How to Find Local Scholarships in Your Own Backyard

How to Find Local Scholarships in Your Own Backyard

While it may be instinct to aim for high-dollar, national college scholarships, experts say this may turn students into a “little fish in a big pond.” Instead, local scholarships may often offer less competition and a greater chance for success.

Some national scholarships offer big awards, like the National Merit Scholarship, which gives students $2,500, or the Elks National Foundation Most Valuable Student scholarship, which grants students up to $7,500 annually over four years.

But national scholarships aren’t always significantly higher in value than local scholarships, experts note.

Here are some steps students can take to find and win local scholarships:

  • Ask school staff about local scholarships.
  • Be specific in your search.
  • Use community connections.
  • Avoid scholarship scams.
  • Highlight the organization’s mission when applying.
  • Don’t stop applying.

Ask School Staff About Local Scholarships

A student’s school can be a wealth of information and a great jumping-off point in the search for local scholarship dollars.

“The first stop should always be your high school counselor,” Sara Shaver, director of student services at My College Planning Team, an Illinois-based educational consultant, wrote in an email. “Most places will reach out to the high school so that the guidance office will have these scholarships readily available for the students.”

Teachers can also be a helpful resource, as they are “attending a lot of the same meetings that the guidance counselors are” and “seeing the same information coming over email,” says Jennifer Cochran, manager of grants and scholarships at The Community Foundation for Northern Virginia, which awarded more than half a million dollars in scholarships in 2023.

Be Specific in Your Search

For students researching scholarships online, it’s important to be specific in the search, says Shannon Vasconcelos, senior director of college finance for Bright Horizons College Coach, an education consulting company.

“If you look for a scholarship for a ‘good student,’ that’s going to apply to hundreds or thousands of students,” she says. “But if you look for scholarships for vegetarians or scholarships for women engineers, anything like that, that’s going to narrow down the applicant pool for you.”

The Community Foundation, for instance, has scholarships for high school students in the Washington, D.C. metro area who have a variety of interests and talents, such as poetry, jazz, swimming and drama.

Note that scholarships have different deadlines and requirements, so it’s important to stay organized, experts say.

Use Community Connections

Places of worship, the local chamber of commerce and local businesses are examples of where a student might start in their search for community-based scholarships.

By tapping into organizations and businesses where students already have connections, experts say, students may increase their chances of getting a scholarship. A parent’s employer, for example, may offer an annual college scholarship.

Students should start with scholarships that are more local – like those open only to students attending a specific high school or in a certain club – before expanding the search and widening the net, experts say.

Avoid Scholarship Scams

If a scholarship seems too good to be true – such as “win $2,006 if you were born in 2006” – it is, says Aaron Greene, chief operating officer for Pathfinders College & Career Advisors, a college planning consulting company.

Each scholarship should have a phone number associated with it – if not, that’s a red flag, Greene says. To verify whether an award is legitimate, students can call the number listed and confirm the details. If it is a scam or there are still glaring red flags, like a request to provide a Social Security number, students should not apply and report the website or company to the Federal Trade Commission.

“There’s no right or wrong reasons for (scholarships) to exist,” Greene adds. “What that really means is that there’s no regulation to them. So there’s a lot of fraudulent activity that’s happening with outside scholarships where companies are just fishing for your information, or … trying to get Social Security numbers.”

Highlight the Organization’s Mission When Applying

Many scholarships ask similar types of essay prompts, so Shaver advises students to “not reinvent the wheel.”

“Write one essay on a Google document and then reword it for each scholarship,” she says. “Some scholarships may have a completely different approach and ask for something different. But many times, you will be writing about the same topic on many of your scholarship essays. This can save you time. Therefore, you can apply for more scholarships.”

To stand out on the application, students should do their homework on the organization that’s awarding the scholarship, Vasconcelos says.

“Organizations offer scholarships often to incentivize something,” she says. “You want to make sure that you are speaking to what the organization’s mission is in your application. That you’re not saying, ‘I’m going to take this money and do something totally off the wall with it.’ That you are going to use this money to further your education in this area that is helpful to the organization.”

Don’t Stop Applying

Students should first focus their efforts on applying to scholarships from colleges, as that’s where the vast majority of money comes from, Greene says.

“In society, we have the wrong idea about” outside scholarships, he adds. “We kind of make it seem like this is this big gold mine. Truth is, it’s not.”

But for students wanting to pursue outside awards, some experts say that applying to a mixture of national and local scholarships is the best strategy.

“There can be downsides to only applying for local scholarships,” Shaver says. “Even if you put all your time and effort into applying for these, many times scholarship committees like to divvy up the scholarship funds to multiple candidates. The amount of scholarship dollars does tend to be less than the merit (aid from colleges) and the national scholarships. Be sure to take the time to apply for the national scholarships because many of these go unawarded as well. The pool of students you are applying (with) is much greater. But it is still worth taking the time to apply.”

And the scholarship search shouldn’t end after high school, Vasconcelos says.

“Often it’s like high school seniors in this very narrow window of time think about applying for scholarships, and nobody thinks about it before as an underclassman and many students don’t think about it after senior year.” But students should continue to look for scholarships after high school graduation, she says. “You can win scholarships really all throughout college.”

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