4 Scholarship Tips From a First-Generation Student Who Scored a Full-Ride

first-generation college student scholarships

Nine out of 10 low-income, first-generation students don’t graduate from college on time, according to a 2016 report from the Education Advisory Board.

EJ Carrion was not among them. Carrion won the full-ride Gates Millennium Scholars Scholarship, allowing him to graduate debt-free from the University of Oklahoma in 2011.

Seeking first-generation college student scholarships as a high school student put him on the right track — and it can put you on the right track, too.

4 ways to win first-generation college student scholarships

First-generation students are much less likely to graduate within six years when they come from a low-income home. The challenge of affording college makes it all the more difficult to complete coursework, according to an exhaustive 2016 report from the Pell Institute.

Carrion got a head start by applying for as many scholarships as possible. He filled out the FAFSA early, used tools to find free money for college, and used scholarship search engines like Unigo.

Here’s what he learned in the process.

1. Start with the longer applications

By going after the bigger awards first, you’ll put yourself through the ringer. But that effort will pay off.

Carrion, now the founder of Student Success Agency, said he sees too many high school students apply to only a handful of scholarships before resorting to student loans.

“Start by applying for lengthy ones because you can use that information as the process continues,” he said. “For the Gates scholarship, I was required to submit eight essays, but once [I] completed [them], I used them for other applications as well.”

Carrion said many students wait until they’re accepted into college to begin looking for scholarships. This puts you at a disadvantage. Instead, start as early as possible.

“My mother and I were looking at those scholarships before I [was] even [eligible to] apply,” he said. “This gave us more preparation time and strategic direction because we knew what they were looking for, and I had time in high school to make those things happen. ”

If you’re a high school junior, for example, explore scholarship opportunities for high school seniors. You can get a handle on common requirements and use the time you have to meet them. You might work on your grades, take on a student leadership role, or even pick up a wacky talent to qualify for scholarships.

2. Apply for scholarships that reward your strengths

Understanding that applying for college scholarships is a numbers game, Carrion took his strategy one step further. He applied for more than 30 scholarships that required an essay, a resume, or letters of recommendation. He hadn’t graduated in the top 20 percent of his high school class, so he needed to stand out in another way.

Carrion chose the 30-plus scholarships because each had a mission related to diversity, leadership involvement, or community service. Not coincidentally, these were his three biggest strengths.

“I tell students the key is to find scholarships that align with your strengths beyond GPA,” he said. “However, if you have excellent grades and do well on standardized tests, clearly those types of scholarships should be your priority.”

As you search for scholarships for first-generation college students, read about the organizations that offer them. If you can identify with the type of student that the organization is aiming to award, you could be a good fit.

Here are four examples of first-generation college student scholarships that are clear about their intended audience:

As you can see, scholarship opportunities for first-generation students can be specific. Seek out those that are right up your alley, that way you’ll increase your chances of winning them.

3. Ask for help at home and online

If you’re a first-generation student, you likely don’t have many resources at your disposal. You might not even have a family member or close friend who graduated from college. But don’t discount the possibility that they can still help you during the pre-college process.

“The biggest thing a student can do is open a consistent dialogue with a caring adult about their college plans,” Carrion said. “My mother was that person for me. She kept me accountable and followed up with me daily to make sure I was on track with deadlines and paperwork.”

Whether you can find a family member or mentor who has the time to help you navigate this process, there are more ways to find support. Beyond Carrion’s agency, College Greenlight and Strive for College can help you prepare for application season. The First Generation Foundation offers support once you’re enrolled, too.

You can also find local nonprofit organizations for first-generation students via FirstGEN Fellows.

4. Check with your state and school

Carrion had the fortune of having all of his college expenses — tuition, room and board, and books — paid for by the time he reached campus. Not all first-generation students have it so good.

It’s likely you’ll show up for class wondering how to finance the rest of your education. Before you decide if private student loans are your best option, look to your state and your school for support.

The Florida Department of Education, for example, offers its residents the First Generation Matching Grant Program. You can find your state’s related scholarship and grant programs through this tool from the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

You might also get aid by simply calling up or walking into the financial aid office of your prospective school. For example, Harvard Business School recently reported a multimillion dollar fund for students who are the first in their family to attend college.

You don’t have to be among the elite to secure such aid. Here are three public universities with annual handouts for first-generation students:

The bonus of scoring scholarships for first-generation college students via your state or your school is that they typically come with additional support. At the University of Colorado-Boulder, for example, grant winners have access to increased counseling on campus as well as opportunities in the community.

Finding scholarships for first-generation college students

Carrion said being the first person in his single-parent home to attend college was all the motivation he needed to find a way to afford it.

“Being the first in your family means you have the opportunity to inspire and change the mindsets for those before you and after you,” he said. “It’s a wonderful opportunity that you should not take lightly.”

Carrion’s graduation from college led to two more degrees in the family. Both his mom and his younger brother followed in his footsteps.

Keep your own motivation in mind when applying for first-generation college student scholarships. Sharing your personal story in applications can help you stand out from other scholarship applicants.

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