This blog was written by College Forward student and former Summer Bridge Member, David Garcia Suarez. David is currently obtaining a BA in Music Education and Vocal Performance at Northwestern University.
College is expensive. It is also the first big and perhaps, largest investment an individual can make, the cost of which can significantly influence your financial wellbeing for years to come. Aside from the hefty price tag, incoming college students also have to worry about grades, clubs, internships, and networking, among many other things.
Paying for college is a common problem, especially for low-income and first-generation students. They’re pushed by their parents and teachers to apply and attend college but often neglect the financial responsibility and investment that accompanies that decision.
Fortunately, you do not have to be the son of a wealthy oil-tycoon or an amazing Football player to secure that coveted Full Ride that many only dream about. You do, however, have to be willing to put in time and effort.
What is a Full Ride Scholarship?
When you enter college, you’re not only expected to pay tuition, but also room, board, books, supplies, and other expenses that a school might charge you for. This is called the Cost of Attendance. Securing a Full Ride scholarship means that the Cost of Attendance, and all associated fees, will be covered. Instead of worrying about how to pay rent for the month, you can focus your energy on studying or socializing with friends!
There are many types of Full Ride scholarships available: athletic, merit, need-based, etc. In this article, though, we will be focusing on merit and need-based scholarships, which can be separated into the following categories:
- Independent scholarship programs
- Institutional merit-based scholarships
- Institutional need-based scholarships
Independent Scholarship Programs
There are many privately owned and funded organizations that provide Full Ride scholarships. These are not part of any college and typically require their own specific application. You will be asked to apply with the same materials you would apply to college with, such as transcripts, test scores, essays, etc. Recipients can use their scholarship at the college they plan to attend. Here are some examples:
- The Gates Scholarship
- Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Scholarship
These types of scholarships are very competitive and small in number, so they should not be something you should consider putting all your effort into.
Institutional Scholarships: College Research 101
Institutional scholarships are scholarships that are awarded by a college or university. For the most part, most Full Ride scholarships offered will be merit scholarships, meaning that a separate application is usually required to apply, along with the college application. Here are some examples:
- University of Texas – Austin: 40 Acres Scholarship
- Washington University in St.Louis: Annika Rodriguez Scholarship
- University of Virginia: Jefferson Scholarship
- QuestBridge National College Match Scholarship: Offered at 41 Colleges
Once you’ve made your college list, it’s important to research the types of scholarships and aid they offer. Merit scholarship applications are another battle that must be fought separately, coupled with the already stressful Common Application or Apply Texas application, things can get overwhelming. This is why I recommend applying to colleges that offer generous need-based aid. What do I mean when I say generous? If you’re wanting a Full Ride, look for schools that meet 100% financial need.
Schools that fall into this category include:
- Harvard University
- Dartmouth University
- Duke University
- Swarthmore College
- Williams College
- Rice University
- University of Chicago
- Yale University
… and dozens more.
Lots of these schools do not offer merit scholarships due to their already generous financial aid. This means that you can still get that Full Ride without having to fill out any extra applications.
Before we continue, though, here are few things to take into consideration:
Private vs. Public
Public institutions are cheaper than private institutions, but access to resources is something typically more readily available in private institutions. This, however, comes at the cost of diversity and high tuition costs. On the bright side, though, colleges that will offer generous financial aid and merit scholarships will typically be private schools. While merit scholarships are available at public institutions, the applicant pool is usually significantly larger and scholarships are limited.
You might have noticed that the colleges I listed are some of the most highly ranked and prestigious in the nation. Because these colleges are cornucopias of resources, they are highly sought after and as a result, get tens of thousands of applicants. Additionally, these colleges typically take fewer students than public schools, thereby resulting in low acceptance rates. Thus, the typical students applying to and ultimately attending these colleges will be students at the top of their high schools, either academically, socially, or financially.
Each school has a different way of determining your financial need. Your EFC (expected family contribution) is calculated when you fill out your FAFSA. That EFC, however, might be different depending on the college(s) you apply to, and how they determine it. In addition to the FAFSA, you will also have to fill out a CSS profile (think of it as a more in-depth FAFSA) for any private schools that you apply to.
If you feel a bit turned-off, I don’t blame you. I also felt the same way when I was applying to these types of schools. Regardless, you can make yourself a competitive applicant and gain admission to one of these schools, with a full-ride scholarship.
Tips and Advice: How to become a competitive applicant
As much as we love to tip-toe around the idea, at the end of the day, colleges are businesses as much as they are places of education. Colleges and scholarship programs want to make sure they’re investing in students that will give back to their school, through leadership in student organizations, scientific breakthroughs in research, or donations as wealthy alumni.
First and foremost, you have to make sure that you strive for academic excellence. What does this mean? In other words, recipients of Full Ride scholarships typically have high GPAs (grade point average) and take the hardest classes, usually AP, offered at their high school.
Doing great on your standardized tests (e.g. SAT, ACT, AP, IB) will strengthen your application because it shows that you perform well under pressure, are able to retain information, and in cases where you made significant improvements to your score, demonstrate diligence and analytical thinking.
Despite popular belief, good grades and test scores alone won’t set you up for success. Participation in extracurricular activities is something colleges and scholarship programs look for because they’re looking to just fill a quota of students, or give money away. They’re looking for the next star player for their lacrosse team, the next big star for their musical theatre productions, the next president of their Latino student alliance organization, and more!
Presenting yourself as a student that takes initiative and is able to lead successfully will do wonders for you as an applicant. Gunning for leadership positions in high school, through clubs and organizations, is a great place to start. For those of you that can’t do that, no worries! There are many ways you can demonstrate leadership without actively being in a position of power. Actively participate in class by asking questions or taking part in discussions. Be a great listener and work on your communication skills.
Fostering great relationships with your teachers, mentors, and peers is something everyone should strive for, regardless of their plans after high school. Colleges and scholarship programs will almost always require a letter of recommendation, or several, to gain a new perspective of you in the eyes of your recommenders. The deeper your relationships go, the stronger your recommendations will be. It will be much easier for a teacher to write a great, genuine, recommendation for a student they have interacted with more than a student who just showed up to their class, did their work and left. A great way to begin working on this is to actively participate in class and student clubs, while making the effort to interact with those around you.
Finally, what will truly define your application won’t be your statistics, but your essay(s). Essays give you the opportunity to present yourself in a way that your grades and test scores can’t. It is your opportunity to reveal your best qualities and convince the readers to accept you or give you a scholarship. There are many topics that you may encounter, but the end goal is the same: present your ideas in a well-written format that also embodies your essence as an individual.
Final thoughts and advice
Everyone is in a different place right now: some students may already have all the attributes required to be a competitive applicant, some students may have most attributes but not all, some students might think that they do not remotely qualify for a Full Ride.
For those that seemingly have every box checked, be careful not to put all your eggs in one basket. You will be entering a process with applicants from not just the entire nation, but some from the entire world as well. There are going to be students who have done just as much or even more than you. And unfortunately, not everyone will be able to secure a Full Ride.
For those that check some, but not all of the boxes, there’s no need to worry. Every school and many scholarship programs have holistic review processes, meaning that they take into account everything about you as a student, not just your application. They will look at the school you attended your socioeconomic status, and trends in your grades, the contents of your essay, etc. If that is still not enough reassurance, then stop focusing on your weaknesses and work on your strengths. For example, you might have a not so impressive GPA but an excellent and promising SAT score. Lastly, an amazing essay can take your application to the next level.
And for those students who do not think they qualify for a Full Ride, don’t give up. If you’re a Sophomore in high school, you have more than enough time to improve. If you’re a senior about to graduate, however, you might feel a bit hopeless. The race is never over though. You can continue to apply for scholarships even while attending college. Or, you can attend college and then transfer to a school that can give you a Full Ride.
And for all students reading this, think about your strengths and what you want out of college. Think about what you enjoy doing or what you picture yourself doing. Find small scholarships to apply to, because they add up. Yes, it would be great to get your education paid for in one large lump of money. However, you’ll have less competition, less stress, and a much higher chance of success.
Sources and Further Reading:
Colleges with the Best Financial Aid
Jack Kent Cooke College Scholarship Program
A First Try at ROI: Ranking 4,500 Colleges
Estimating the Payoff to Attending a More Selective College: An Application of Selection on Observables and Unobservables