You’d love for your college-bound teen to get more scholarships, but you worry that his GPA just isn’t high enough. Am I right? Well, worry no more.
Good news. There are thousands of college scholarships available to students with GPAs as low as 2.50.
I’ll give you tips for finding more scholarships to apply for at the end of this post.
The question for today is: Besides high grades, what can your college-bound teen do to make himself or herself a powerful, attention-getting applicant who will get more scholarships than most other people?
The answer might surprise you.
Scholarship committees (and college financial aid offices) get excited about giving away free scholarship money to high school students who do this:
Commit to one focused activity (related to personal growth and development) over the long term.
College is all about working hard over four years to develop skill, ability, insight, and leadership on a certain subject (a “major”), right?
The greatest scholarship and merit awards tend to go to students who prove throughout their high school years that they already have the ability to concentrate on a topic and develop skill, ability, insight, and leadership in it over a long stretch of time.
What we want is for your teen to demonstrate that he has the character to stick with an activity, keeping at it until it builds something of worth into him over a period of years.
What can your child do to prove that he or she has this capability?
One of the best ways is for her to take some time each fall to look carefully at the school’s list of extracurricular activities. Ask her to mark all the activities that she would love to do if time were not an issue. (If it’s unclear what some of the activities on the list are, have her call the school office and ask.) Then, when she’s carefully considered all the options, ask her to narrow that list down to her top three or so favorites. Ask her to attend meetings for these three activities and start participating in them, singling out one that she likes so much that she could participate in it for all four years of high school.
What activity might she genuinely like well enough to tackle at this advanced level?
School newspaper or yearbook?
Spanish or French club?
She can be involved in as many sporadic “here-and-there” activities as she genuinely wants to be, sure, fine. But I want her to choose one special activity and stick with it—every year of high school—moving into greater and greater levels of skill, responsibility, and leadership within it. That will be tremendously impressive to the people who hand out the free money for college. And it will also build something of value into her that she could never get by hopping like a frog from lily pad to lily pad of frantic and scattered high school activity.
Oh, no—I can just hear the objections to this now!
“Wait, wait, wait,” I can just hear parents, teachers, and guidance counselors objecting, waving their hands to stop me from saying this. “Jeannie Burlowski, surely this isn’t true. I’ve always heard that colleges and scholarship committees are looking for kids who are ‘well-rounded.’ Kids who do a little bit of everything (or a whole lot of everything) rather than doing one thing with any kind of depth. Isn’t this true? Aren’t the high end college admissions, and the scholarship money, and the merit aid money going to insanely busy, perennially exhausted students who run themselves ragged for four years doing it all?”
It’s not true that students have to “do it all” to get the attention of college admissions and scholarship committees.
Do you know how many students in the United States fall into the category you’ve just described? Hyper-busy, exhausted kids, desperately packing their resumes with hundreds of activities they don’t care about in futile attempts to ‘impress’ people they’re never going to actually meet? U.S. colleges and universities can pack their freshman classes 100 times over with students like these. Exhausted, over-committed students are ordinary. They’re unremarkable. They’re run-of-the-mill. Their scholarship applications are yawners. Here’s the truth: it’s the student who’s taken at least one thing and gone after it with depth and passion and commitment who’s going to stand out from the crowd like a superstar and impress everyone.
It’s true for scholarship committees, and it’s true for college admissions committees too.
College admissions committees rifling through piles of college applications are trying to build an interesting, well-rounded class, not just attract another well-rounded applicant. College admissions people are looking for a few bright intellectual stars for every department, some talented actors, musicians, and artists, a few exceptional athletes, a handful of wealthy kids whose parents can fund the construction of the new science building, and kids just like yours who are marked by long-term commitment to seemingly ordinary things like marching band, speech team, debate, school newspaper, yearbook, Spanish club, theater, or robotics. And when the committee finds an applicant that will likely make his or her freshman class a little more interesting for everyone? The committee may send this message to the college financial aid office: “You do whatever you have to do to get this kid here.”
The college applicant who looks vaguely nice on paper but is not really special in any one category is going to have a much harder time making a great impression. The applicant who stands out in one of these areas will have a much easier time getting free college-based merit-aid and scholarship money to pay for college.
Caution: Steer your teen away from choosing sports as his or her one focused activity.
I strongly suggest that students not choose sports as their “one special focused personal growth and development activity.” Instead, choose something non-sports related.
It’s okay for your daughter to play sports if she truly enjoys it, but I urge you: don’t in any way look at sports as your child’s ticket to a free college education.
Contrary to popular belief, college sports scholarships are incredibly difficult to get and even harder to keep. Many collegiate athletes find that the inordinately demanding schedule of athletic practices, travel, and games can make it nearly impossible to succeed at college academic work. Plus, if your daughter sustains a career-ending sports injury (all too common in college sports due to overuse), her involvement in the sport will end abruptly and so will the flow of scholarship money. I strongly suggest that your teen focus on a non-athletic activity as his or her one special “focused personal growth and development activity.” If he or she wants to play sports in college, great—many successful college students I know join college-level intramural “club” sports teams and enjoy all the fun of their sport without the intense and highly pressured practice, travel, and game schedules.
Ask your child to take some time to decide this:
“What will be the non-sports extracurricular activity I’ll throw myself into with all my heart—and try to stick with for all four years of high school?”
Want to know more? Read these posts I’ve written on finding and applying for scholarships. There’s a ton of good information in here:
Learn every way possible to keep college costs down without getting scholarships.
Getting scholarships is a relatively small part of the picture when it comes to getting kids through college debt-free. There are many, many other strategies that parents can use that can end up being easier and more effective—even if they can’t save up a penny.
Learn about all the debt-free college strategies that have nothing to do with scholarships in my book:
It’s a reference book, so nobody reads the whole thing cover to cover. Pick out what you need to read in it using the fast-paced, 10-minute video instructions here.
You can see hundreds of reviews of it on Amazon at:
(Tell your friends.)
You can see why financial advising professionals love LAUNCH, here.
You can see the top 9 questions parents are asking me about LAUNCH, here.
Read just one chapter of LAUNCH every 1—3 months while your child’s in middle school and high school, and you’ll know every viable strategy for debt-free college at exactly the right time to implement it.
And if your child’s already well past middle school? That’s OK; you can run to catch up. But the process of getting your kids through college debt-free goes more smoothly the earlier you start it—especially if you’re not planning to save up any money to pay for college.
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Who is Jeannie Burlowski?
Jeannie is a full-time academic strategist, podcast host, and sought-after speaker for students ages 12–26, their parents, and the professionals who serve them. Her writing, speaking, and podcasting help parents set their kids up to graduate college debt-free, ready to jump directly into careers they excel at and love. Her work has been featured in publications such as The Huffington Post, USA Today, Parents Magazine, and US News and World Report, and on CBS News.
This article was updated on October 27th, 2022.