Can you guess the hot topic in every single admission counselor meeting?

That’s right — financial aid and scholarships!

I loved this part of what I liked to call my “admission spiel,” because I enjoyed helping families dive into financial aid and scholarships. 

Anyway, I launched into one particular admission spiel with a family in my office one day. We talked through the available merit-based scholarships the student would automatically receive through the college. (Based on his grade point average and ACT score.) Then I brightly said, “And don’t forget to fill out scholarship applications in your community and online!” 

The student avoided his parents’ gaze. 

The student’s dad chuckled and his mom said dryly, “The problem is getting him motivated to actually do them.”

Sound familiar? 

Kids seem to fall into two camps: Those who apply for scholarships like it’s their job and those who have no interest in scholarship applications at all. The kids in the latter group might just need a little nudge. Here’s how to get your high schooler started.

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Step 1: Have the talk. (The money talk!) 

Your child needs to hear why it’s important to get scholarships. This may mean breaking down costs in a visual way so she can see where the gaps will be if she doesn’t apply for them. 

For example, you might want to break it down like this — and you can get way fancier than I did, with charts and pie graphs and whatever!

Dream school cost: $50,000 per year

Amount of financial aid you’ll receive based on dream school’s net price calculator(net price calculators live on financial aid pages and estimate how much financial aid you may get): $20,000 per year

Total cost after net price calculator results: $30,000

Amount in 529 plan: $60,000 ($15,000 to be distributed over four years)

Out-of-pocket costs: $15,000 per year 

Note: You’ll be basing this off the net price calculator, which is an estimate, but that’s okay. It’ll give you a rough idea to figure out how much potential out-of-pocket costs you’ll have.

If the out-of-pocket costs make your high schooler nervous, assure her that you’re going to work together to figure out that out-of-pocket amount. But tell her that scholarships are going to help out a lot — and that it’s better than taking out oodles of loans.

Step 2: Hammer out a goal. Then set smaller goals.

It’s hard to get started if you have no final goal. In high school, goals are built right in: English persuasion paper is due on such-and-such a date, for example. Science test on Friday. 

Then, set a big goal with your child — one that you can both agree on, like “Complete 50 scholarship applications” between June and August (or whatever it may be). 

Then, within that goal, set up mini-goals. A mini-goal could be like this: “Research and choose 10 scholarships to apply for during the first two weeks of June.” One of my favorite phrases: “The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.” (Supposedly Confucius said it — how do they know that? I picture some guy following him around all day, writing down every word he said.)

Anyway, I recommend breaking everything down that you possibly can. 

Step 3: Play to your child’s strengths.

This means two things. It means knowing your child’s capabilities within those goals. Does your child despise writing essays, even if they’re about himself? Work with him to find scholarships that eliminate an essay component or require a brief essay.

Also, make a list of your kiddo’s strengths. What’s unique about him? What does he have going for him that can niche his way into scholarships? Does he plan to major in something specific? Does he have a disability? Do his hobbies qualify him for a scholarship? Brainstorm and do some hearty research online.

Step 4: Help your high schooler get organized.

My daughter takes piano lessons, and can you guess the hardest part of practicing? You got it — getting started. She dreads it, but once she gets into a new piece, she’s fine. In fact, I finally started giving her permission to play the songs the worst she could the first time around so that they sounded terrible. That seems to work.

The hardest part is getting started, and it seems especially true for kids. (It may be hard for you as well!) But you know that once you actually get into something, it’s not so bad. But you have to start somewhere! 

It helps to have a plan mapped out ahead of time so your child can stick to goals. Sticky notes on a calendar work really well. If you want to get techy, use a project management tool like Trello or Asana to keep your child on his or her goals. I personally use Trello for work and I love how due dates turn yellow and send you email reminders when a deadline looms closer.

Step 5: Talk to everyone about scholarships.

Next, alk to anyone who might have a connection — your job, your partner’s job, your neighbor — whoever you can think of! And yes, talk to that guidance counselor and those at colleges. This can be you and your child’s fact-finding mission. 

Finally, once one of you find out about a scholarship, what will you do? You bet — you’ll put it on the “to do” calendar.

Step 6: Develop a few key paragraphs for pluck ’n plug.

What do I mean by pluck ’n plug? Easy: Develop a beginning, middle and end for scholarship essays that your child can use for just about any scholarship application. It’ll be a paragraph you can store on Trello, Asana or Google docs. 

Will every scholarship application sound the same? Of course not! However, it sure does help with getting started when you already have something to work with. 

These three paragraphs should be kind of like writing an essay for school. Your child should write an attention-grabbing intro: 

My name’s Sadie and I’ve been blind since I was two. How did it happen? Unfortunately, that’s my earliest memory. My brother was a science whiz (and also 13 years older than me). One day, he… 

An equally gripping middle, which addresses questions asked in individual scholarship essays (you’ll have to add answers to those later):

What’s the largest predictor of success, you ask? I believe I’ve had to overcome a lot in my life, and college is just one more of the series of challenges. I’ve read a lot (audio books are my fave!) of books about leadership and perseverance and one thing I’ve learned is that grit matters. In fact, it’s one of the largest predictors of success. Never quitting. Digging in and waking up thrilled for the challenges you face every single day, whether your world is full of color or not.

A conclusion that ties it all together: 

So, I learned at an early age that life doesn’t always go as planned. But you know what? I think I dream in color — even if I can’t remember exactly what colors look like. I know grit plays a role in what happens when you fall down (blind or not) and that — not talent, not luck — is everything. It’s why I believe I deserve the XYZ Scholarship.

Your kiddo can mix and match, pluck ’n plug. And fill in the gaps. This doesn’t have to be rocket science! 

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Tackle the Overwhelm

Finally, tell your child she can do this. And stopping short of doing scholarship essays for her, tell her you’ll help her in any way you can. 

Also, make sure your child understands that this doesn’t have to be so complicated. It’s only a matter of moving one stone, little by little.

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