Brain dump on college scholarships

Posted on 05/29/2014 in misc

A couple of years ago I wrote a blog post where I brain dumped everything I learned about homeschoolers and the college admissions process. With child number two having decided to attend Missouri State University, now is a good time to think about what I can add to that first post. I don't think I have much specifically homeschooling related to add. Everything from that earlier post still applies. However, I do think we learned a lot about the scholarship process, so hopefully something from below will be useful to somebody that reads this. If it is, please leave a comment.

Note: There are scholarships available from a lot of sources. For the purposes of this blog post, when I say scholarship I mean larger scholarships available direct from the school, awarded on merit.

How Scholarships Are Awarded

I'm sure there are variations on this, but for the 7 schools my daughter applied to, this was fairly consistent. Initial eligibility for the big scholarships was based on acceptance into the honors programs at the schools. Generally speaking, you need a near 4.0 GPA and SAT scores at least in 95th percentile neighborhood to even be considered for honors at a State U type of school. Some schools roll all incoming freshman above some SAT / GPA threshold into the honors program, and some have additional requirements (usually an essay or two) to move beyond standard admittance. The bottom line is you will need to get into the honors program to have a shot at the larger scholarships. Once admitted to honors, the process can vary greatly. At one school, all honors admittees may be invited to interview. At another school they may have a preliminary essay requirement that combined with your high school grades and activities is used to narrow the crowd to a group of finalists that get invited to campus for scholarship interviews. At Michigan State, several thousand kids are invited on one of two weekends to take a 3 hour multiple choice test, and test scores are used to award scholarships. I thought that was an odd way to do it. Other schools require several essays and hand out scholarships without ever meeting in person. So think about whether or not you really would fly across country to interview for a scholarship that you have a 5% chance at winning, if we assume all the kids interviewing have an equal shot.

The Scholarship Interview

This is highly subjective, and might very well be wrong. I'm basing this entirely on my daughter's experience making it to the interview stage at two schools. She was also invited to the Michigan State scholarship test day, but it conflicted with one of the interview days and we felt the interview was the better route to go. My basic advice is to not stress about the interviews. As a parent there is little you can do at this point to help.

-- Do not drill them on their essays right before the interview. You will just stress them out.

-- Do not talk about how important the scholarship is financially to your family. You will just stress them out.

-- Do not spend \$1000 on their interview outfit. Other parents will think you are an idiot.

-- Do not yell at them when they come out in tears because they think the interview went poorly. Other parents will think you are mean, because you are.

-- Do not try to accompany your teen into the interview. I didn't see this happen, but SIU actually stated that parents were not allowed, so it probably has happened.

-- Do not try to bully your way past the "no parents allowed" line. The schools are doing your kid a favor by keeping you away for those last few minutes when they are next to go.

-- Do not try to drive all night to get there for a 9 AM interview. Your student will not be operating at peak efficiency.

So, how do you win the big dollar scholarship?

I have no idea. Seriously, I think it's kind of a crap shoot at this point. Every kid interviewing has great grades, ridiculous SAT scores, ample extra-curricular activities, community service, blah blah blah. That stuff is just the price of admission to the scholarship competition. I think (warning- highly subjective statement following) that there are two things that may improve your odds at this point. -- Be Interesting -- Connect with the interviewers Given hundreds of kids with similarly impressive backgrounds rolling through the interview process in one day, standing out has to be tough. By "be interesting" I mean you have to have a good story. Just having the grades and the test scores and the all that by itself is sort of boring. How does it all connect? How did it change the kid and how does all that experience come together as the kid in the interview? You can't fake this. Either you've done this stuff because you love it or are otherwise somehow driven, and its molded and impacted your life, or you are just another teen that checked off all the boxes because your parents and counselor told you it was important. That 2nd kid isn't getting the scholarship. Colleges see thousands of them every year. Connecting with the interviewers is partially out of your control. You might have a dud interviewer who is checking off the questions as asked and not really engaging in the interview. It sucks, it happens, and you can't do anything about it. However, it might also be the interviewee. As the one seeking a big vote of confidence via a scholarship check from the school, it's your job to make that engagement happen. 6 years of previous public speaking experience, debate club, or whatever at this point would be pretty helpful. Facing authority figures with a lot on the line is stressful enough for us adults that have some experience in that situation. It's murder on a teen with no experience at all. My daughter has 9 years of competitive horse judging experience, which just happens to put you in that situation at every competition. I think it made a huge difference. We certainly didn't plan it out when she was 9. It was a happy accident. I'm not suggesting you force your kids into activities at age 11 just to get experience with public speaking. I am suggesting if your kid happens to do something like that, it's going to help with that 20 minute scholarship interview. However, taking public speaking your junior year of high school is not a bad idea.

Not All States Are Equally Generous

This was kind of a surprise to me. The variation in how much scholarship money is available between states is kind of dramatic. My home state of VA is downright stingy on the scholarship money. Texas and Colorado seem to reserve the larger scholarships for in-state students. So when you are looking at schools take a peek at the scholarship page on the web site to get an idea on what is available. It may inform some of your decisions.

Don't Be Afraid of Applying Out-Of-State

Many public schools will automatically waive the out-of-state surcharge for high achieving students. It more or less equals the honors school requirements. So if you can get into honors school there is chance they will waive out-of-state surcharges and immediately become cost competitive with your in-state schools.

Don't Be Afraid of List Price At A Private School

Many private schools will start discounting quickly to be cost competitive. In our experience with two kids, many private school acceptance letters come with a scholarship that drops the cost to roughly the same as a public school.

Anything Else?

There are dozens if not hundreds of books on Amazon about acing the scholarship interview. We didn't read any of them. There are countless web sites with advice, and I've just become one of them with this post. I found a couple with lists of the most obvious interview questions. I sent those links to my daughter. That was it. I did nothing else to help. I followed my own advice from above and I stayed out of her way.

So, What Happened?

She was awarded a full tuition and room/board scholarship from one school, and about \$100K from another. Yes, we are quite proud :) However, as I implied above, that doesn't really tell us much about my daughter. If she had interviewed with another person maybe her story doesn't connect quite as powerfully, and she doesn't get awarded the full-ride. Don't get your ego wrapped up in whether or not your kid gets the scholarship. Don't let your kid take it personally either. Getting to the interview is sort of in your control. After that, you do your best and hope it's your day. I really believe a well prepared kid with a great story could do the exact same interview with 10 sets of interviewees at a school, and at best 2-3 would award the scholarship. There is a large randomness factor involved.

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