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College Planning

How to Stand Out from the Applicant Crowd

Now that the fall season is here, it may be time to start thinking about applying for colleges. We’ve talked a lot about scholarships and grants before. The fact is there are many ways to pay for college without taking out a student loan.

But with thousands and thousands of students applying for the same aid, how do you stand out from the crowd?

This comes down to two things. While you’re applying, you might hear them referred to as need-based and merit-based scholarships and grants.

The need-based scholarships are based on income. So if your parents make a certain amount of money, you might not qualify. But that’s okay, because that’s where merit-based scholarships come in.

You already know that grades and test scores are a big deal. That’s just part of being a student. But you might not realize that a lot of schools are looking for students who want to be actively involved on campus. The best way for them to judge that is to look at how much extracurricular stuff you’re doing in high school.

Thinking about getting involved in a leadership role in a student organization, playing on an athletic team, joining some type of academic club, or volunteering at your school and in your community.

The more leadership, volunteer and extracurricular activities you’re a part of, the better your college application will look. They could be the small difference that separates you from other applicants.

So if you have a 3.5 GPA and have been involved in your community and school and another applicant has a 3.5 GPA without doing anything else, then you’re off to a great start!

Take this advice, and I promise you won’t regret it. Get involved at your high school, and, when colleges begin selecting their students, you’ll stand out from the crowd!

With the right planning, It is possible to graduate debt-free!


  • Mozman68

    GPA and involvement in school activities are important, but also consider studying early and often for either the ACT or SAT. start freshman year. While you still need to know the answers, there is a comfort in knowing the “flow” of the tests so you may focuhon the answers and not get thrown by the pace of taking the test. nnA greater than 3.5 average and a 32 on his ACT allowed my son to get a full academic scholarship to an awesome state university as an out of state student…and then received another scholarship from his major school that almost covered room and board. nnMe? Debt free and the proudest and happiest dad on Earth!

  • Hi Rachel…it would be great to be interviewed by you. 🙂 You are everywhere! nThere are so many things to consider when looking at college affordability. This time of year, parents need specifics for “damage control”. 🙂

  • Taylor

    Good advice; embarrassingly poor grammar in the first paragraph: it’s “there *are* many ways.” An intentional high-school career gives a leg-up in the college funding process for sure–maybe even too much of a leg up. But the unfortunate reality is that there is going to be a financial hit somewhere: if you don’t have wealthy parents, you’re both sacrificing the money you could make at work and in a sticky situation for the summers, when it is difficult (if not impossible) to find housing and sufficient part-time employment.nnnWhat makes the most sense to me is to eliminate summers from college programs, but I have not heard this discussed much; there may be serious drawbacks.

  • PJA

    Sorry. I disagree. “Could” is the operative word here. Getting involved is nice, but it won’t make you stand out from the crowd. My daughter had a 5.03 GPA, graduated as salutatorian, did 4 varsity sports each year, was in several clubs, and also volunteered at at low-income elementary school. But, because both my husband and I work she didn’t quality for any needs-based scholarships. And, of the merit-based ones, even with all this in her application, got only $3500 in scholarships — and those from local scholarships. You really have to re-invent something or volunteer in a poor country, it seems, to win the bigger awards.

    • Both parents working in no way disqualifies one from scholarships or need based grants. You just need to know where to look….and most families don’t 🙁

  • Jean McCarthy

    Sadly, I have to agree with PJA. My daughter had a 4.73, was class president, played two Varsity sports, had hundreds of volunteer hours and only received about $5,000 in scholarships for her first year. My husband and I also earn what the colleges deem “adequate” to make us ineligible for any type of need aid and in order to qualify for substantial merit aid in our state, you need to be first generation college attendee or fall under a specific minority classification. It’s very frustrating for the kids who worked extremely hard in high school and do not want to mortgage their future in order to get a degree!

    • What Rachel didn’t mention is that most high achievers apply to the wrong schools for money. It is totally predictable how much money each student will get…. Congrats on such a high achiever….hopefully college is affordable,

  • Bill

    $5000 and $3500 are pretty significant amounts of money. Imagine how many hours they would have had to put in flipping burgers to make that. Leadership and extracurriculars aren’t going to provide a free college education (and why should they?), but they can certainly help bring the cost down. nnMy daughters with similar grades, ACT scores, extracurriculars and leadership have only received $800-$1300 each in up front money (again that’s a lot of babysitting they didn’t have to do), but they also each earned about half off in tuition–every year. They still have the other half of tuition and room, board and books, but that’s still a lot of money. They could have reduced it farther by living at home, going to state schools, etc. They chose to pay for a more expensive option, but they could afford to do that without debt because we and they started saving early, which is the most important piece.

  • ELP

    Jean and PJA,nnnJust curious. How many scholarships did your kids apply for? This is a numbers game and the more applications, the greater the chance for scholarships. Did they just fill out the FASFA or also apply to numerous other scholarships? I’m just trying to educate myself on the current college climate. Please reply if you get a chance. Thank you.

    • The purpose of the FAFSA is to let schools know your EFC. It has nothing to do with scholarships. Only need based grants