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

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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 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 awards 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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Here are our top student loan lenders of 2021!
LenderVariable APREligibility 
1.04% – 11.98%1Undergraduate, Graduate, and Parents

Visit College Ave

1.13% – 11.23%*,2Undergraduate, Graduate, and Parents

Visit SallieMae

3.80% – 9.36%3Undergraduate and Graduate

Visit CommonBond

2.20% – 6.17%4Undergraduate and Graduate

Visit EdvestinU

1.05% – 11.44%5Undergraduate and Graduate

Visit Earnest

1.82% – 11.32%6Undergraduate

Visit Ascent

N/A7Undergraduate and Graduate

Visit FundingU

1.12% – 11.23%8Undergraduate and Graduate

Visit SoFi

1.15% – 11.01%9Undergraduate and Graduate

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* The Sallie Mae partner referenced is not the creditor for these loans and is compensated by Sallie Mae for the referral of Smart Option Student Loan customers.

1 Important Disclosures for College Ave.

CollegeAve Disclosures

College Ave Student Loans products are made available through either Firstrust Bank, member FDIC or M.Y. Safra Bank, FSB, member FDIC. All loans are subject to individual approval and adherence to underwriting guidelines. Program restrictions, other terms, and conditions apply.

Rates shown are for the College Ave Undergraduate Loan product and include autopay discount. The 0.25% auto-pay interest rate reduction applies as long as a valid bank account is designated for required monthly payments. Variable rates may increase after consummation.
 
This informational repayment example uses typical loan terms for a freshman borrower who selects the Deferred Repayment Option with a 10-year repayment term, has a $10,000 loan that is disbursed in one disbursement and a 8.35% fixed Annual Percentage Rate (“APR”): 120 monthly payments of $179.18 while in the repayment period, for a total amount of payments of $21,501.54. Loans will never have a full principal and interest monthly payment of less than $50. Your actual rates and repayment terms may vary. This informational repayment example uses typical loan terms for a first year graduate student borrower who selects the Deferred Repayment Option with a 10-year repayment term, has a $10,000 loan that is disbursed in one disbursement and a 7.10% fixed Annual Percentage Rate (“APR”): 120 monthly payments of $141.66 while in the repayment period, for a total amount of payments of $16,699.21. Loans will never have a full principal and interest monthly payment of less than $50. Your actual rates and repayment terms may vary.

Information advertised valid as of 7/22/2021. Variable interest rates may increase after consummation. Approved interest rate will depend on the creditworthiness of the applicant(s), lowest advertised rates only available to the most creditworthy applicants and require selection of full principal and interest payments with the shortest available loan term.


2 Sallie Mae Disclaimer: Click here for important information. Terms, conditions and limitations apply.

3 Important Disclosures for CommonBond.

CommonBond Disclosures

Offered terms are subject to change and state law restriction. Loans are offered by CommonBond Lending, LLC (NMLS # 1175900), NMLS Consumer Access. If you are approved for a loan, the interest rate offered will depend on your credit profile, your application, the loan term selected and will be within the ranges of rates shown.  If you choose to complete an application, we will conduct a hard credit pull, which may affect your credit score. All Annual Percentage Rates (APRs) displayed assume borrowers enroll in auto pay and account for the 0.25% reduction in interest rate. All variable rates are based on a 1-month LIBOR assumption of 0.15% effective Jan 1, 2021 and may increase after consummation.


4 Important Disclosures for EdvestinU.

EdvestinU Disclosures

EDvestinU is a product of the nonprofit New Hampshire Higher Education Loan Corporation (dba The NHHEAF Network) NMLS ID#1527348.

APR range and repayment rates displayed assume a $10,000 loan disbursed in two equal disbursements. APR low assumes immediate repayment and 7 year repayment. APR high assumes deferred repayment and 15 year repayment. APR’s presented include a .50% interest rate reduction for electing to have payments automatically deducted from a bank account. The interest rate reduction for authorizing our servicer to automatically deduct monthly payments from a savings or checking account will not reduce the monthly payment, but will reduce the monthly finance charge, resulting in a lower total cost of loan. All examples are provided for educational purposes and actual terms may vary based on credit history, loan amount, applicable repayment term, and chosen repayment plan and method. Please note that the interest rate on variable rate programs may increase or decrease over time. The variable rate example assumes the same standard rate for the life of the loan. The NHHEAF Network reserves the right to modify or cancel its program at any time.  

Eligibility: Dependent and independent U.S. citizen students. Currently residents of Washington and California are not eligible for EDvestinU programs.
Students must be enrolled at least half-time at a U.S.-based Title IV, degree-granting college or university.
The borrower or cosigner (if applicable) must have a minimum adjusted gross income of $30,000.

Loan Limits: Minimum loan amount of $1,000.
Maximum loan amount is cost of education less aid received.

Repayment: Standard or graduated repayment options available during repayment; 7, 10, or 15 year term selected by the borrower.
6-month grace period available to borrowers electing a full in-school deferment. 
No prepayment penalty.
Payments may be postponed during repayment by qualifying for an economic hardship deferment.

Cosigner Release: Cosigner release allowed if an account is in current standing, after 36 months of consecutive & on-time payments with a borrower FICO >749 for EDvestinU Private Student Loans and minimum income requirement of $30,000 with no foreclosures, repossessions, wage garnishments, unpaid tax liens, unpaid judgments or other public records having an open balance exceeding $100 during the last 7 years. The borrower must not currently be involved in bankruptcy proceeding or had any bankruptcy filings during the past 10 years and cannot have any defaults on education loans.


5 Important Disclosures for Earnest.

Earnest Disclosures

  1. Rates include 0.25% Auto Pay Discount
     
  2. Explanation of Rates “With Autopay” (APD)
    Rates shown include 0.25% APR discount when client agrees to make monthly principal and interest payments by automatic electronic payment. Use of autopay is not required to receive an Earnest loan.

    Available Terms
    For Cosigned loans – 5, 7, 10, 12, 15 years. 
    Primary Only – 10, 12, 15 years

    In school deferred payment is not available in AL, AZ, CA, FL, MA, MD, MI, ND, NY, PA, and WA).


6 Important Disclosures for Ascent Student Loans.

Ascent Student Loans Disclosures

Ascent loans are funded by Bank of Lake Mills, Member FDIC. Loan products may not be available in certain jurisdictions. Certain restrictions, limitations; and terms and conditions may apply. For Ascent Terms and Conditions please visit: >AscentFunding.com/Ts&Cs;.

Rates are effective as of 07/01/2021 and reflect an automatic payment discount of either 0.25% (for credit-based loans) OR 1.00% (for undergraduate outcomes income-based loans). Automatic Payment Discount is available if the borrower is enrolled in automatic payments from their personal checking account and the amount is successfully withdrawn from the authorized bank account each month. For Ascent rates and repayment examples please visit: >AscentFunding.com/Rates.

1% Cash Back Graduation Reward subject to terms and conditions, please visit AscentFunding.com/Cashback. Cosigned Credit-Based Loan student borrowers must meet certain minimum credit criteria. The minimum score required is subject to change and may depend on the credit score of your cosigner. Lowest APRs are available for the most creditworthy applicants and may require a cosigner.


7 Important Disclosures for Funding U.

FundingU Disclosures

Offered terms are subject to change. Loans are made by Funding University which is a for-profit enterprise. Funding University is not affiliated with the school you are attending or any other learning institution. None of the information contained in Funding University’s website constitutes a recommendation, solicitation or offer by Funding University or its affiliates to buy or sell any securities or other financial instruments or other assets or provide any investment advice or service.


8 Important Disclosures for SoFi.

sofiDisclosures

UNDERGRADUATE LOANS: Fixed rates from 4.13% to 10.66% annual percentage rate (“APR”) (with autopay), variable rates from 1.12% to 11.23% APR (with autopay). GRADUATE LOANS: Fixed rates from 4.13% to 10.90% APR (with autopay), variable rates from 1.10% to 11.34% APR (with autopay). MBA AND LAW SCHOOL LOANS: Fixed rates from 4.08% to 10.86% APR (with autopay), variable rates from 1.05% to 11.29% APR (with autopay). PARENT LOANS: Fixed rates from 4.23% to 10.66% APR (with autopay), variable rates from 1.20% to 11.23% APR (with autopay). For variable rate loans, the variable interest rate is derived from the one-month LIBOR rate plus a margin and your APR may increase after origination if the LIBOR increases. Changes in the one-month LIBOR rate may cause your monthly payment to increase or decrease. Interest rates for variable rate loans are capped at 13.95%, unless required to be lower to comply with applicable law. Lowest rates are reserved for the most creditworthy borrowers. If approved for a loan, the interest rate offered will depend on your creditworthiness, the repayment option you select, the term and amount of the loan and other factors, and will be within the ranges of rates listed above. The SoFi 0.25% autopay interest rate reduction requires you to agree to make monthly principal and interest payments by an automatic monthly deduction from a savings or checking account. The benefit will discontinue and be lost for periods in which you do not pay by automatic deduction from a savings or checking account. Information current as of 4/1/2021. Enrolling in autopay is not required to receive a loan from SoFi. SoFi Lending Corp., licensed by the Department of Business Oversight under the California Financing Law License No. 6054612. NMLS #1121636 (>www.nmlsconsumeraccess.org).


9 Important Disclosures for Citizens Bank.

Citizens Bank Disclosures

Undergraduate Rate Disclosure: Variable interest rates range from 1.15% – 11.01% (1.15% – 10.24 APR)Fixed interest rates range from 4.18% – 11.70% (4.18% – 10.83% APR).

Graduate Rate Disclosure: Variable interest rates range from 1.89% – 10.66% (1.89% – 10.41% APR). Fixed interest rates range from 4.64% – 11.23%% (4.64% – 10.95% APR).

Business/Law Rate Disclosure: Variable interest rates range from 1.89% – 9.22% (1.89% – 8.50% APR). Fixed interest rates range from 4.38% – 10.44% (4.38% – 9.72% APR).

Medical/Dental Rate Disclosure: Variable interest rates range from 1.89% – 8.02% (1.89% – 7.72% APR). Fixed interest rates range from 4.28% – 9.24% (4.28% – 8.94% APR).

Parent Loan Rate Disclosure: Variable interest rates range from 1.97% – 7.06% (1.97% – 7.06% APR). Fixed interest rates range from 4.94% – 8.58% (4.94% – 8.58% APR).

Bar Study Rate Disclosure: Variable interest rates range from 4.44% – 9.58% (4.44% – 9.52% APR). Fixed interest rates range from 7.39% – 12.94% (7.40% – 12.83% APR).

Medical Residency Rate Disclosure: Variable interest rates range from 3.53% – 7.03% (3.53% – 6.76% APR). Fixed interest rates range from 6.99% – 10.49% (6.98% – 10.09% APR).

Variable Rate Disclosure: Variable Rates are based on the one-month London Interbank Offered Rate (“LIBOR”) published in The Wall Street Journal on the twenty-fifth day, or the next business day, of the preceding calendar month. As of June 1, 2021, the one-month LIBOR rate is 0.09%. Variable interest rates will fluctuate over the term of the loan with changes in the LIBOR rate, and will vary based on applicable terms, level of degree and presence of a co-signer. The maximum variable rate is the greater of 21.00% or Prime Rate plus 9.00%. 

Fixed Rate Disclosure: Fixed rate ranges are based on applicable terms, level of degree, and presence of a co-signer.

Lowest Rate Disclosure: Lowest rates require a 5-year repayment term, immediate repayment, a graduate degree (where applicable), and include our Loyalty and Automatic Payment discounts of 0.25 percentage points each, as outlined in the Loyalty Discount and Automatic Payment Discount disclosures. Rates are subject to additional terms and conditions, and are subject to change at any time without notice. Such changes will only apply to applications taken after the effective date of change.

Federal Loan vs. Private Loan Benefits: Some federal student loans include unique benefits that the borrower may not receive with a private student loan, some of which we do not offer.  Borrowers should carefully review federal benefits, especially if they work in public service, are in the military, are considering possible loan forgiveness options, are currently on or considering income based repayment options or are concerned about a steady source of future income and would want to lower their payments at some time in the future. When the borrower refinances, they waive any current and potential future benefits of their federal loans. For more information about federal student loan benefits and federal loan consolidation, visit http://studentaid.ed.gov/. We also have several resources available to help the borrower make a decision on our website including Should I Refinance My Student Loans? and our FAQs. Should I Refinance My Student Loans? includes a comparison of federal and private student loan benefits that we encourage the borrower to review.

Eligibility Criteria: Applicants must be a U.S. citizen, permanent resident, or eligible non-citizen with a creditworthy U.S. citizen or permanent resident co-signer. For applicants who have not attained the age of majority in their state of residence, a co-signer is required. Citizens Bank reserves the right to modify eligibility criteria at any time. Citizens Bank private student loans are subject to credit qualification, completion of a loan application/Promissory Note, verification of application information, and if applicable, self-certification form, school certification of the loan amount, and student’s enrollment at a Citizens Bank participating school.

Loyalty Discount Disclosure: The borrower will be eligible for a 0.25 percentage point interest rate reduction on their loan if the borrower or their co-signer (if applicable) has a qualifying account in existence with us at the time the borrower and their co-signer (if applicable) have submitted a completed application authorizing us to review their credit request for the loan. The following are qualifying accounts: any checking account, savings account, money market account, certificate of deposit, automobile loan, home equity loan, home equity line of credit, mortgage, credit card account, or other student loans owned by Citizens Bank, N.A. Please note, our checking and savings account options are only available in the following states: CT, DE, MA, MI, NH, NJ, NY, OH, PA, RI, and VT and some products may have an associated cost. This discount will be reflected in the interest rate disclosed in the Loan Approval Disclosure that will be provided to the borrower once the loan is approved. Limit of one Loyalty Discount per loan and discount will not be applied to prior loans. The Loyalty Discount will remain in effect for the life of the loan.

Automatic Payment Discount Disclosure: Borrowers will be eligible to receive a 0.25 percentage point interest rate reduction on their student loans owned by Citizens Bank, N.A. during such time as payments are required to be made and our loan servicer is authorized to automatically deduct payments each month from any bank account the borrower designates. Discount is not available when payments are not due, such as during forbearance. If our loan servicer is unable to successfully withdraw the automatic deductions from the designated account three or more times within any 12-month period, the borrower will no longer be eligible for this discount.