Researching colleges and navigating through college applications can be daunting, but for most families discussing and then attacking the financial aid process is beyond overwhelming. There are just too many websites, so many books, scams to be wary of, claims of millions of dollars going unclaimed every year, etc. Where does a family start?
Once you've discussed with your child the money available, you then need to assess the likelihood of graduate school and determine who is responsible for which expenses. Many families alert their children that they've saved enough for them to attend a public university in their own state for their undergraduate education, but beyond that the students are on their own for the increased cost of an out-of-state public institution or a private college and graduate school. If graduate school appears to be likely in the short term (medical school or law school), that may make a difference on how you decide where to spend the dollars you've saved. Some families tell their children that if they choose to attend an in-state public university for their undergrad years, the parents will help pay for graduate education.
Assuming you are interested in scholarship opportunities, here are some suggestions:
*Start local: Contact your guidance office and check your local high school website. If your high school doesn't publish a list of scholarship opportunities, check other public and private schools in your area.
*Don't get caught up in the big-money dream: The big-money scholarships (Coca-Cola, Prudential, etc.) receive more than 100,000 applications each year. You're better off looking in your own backyard for scholarship opportunities. Places to think about: civic groups, Rotary, breakfast clubs, parents' employers, organizations, churches, local businesses, etc.
*Look for "renewable" scholarships: A $500 renewable scholarship may not sound like much at first, but over four years it totals $2,000.
*Invest your time wisely: Read the fine print on eligibility and deadlines. Make sure your application positions you as someone deserving of the scholarship. You are better off with a rifle approach where you select "targets" based on an appropriate match. The "shotgun" approach of blasting out applications doesn't work; don't waste your time.
*Determine whether you are a realistic candidate: Understand the purpose of the scholarship, research who has received it in the past and be honest about how likely your chances are of winning the scholarship.
Lee Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte, N.C. For more information, visit www.collegeadmissionsstrategies.com.