What would a full ride scholarship mean for you and your student?

Each year, more than $50 billion in grants and scholarship money is awarded by the U.S. Department of Education, the nation’s colleges and universities, and by private sources, including individuals, foundations, corporations, nonprofit groups, service clubs and other organizations.

Many local families have been given the gift of a free education through scholarships. A Traverse City West graduate is attending University of Michigan as an engineering student with enough national and local scholarships to cover all college costs, a new computer and money left over to help with personal and travel expenses. Tristan Boomer, a 2016 St. Francis graduate, won a full ride between ROTC and college scholarships at Washington University St. Louis. A Traverse City Central graduate is attending Central Michigan College with a full scholarship — only needing to cover some personal expenses.

There are millions of scholarships available each year, and you can start applying for them in elementary school and continue on through college and graduate school. One of the biggest mistakes that many students make is that they only apply for scholarships their senior year — and stop applying once they graduate from high school. There are literally thousands of scholarships for students in college and even for graduate students. Some of these awards are only open to students who are already in college. Your financial aid office and the department for your major are two of the best sources for these awards.

There are two types of scholarships: need-based and merit-based. As the name suggests, need-based scholarships are based on your financial need and parents' income. But merit-based scholarships are based on other factors — such as academic achievement, or on a combination of academics and a special talent, trait, extracurricular achievements or interest. Financial need and parents’ income are not factors for merit-based scholarships.

Many scholarships are geared toward particular groups of people. For example, there are scholarships for women, high school seniors, redheads or those passionate about coffee. And some are available because of where you or your parent work, or because you come from a certain background (for instance, there are scholarships for military families).

A scholarship might cover the entire cost of your tuition, or it might be a one-time award of a few hundred dollars. Either way, it’s worth applying for, because it’ll help reduce the cost of your education. Each year there is close to $100 million in unclaimed scholarship money in the U.S., often because there aren't enough qualified applicants.

For the outstanding athletes in the area, keep in mind that more than half of athletic scholarships awarded are designated to one of four sports — football, basketball, soccer, track and field.

Most scholarships that are renewable — which means that you win them for more than one year — have requirements for you to retain the award. These can be requirements such as that you continue to attend the same college, maintain a certain GPA or keep the same major. When you win a scholarship, ask the organization what you need to do to maintain your award.

Keep in mind that many colleges require you to report the scholarships that you win — and then adjust your financial aid package. For example, if you win a $5,000 scholarship, the college may decrease your financial aid package by that amount. From your perspective, this probably seems unfair and you may wonder why you should even bother to apply. If your college has this kind of policy, you can ask them to decrease your loan amount instead of grants. In this way, your total financial aid received remains the same, but you will owe less money.

You may not have a 4.0 GPA. There are many scholarships based on other criteria. There are, for example, scholarships based on leadership, public service, art, athletics, theater and dance. Providers may seek the students who best fit their selection criteria, which may include other factors like character, motivation, leadership or involvement in activities.

Most students cringe at the thought of applying for scholarships because they have to write an essay for each one. There are some scholarships that don't require essays, especially ones for art, music or other types of awards that require a portfolio or project instead. But most scholarships do require an essay. Essays are the best way for scholarship judges to get to know you beyond your grades, test scores and other data that you provide on your application form.

When you're writing a scholarship essay, let your personal voice come through. Include lots of details that help reveal who you are. It's usually a good idea to focus on a problem and how you solved it or overcame adversity.

Students who volunteer enjoy a huge advantage with scholarship sponsors because most scholarship sponsors are looking for a long-time commitment to volunteering. This preference for volunteering makes sense — many scholarship providers are nonprofits committed to helping others.

Applying for scholarships is a numbers game. Luck is a factor even for the most accomplished students. Don't ignore the small scholarships. Some scholarships worth $1,000 or less may only have 15 or 20 students applying.

High school guidance counselors are the best source of information on local scholarships. Also check bulletin boards at libraries and outside financial aid offices. Local scholarships are easier to win than regional and national ones — and because of the giving nature of our area there are many to apply to.

The Grand Traverse Regional Community Foundation gives away more than $150,000 each year. The 2017 applications are available right now for regional scholarships. The TCAPS scholarship pool opens on Feb. 6. Visit www.gtrcf.org for more details — keep in mind the deadlines are March 1 for regional scholarships and March 6 for the TCAPS scholarship pool.

Vicki L. Beam is a college planner and owner of Michigan College Planning located in Traverse City. She encourages questions and comments about future columns. Contact Michigan College Planning at 231-947-0203, by email at vicki@michigancollegeplanning.com and at www.michigancollegeplanning.com.

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