Teens have faced one of the toughest job markets in decades this summer, leaving college savings accounts hungry for deposits. But students without steady paychecks can feed their college coffers without having to sell their possessions on eBay.
I'm talking about scholarships. Like finding a job in a recession, competition for these awards is fierce and growing.
Scholarship America, the Bloomington, Minn.,-based organization that administers scholarship programs for corporations and other groups, said applications for the 1,173 scholarship programs it manages were up 15 percent for the year ending June 30, while the number of students receiving awards went down 16 percent.
Still, scholarships can be well worth the effort and the reward can far surpass the amount of cash earned by scooping ice cream or selling clothes at the mall.
Ask Jason Lum, now the president of ScholarEdge College Consulting in St. Paul, Minn. He won $250,000 that paid for a bachelor's degree, a Harvard master's degree and law school. He said he didn't have perfect grades or test scores, but was "persistent as all heck" and didn't take rejection personally if he wasn't selected. Instead of moping about his losing bid, he'd call the scholarship's administrators and say "I'm not calling to complain ... I'm calling to find out what I could have done better so that when I apply next year, I can put in a stronger application." Lum said the effort paid off more times than not.
Finding scholarships is easy. Finding the less-known ones takes work. Everyone starts the search on the Web at free sites such as fastweb.com and scholarships.com.
But Lum says casting a wider net is critical. "Look where other people are not looking. If you look where everyone else is looking, you expose yourself to the maximum number of competitors," he said. He likes Brokescholar.com. Another resource is the newer site Zinch.com.
Never pay to apply for a scholarship. The Federal Trade Commission shares that tip and more about scholarship scams online: www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/pubs/consumer/alerts/alt009.shtm.
Offline, obvious places to scope for scholarships include the high school guidance counselor's office, parents' employers or union groups, churches, civic groups, major corporations and the colleges themselves.
Also, check with "groups that are in their possible fields of interest," said Amy Weinstein, executive director of the National Scholarship Providers Association. These associations hand out money because they have an incentive to get good students through school and into the workforce.
Don't stop with the big-name associations. Lum suggests that an aspiring doctor, for example, should call the American Medical Association and ask for suggestions of lesser-known professional organizations in the field with scholarship programs.
So-called free money for college costs time and effort. Lum tells his clients that they should spend at least 10 hours a week on their scholarship endeavor. That includes research, form-filling, essay writing and engaging in the extracurricular activities that will make a student an appealing candidate.