possible - Before we talk about test prep, let’s talk about timing. The best advice we heard (when Makayla was an 8th grader) was to take standardized tests early and often. Jean Burks from College Prep Genius told us that kids should start taking tests as soon as possible and take them as often as they can afford. These first tests aren’t about the score, it is all about becoming familiar with and comfortable with the test. Makayla prepped the summer before her freshman year and took the PSAT test with high school juniors (we had to convince her counselor to allow her to do this). She took the ACT or SAT 2-3 times per year and by Junior year, when scores start to matter, taking the test wasn’t a big deal. Some of her friends were freaking out about it and she wasn’t stressed because she knew exactly what to expect and could simply focus on doing well.
There are numerous test prep programs out there in every price range imaginable. I would suggest starting with Khan Academy’s free SAT prep. This will give your student a solid base knowledge of what kinds of questions will be on the test and what to expect. Makayla used College Prep Genius her freshman year, SAT prep and ACT prep books her sophomore and junior year, and Prep Scholar the summer before and fall of her senior year for that last push to raise her ACT before college scholarship interviews started. She definitely felt like she benefited most from Prep Scholar, she was also older, more experienced and had learned more of the material at this point. I would suggest researching the different programs and choose one based on your student, time constraints and budget.
· Start looking at Colleges where Your Student will be Competitive – It is great to have a dream school to work towards but I can’t stress enough the need to apply to other schools where your child’s scores/resume will be competitive. We made a pretty big list of schools that Makayla might be interested in, made sure they offered at least full tuition scholarships that she qualified for, then looked at acceptance rates and average scores (we looked at Niche.com for this). If your child’s scores aren’t well-above the average scores of students, they may get accepted but probably won’t receive a great scholarship offer.
Find good schools where your child will shine and focus on those. Look at scholarship recipients from past years and they may provide insight into what the school is looking for. Also keep in mind that admissions counselors are putting together a puzzle for each year’s freshman class. There are several different pieces to the puzzle so students that offer something a little different have a better chance of getting accepted and/or being invited to the scholarship interview process.
· Be careful about digital footprints – Hopefully this is a conversation you’ve already had with your child, but making sure they have a clean digital footprint is more and more important as schools have started looking at social media content for students. I’ve read numerous stories about kids who have had admission and scholarships revoked because of things posted on social media. Not only do they need to be careful about what they post on their own page, but also about posts they like or comment on.
Right now they should go through ALL of their social media accounts and delete any negative content. This won’t remove it from their overall footprint but might make it harder to dig up. Now, moving forward, they should take every opportunity to make positive posts, comments, pictures, etc. They can actually start to build a narrative to go along with what they are hoping to present to colleges by sharing those positive activities on their social media pages.
The biggest take-away here is that the earlier your child starts preparing, the better chances they will have at landing those scholarships. That being said, it’s never too late to start putting their best foot forward either. Focus as much as possible on making sure your child looks good on paper; good grades, the right classes, competitive test scores, etc. and work really hard on submitting great scholarship essays. Once they are in front of the scholarship committee for an interview, they can let their personality and passion shine through and also be given the opportunity to discuss any holes in their resume or grades that maybe weren’t the best. I’m not going to lie, scholarship season was a really stressful time but being prepared made all the difference.
If you haven't already, read Navigating the College Application Process and Academic Resume: Do I Need One and What Should Be On It?