As a non-traditional student, the financial aid and scholarship process can be overwhelming since these students typically don’t have resources such as guidance counselors at their disposal. However, with deliberate preparation, homeschooled or other alternatively-educated students can give traditional students a quite literal run for their money. Let’s go over the three steps that can help you stand out from the crowd!
Preparing early and often is key for all students but even more so for non-traditional students. Students should set goals (for example, applying to a certain number of scholarships or winning a specific dollar amount) and then plan carefully for application season. Remember, most scholarship applications are due in the spring semester of high school (especially for seniors).
Students might want to take a few minutes and think about how they’re going to stand out from the crowd of other high schoolers and college students looking for that scholarship money. Some think of home education (or returning from a gap year, or going back to college as an adult, or whatever non-traditional path it may be) as a detriment to applications, but with careful marketing it can be a gigantic asset. Identify traits that are unique or unusual that can be demonstrated from concrete achievements. For example, self-discipline might be a key skill demonstrated through an independent-study project.
The scholarship search can be the most daunting part of the process because of the sheer number of options. In general, starting small with local scholarships pays off. Ever heard of the principle of subsidiary, which suggests that the most efficient governance is at the most specific level? It applies to scholarship searching too, not just the AP Government test. Local scholarships, most often offered by civic groups or specially-designated funds, are not as large as some national awards but the applicant pool is also considerably smaller. In March, many high schools release a list of local scholarship opportunities to their students. Since the guidance office typically handles these applications, students who don’t have access to the guidance counselor can contact the organizations directly to get more information about the application process.
If students know where they will be attending college, it may be useful to also reach out to the school financial aid office or website to find smaller scholarships that are a good fit. Without the ease of a set list to go off of, try calling civic organizations (such as Kiwanis, Lions, or Masonic orders) that are likely to offer scholarships or that have offered scholarships in the past. Students should definitely check with groups they are already involved with, such as service organizations, churches, scouting groups or musical ensembles. The local library may offer a scholarship — but more importantly, they may keep a list of local scholarships for which students can apply. When in doubt, reach out.
There are dozens of scholarships out there that may be a great fit for non-traditional students. After applying for local scholarships, turn to those vast databases of scholarships online, such as Fastweb or Chegg. One key thing to note here is quality over quantity: it will probably yield better results to work hard on the applications for a few scholarships than it will to try to use the same essay for dozens of different competitions.
Once students have decided where to apply, the next step is organization and packaging. Decide what scholarships have the highest priority (there are a variety of factors here, such as likelihood of winning, approaching deadlines or the time it will take to fill out the application) and work through the list. Then, get to work on the applications. In order to display prowess as a non-traditional student, it’s sometimes best to include as much information as possible, unless there are strict guidelines on what to submit. For example, for local scholarships a student might have a series of folders containing copies of a resume, SAT scores, high school equivalency certificate, acceptance letters and transcript. Along with the essays and other required paperwork, students can simply take one paper from each folder and add them to the application packet.
This is the time to let your non-traditional light shine!