Got College Scholarship Questions? Mark Kantrowitz Has Answers


One of the most frequent questions I'm asked about my own book on paying for college is this: Why don't you have more information on scholarships?

One of the reasons is that, frankly, Mark Kantrowitz, the founder of FastWeb and, simply knows more about that world than I do. If you want information on scholarships, he's your guy.

Happily, he's out with a new book, Secrets to Winning a College Scholarship, which is available in paperback and on Kindle. The book contains everything you'd ever need to know about scholarships -- and even got an endorsement from Suze Orman.

DailyFinance recently asked Kantrowitz a few questions about the book. Here's what he has to say about winning college scholarships:

DailyFinance: Tell us a bit about your own scholarship story.

Kantrowitz: I was one of those kids who won a gazillion dollars for college -- so much money that I did not qualify for any need-based financial aid. My parents did not have to pay a penny for my college education. I was among the best in the nation on math and science competitions, ranking No. 1 in the U.S. in the Continental Math League, winning four first awards from the Massachusetts State Science Fair and placing seventh in the Westinghouse Science Talent Search, among other awards.

Between my scholarships and working as a software engineer in the summer, I graduated from college with more money than when I started, and no student loans.

One of the problems with scholarships is that they can sometimes get complicated when you're also receiving grant aid from a college. Can you talk a little about that "trap" and possible ways families can avoid it?

When a student wins a scholarship, the college reduces the student's need-based financial aid package to compensate. The colleges call this an over-award, and the scholarship providers call it displacement. The students and parents often have a more pejorative term for it.

Some colleges use the outside scholarship to replace the institutional grants, yielding no net benefit to the student other than a line on their resume. Others, however, have a more favorable outside scholarship policy, where the scholarship is allowed to fill any unmet need and to replace some loans before reducing grants. Eliminating loan and work burden is important because it has an impact on student success. For example, students who graduate from undergraduate school with no debt are almost twice as likely to go on to graduate and professional school as students who graduate with some debt.

There are a few ways of working around the college's outside scholarship policy:

  • If you're bringing in a lot of scholarship dollars, try negotiating a more favorable outside scholarship policy. While federal law doesn't allow private scholarships to replace the family contribution when a student is receiving need-based aid, colleges have flexibility in how they reduce the need-based aid package. They can choose to use the scholarships to replace loans instead of grants. They can also choose to provide the student with nonfinancial benefits, such as their choice of dormitory or the chance to work with a top professor in their field.

  • Enroll at a college with a more favorable outside scholarship policy. Evaluate each college based on your out-of-pocket cost, which is the difference between the cost of attendance and all grants and scholarships. Colleges with better outside scholarship policies often have a lower out-of-pocket cost since they let you use more of your scholarship without reducing grants.

  • Enroll at a less-expensive college, where the scholarship covers more of the college's costs. The Pell Grant is never reduced, not even if the student is over-awarded. Often, however, scholarships help enable choice, so many scholarship recipients choose to attend a more expensive college.

  • Enlist the help of the scholarship provider. Some scholarship sponsors have a lot of pull with the college, especially if their scholars collectively provide millions of dollars of funding to the college. They can also allow you to defer a scholarship from one year to the next or to graduate school.

What are some scholarship scams people should be on the lookout for?
If you have to pay money to get money, it's probably a scam. Legitimate scholarships are about giving away money, not getting money. So if a scholarship charges an application fee or some other type of fee (e.g., taxes or administrative fee, or something else that sounds implausible), it's probably not in your best interest.

Besides these "scholarships for profit," there are a variety of other scams, such as fee-based scholarship-matching services that guarantee success, fake scholarship checks, advance-fee loan scams and financial aid seminars that are little more than a high-pressure sales pitch for a product or service.

Nobody can guarantee that you'll win a scholarship. Never invest more than a postage stamp to find out information about scholarships or to apply for scholarships. Most scholarship scams try to get you to give them money, so beware if you have to pay money to apply for any kind of financial aid for college.

What's the best way for students to search for scholarships that are right for them, as opposed to filling out random applications posted on bulletin boards at high schools, etc.?
The best way to search for scholarships is to use a free scholarship-matching service like [founded by Kantrowitz]. It takes about half an hour to complete a background profile as part of the registration process. This profile is matched against a large database of 1.5 million scholarships, showing you only the awards for which you're eligible. It's then up to you to apply for the scholarships and hopefully win. Fastweb updates the scholarship database every day and will send you email to notify you about new scholarships that match your profile.

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I recommend searching at least two of the free online scholarship databases, Fastweb and a competitor. Students who do this are less likely to become a victim of a scholarship scam since they'll have more confidence that they've found all the awards for which they are eligible. The best free scholarship matching services are listed at, including Fastweb's competitors.

Do you have any other tips for maximizing your odds of landing a scholarship?
Here's a great tip from Secrets to Winning a Scholarship: You can double your chances of winning a scholarship by completing the personal background profile more thoroughly. Students who answer the optional questions match about twice as many scholarships on average as students who answer just the required questions. It doesn't take much more time, but it's worth the effort. The questions are included in the profile to trigger the inclusion of scholarships that require the particular attribute as a condition for eligibility. If you don't answer the question, you won't match the scholarship.

Another great tip is to start searching for scholarships as soon as possible. Many students wait until the spring of their senior year in high school to start searching, missing out on half the deadlines. Moreover, there are many scholarships open to students in younger grades, even for students in kindergarten through grade 8. (We list these at, since the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act -- COPPA -- precludes including them in a scholarship-matching service.) You can also continue to apply for scholarships after you're already enrolled in college.

Other resources for finding scholarships include scholarship-listing books, which you can find in the local public library or bookstore. Scholarship books are often found near the jobs and careers section. While an online scholarship-matching service like Fastweb can help you find scholarships in a targeted fashion, books are good for random exploration. Before using a book, however, check the copyright date. A book that is more than a few years old is too old to be useful, since about 10% of scholarships change in some material way each year.

While you're in the library, take a look at the bulletin board for scholarships posted by local businesses and organizations. Some of these scholarships deliberately don't allow their scholarships to be listed in national scholarship databases because they're concerned about being inundated with too many applications. These scholarships are smaller, but they tend to be easier to win and add up quickly. They also add lines to your resume that can help you win bigger awards. You can also find local scholarships posted on bulletin boards outside your high school guidance counselor's office and the financial aid office at a local college.

What's your No. 1 best tip for writing scholarship essays?
If you have difficulty writing essays, try recording yourself as you answer the essay question out loud and transcribe the recording afterward. Most people can speak (and think) faster than they can write or type, so the process of writing interferes with the flow of thought.

This tip yields a more fluent and passionate essay. Such an essay will be more interesting to the reader because it's more interesting to you. This will help you stand out from the crowd. Most scholarship essays are a bit boring. So take a few risks and let your personality appear in the essay. Don't edit all of the life out of the essay.

Proofread your essay. Don't rely only on the spelling-correction software built into your word processing program, as these programs don't detect valid word spelling errors such as it's/its or principal/principle. Printing out the essay lets you look at it in a different way with a fresh perspective, sometimes helping your find the spelling and grammar errors.

Also try reading the essay out loud, since you will stumble when the phrasing is awkward or contains errors. An essay that's filled with errors gives a bad impression and is less likely to win a scholarship.