When you think about scholarships, scam is likely the last word that comes to mind.
But some people and companies would like to trick you into paying a fee to enter a scholarship contest or steal your financial information via an e-mail request to deposit scholarship money you've won but for which you've never applied.
Sharpen your detection skills by understanding how these scams work, and you'll be better able to find and apply for legitimate scholarships. In 2000, Congress enacted criminal penalties for financial aid scams. View the Federal Trade Commission's (FTC) annual report
to Congress before beginning your scholarship search. Check out the examples of scams. The FTC's Consumer Education and Outreach Efforts section highlights programs for learning more about scholarship scams.
Look for scholarships using trusted sources and organizations.
Scams aren't the only scholarship offers you should avoid. "Everything that requires a payment, I throw away," says Bob Bardwell, director of guidance and student support services at Monson High School, Monson, Mass. A scholarship that requires a payment isn't necessarily a scam, but Bardwell believes students shouldn't have to pay fees.
Scholarships that could be scams...
If you decide to apply for a scholarship that has a fee, or if you haven't heard of the organization offering it, check out the company carefully. Be wary of grandiose promises and don't provide information the outfit could use for identity or cash theft.
"Never give out account information, your Social Security number, or credit card information for any reason," says Bardwell. "Legitimate scholarship applications do not require this sensitive information."
If an organization seems legit, but you haven't heard of it before, proceed with caution and perform extra research. "Check with the Better Business Bureau
to see if complaints have been filed against the scholarship organization," says Bardwell. "Ask for a list of previous recipients of the scholarship or, if that is not available, colleges to which a scholarship was disbursed in the past."
When you have doubt about a scholarship's legitimacy, ask people you trust to help you decipher fact from fiction. "If you have questions or if something does not seem right, consult with your parents, guidance counselor, or financial aid professional," says Thomas Harnisch, policy analyst with the American Association of State Colleges and Universities
, Washington, D.C.
Find legitimate scholarships.
Look for scholarships using trusted sources and organizations. Start with your school's guidance counselor and the financial aid officer at the universities you plan to attend.
"Start to search early, preferably in your sophomore year, to identify potential scholarships that you may be eligible for," says Bardwell. Think about activities and talents that could get you a scholarship, such as community service, hobbies, musical talent, creative writing, academic achievement, SAT and ACT scores, and athletics.
Your essay-writing skills and creativity could play a large part in earning scholarships. Students can re-use essay answers for many scholarships, Bardwell says. However, some scholarships ask unique questions. Those scholarships often have fewer applicants, so you'll have better odds of receiving a scholarship. To ensure you are applying for the best scholarships, have a chat with your school counselor about your goals and ambitions, as well as universities you're considering. School counselors often help alumni, too, if you waited a year or two to attend college.
Be creative with your scholarship search, but don't be so creative that you fall for a scam. With the help of your school counselor, parents, and university financial aid officers, you can apply for scholarships you're more likely to receive and avoid potential scams.
By Reyna Gobel