The Search for College Scholarships

college scholarships

[This post contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase through one of the links, I receive a commission at no additional cost to you. My review of the books in this post are my own opinions].

I’m in “find-money-for-college” mode.

Since Luke committed to Cleveland State University, he’s been preparing to take the SAT again and I’ve been doing research on scholarships to minimize the amount he’ll have to borrow.

In this post, I’ll discuss three resources that I’m using to organize the search.

First, I bought two inexpensive ebooks that offer a systematic approach to searching and applying for scholarships. Both are quick reads and have similar strategies, so either would be helpful.

“The Scholarship System” by Jocelyn Paonita

The author provides a step-by-step approach to find money, organize your search, plan and write effective essays and other tips and strategies. The book includes worksheets to help you plan along the way and to minimize repetition and back-tracking.


“Confessions of a Scholarship Winner” by Kristina Ellis


Ellis has an interesting story. Although she was eligible for scholarships that don’t apply to many students (immigrant parent, father passed away, low-income household) her approach is very similar to Paonita’s.

Both authors insist that students can qualify for scholarships regardless of grades, class rank or SAT scores. Both Ellis and Paonita give practical advice about how to make an application stand-out and highlight a student’s interests and attributes even if they don’t seem significant.

For example, Paonita suggests using certain power words in the essay and Ellis suggests opening an essay with a story instead of repeating the question as a thesis statement.

“The Ultimate Scholarship Book 2017” by Gen and Kelly Tanabe


I bought this book after reviewing an outdated version at our local library. Some amazon reviewers complained about how it’s organized (for example, all state-specific scholarships are in one section rather than separated by state). I was able to skim the descriptions fairly quickly to eliminate scholarships that don’t apply and note ones for which Luke might qualify.

Now that I have a list, I’ll organize them on a spreadsheet (as suggested by The Scholarship System) and include application deadlines, scholarship amounts and other basic information.

I discovered a few things while reviewing the scholarships in this book. First, many scholarships are available to undergraduate students, graduate students, even PhD.s. Other scholarships target younger students so it’s a useful resource for many years and it’s clear that a student should continue to pursue scholarships throughout his college and grad school years.

The other thing I noticed is that there are dozens of scholarships for female engineers, amateur and HAM radio operators, students interested in food service/hospitality/travel industry, to name a few.

I found at least 20 scholarships for which Luke is eligible. In a future post, I’ll write about the application process and how we prioritized our efforts.

SAT Prep for the 21st Century


SAT prep expertNow that Luke has committed to attend Cleveland State University, he’s obligated to raise his SAT scores by at least 40 points to qualify for the academic part of the scholarship on the table.

Since he didn’t prepare at all the first time around (procrastination), Luke’s pretty confident that any prep will bring up his score.

I didn’t want to take a chance, though. I had read one guy’s story about how his son used an online course for only 3 weeks and scored perfect on the SAT.

Krause Institute perfect SAT

Enter Kranse Institute SAT Prep Expert

I know, sounds like B.S. and I don’t expect Luke to obtain a perfect score but as I did more research into the course designed by Shaan Patel, who perfected his approach to the test and studied the test design for a perfect score himself, I was convinced that Luke could get some value from the videos.

Luke has been using the course for one week, here’s what I like so far:

1. I don’t have to nag him

This, in itself, is worth the price of the couse. I catch Luke reviewing the videos without any prompting from me all the time.

2. The videos are short and concise

The course is organized to address one area at a time (obvious) and each video within the subject covers one concept or strategy. This streamlined approach minimizes confusion and easily allows the student to measure progress and identify trouble spots during practice.

3. The interface is aesthetically pleasing

Let’s face it, our kids are visually engaged 24/7. The video course has the benefit of graphics which in-person, paper-based study aids don’t.

The slide graphics are pleasing to the eye and don’t distract from the concept or strategy. This makes the whole process appealing and less stressful.  In short, it’s easy on the eyes.

Shaan Patel (the course creator) teaches all the lessons. His voice is soothing and natural.

4. It’s convenient

It’s great that Luke can login and watch a video at any time of the day or night from anywhere. He enrolled in a prep course at our local high school last year but had to miss a few classes (Saturday mornings from 9-12 for 8 weeks) for tennis tournaments and prior commitments.

While showing up consistently and going over practice questions in a group setting is better than nothing, the class setting wasn’t efficient or personalized.

The Kranse format allows Luke to review concepts that he consistently has trouble with and skim videos that cover concepts with which he has less trouble.

5. TIme

The course is designed to take 6 weeks. Students have access for up to 18 months which is plenty of time if your student plans to review the course to retake the test.

Patel advises using official college board questions (his reasoning is sound on this) but he gives you the best strategy to approach each type of question.

6. Price

At $499, the course is a fraction of the cost of other popular SAT prep courses and boasts an average score improvement of 368 points (210 on the new SAT format), including 7 perfect scores among its students.

Kranse offers a 7 day 100% money-back-guarantee (useful if you purchase the course and the student doesn’t even crack it open or doesn’t feel it would be a good fit). They’ll also refund your money if your student’s score doesn’t improve, no questions asked.

Quick sidebar here: In our case, the cost of the course is easy to justify. Luke saved us hundreds, maybe thousands of dollars in travel and application expenses by making a choice after one visit. Improving his score could translate to at least $6,000 a year. The college won’t be affordable at all if he doesn’t meet that 40 point improvement threshold. Stakes are pretty high and worth a couple of hundred dollars.

A Special Offer for My Readers

The blog where I originally learned about the course offered a limited time/availability 30% discount code. I contacted the company and obtained 50 coupon codes for a 30% discount for my readers.

If you purchase the course and enter the coupon code “ELIZABETHPHILLIPS30” on the checkout page, you’ll get $149 off the regular price.

Luke is registered to take the test again on December 3. I’ll let you know how he does.

I would have waited to write this post with a full, unqualified endorsement (or not) based on Luke’s score but I wanted to let you know about the course and the discount sooner than later if you know a student who plans to take the test in November or December. The format has already helped Luke set goals, get organized and motivated him to study.


*This post contains affiliate links. If you purchase a product through a link, I receive a commission at no additional cost to you. 

That Was Easy (Update on the College Visit)


CSU-vikingI mentioned last week that Luke went on his first college visit.

He liked everything about the weekend, including the tennis coach, the other players, the team’s prospects for winning the conference in the next few years, the campus and the brand new, indoor tennis facility a few blocks from the dorm.

Bonus for us is that it’s only a couple of hours away which will give us an opportunity to see some matches. YAY!

If the athletic + academic scholarship offer stays the same, I feel comfortable with the finances. He’ll probably have to borrow some but he can offset or eliminate that by brainstorming and saving a bunch of money. I’m not expecting grants but you never know. He might bring his SAT score up enough to qualify for another $1500 per year. Every little bit helps.

It’s great to have the search process behind him and there are definitely perks to being recruited (admission, priority for classes, job at the tennis center, etc.). Luke’s ready to focus and now he has something to work toward.

In the next post, I’ll tell you what he’s doing to bring his SAT score up.

College Visits


Photo cred: Aleksandr Kozlovskii |

My oldest wasn’t interested in college so we were spared.

Her younger brother (by 11 months) will visit his first college this weekend. He has to go alone because I’m caring for Mark who suffered a serious injury at work that left him temporarily disabled. Mark can’t even get into a car.

Luke plans to play tennis in college and the coach is hosting his visit (though he’ll be staying with someone on the team). Don’t even go there. I figure he’ll be in a position to drink and hope he’ll be smart.

I visited 2 colleges when I was a senior in high school and attended the second. I wanted to play basketball so my choices were limited to small, D3. I didn’t have the resources to go far away. I also didn’t have the resources to apply to or visit a lot of campuses. It was fine. I was content with my choice and loved my college experience. I qualified for a lot of grants and aid and only borrowed $12,000 for my degree.

I know it’s standard for kids to visit 10, 20 sometimes 50 different schools. I don’t know how that happens logistically. How is that even helpful? I think it confuses the matter and gives kids the impression that every aspect of a college experience should be perfect.

Luke knows it’s not realistic to go more than a couple of hours away. We can’t afford to fly him back and forth from school. He also knows that we don’t plan to give him a tour of the U.S. in search of the perfect set-up. He has a few priorities in addition to our limitations.

Money will be the biggest factor. His eligibility for assistance is a big mystery. Likely we’ll have to disappoint him if the numbers don’t add up. I refuse to let him borrow more than $15,000-$20,000 total for an undergraduate degree (I prefer no debt) and no matter what FAFSA says, we’ll decide how much we can afford to contribute-if any. I try to prepare him for the reality of that but I don’t think he gets it.

I’m also trying to convince Luke to be strategic about college. I learned that NCAA Junior colleges award twice as many full scholarships as D1 and D2. Luke will likely grow, mature emotionally and improve his skills in the next few years. Plus he would have the option of going farther away if we have to pay for less school. This might put him in a position to be able to use his college fund to pay for the remaining two years at a 4 year college where, because of the limited  number of scholarships, he’s not likely to get as much help.

Just about everyone I talk to (my age and younger) regrets borrowing as much as they did for their four year degree and wishes they would have gone to community college for the first two years. If Luke can play tennis in a truly competitive situation, I don’t think he’ll regret it.

I’m guessing there’s less competition for JUCO tennis scholarships. Since tennis is an elitist sport, Luke’s peers are looking at top academic and tennis programs. I read that many junior college coaches don’t allocate their recruiting budget simply because they don’t have the resources to recruit and scout and aren’t approached by suitable athletes.

So, the question will be whether Luke will consider my advice about how to navigate this college thing. My main goal is coming out on the other end of it with little or no debt. We’ll see.

Dear High School Guidance Counselor….

school yard

original image credit: Francisco Galarza via

I know it’s your job to “guide” students. I get the impression that you believe it’s your job to direct them toward college-no matter the expense or their interest in going.

I understand you met with a group of Juniors the other day during their English class. You had them enter their email addresses on a site that asked them a litany of questions to help them decide what to study in college.

Is it true that you told the kids who don’t plan to go to college to reconsider? Did you also tell them not to answer something stupid (your word) like “be a nanny” on questions about their plans after high school?

I won’t take that remark personally even though my daughter has told you on several occassions that she plans to nanny when she graduates in order earn money to pursue other goals. You probably weren’t interested enough to learn that she’s a gifted, conscientious and engaged child-care provider who loves to be with kids of all ages. She tells them stories, plans projects and crafts, invents games, fixes meals and reads with them. In short, she’s happy when she’s with her younger cousins or small clients. I think hers is an excellent plan that will provide a lot of flexibility. Before you go there, no, she doesn’t want to be a teacher. She doesn’t want to watch 25-30 kids at a time, just a few.

My daughter has a keen understanding of her interests, skills, gifts, strengths and weaknesses. She’s lucky that she doesn’t need a computer program for that. My guess is that lots of kids know these things about themselves but when they try to communicate them to you, you don’t really listen to them. Instead, you dismiss their ideas and try to pigeon-hole them into a pre-defined, acceptable major or career.

Being a nanny isn’t “stupid”. High-quality child care is a valuable service. Responsible and experienced providers are in demand and can earn a lucrative income and unique experiences all without the burden of debt. Many full-time nannies can earn more than their college-educated peers and enjoy benefits like free housing, meals, transportation (including discretionary access to a car), all-expense-paid vacations and paid vacation time.

My daughter and I have spent a lot of time discussing how she can develop her interests and skills to create a career, multiple streams of income and a lifestyle that she chooses.  Regardless of whether someone else regards it as successful, acceptable or adequate.

The job you decided to mock is irrelevant. My point is, it’s unprofessional and narrow-minded to dismiss certain occupations or paths to a fulfilling life. Your job is to support students and help them find every resource available to pursue an idea, a vocation, a career or a dream even if it doesn’t align with your idea of a respectable profession. Steering a diverse group of students down one, narrow path doesn’t serve them, even if it does serve your ego.

Did you know that 40% of students drop out of college without a degree? Do you think maybe they were steered toward college as the only option by people like you?  Yes, I’m suggesting you’re partially to blame. Do you ever advise students who are unsure about their future to work for a few years or go to community college?

Did you know that some of your students borrow as much as $80,000 for an undergraduate degree?  The average student debt for a college education is $37,000. Do you think that’s advisable? I don’t.

One more thing. Quit sharing my kids’ email addresses with colleges and military recruiters. Even kids who are interested in college don’t want to be spammed by them. My kids know where to enlist if they decide to go that route.

I was tempted to email you about this recent presentation but decided against it because my children are insulated from your narrow views and I realize I will not change your mind or your tactics. They know they have my support and encouragement to pursue any path or no path and work until they figure something out. Some will likely go to college but probably not with much assistance from you.

Yours truly.

Why I Regret Starting a 529 Plan for My Kids


Let’s be clear: I don’t regret saving for the kids’ future. I regret limiting that fund for college.

Like many young parents, Mark and I were anxious to start saving for college. A 529 plan was the no-brainer option at the time. The fund grows tax-free and as long as the money is used for a “qualified education expense”, the interest is never taxed. There can also be state tax deductions for contributions.

So, here’s why I regret saving in a 529: There are so many valuable and practical ways to learn outside of college that can’t be funded by a 529 without paying taxes and penalties on the interest.

Nineteen years ago (the year Hannah was born), college appeared to be the only and best way to have a career and wasn’t nearly as expensive. In 1996, 52% of Bachelor’s degree recipients carried student loans averaging $12,000 (which is the same amount I graduated from college with in 1990). Today, at least 71% of college graduates have student loans averaging $37,000.

In contrast to the 1990s, high school students can begin to teach themselves skills that add value to a fast-paced, global economy. College is required for some professions (academia, law, medicine) but isn’t for many others.

Apprenticeship programs, gap years, online certification programs, fellowships, world travel and small business opportunities are all valuable and practical alternatives to college that can’t be paid for with 529 funds without penalty.

 They’re one form of university welfare. The other forms are private loans, grants and government-subsidized loans. Students aren’t really the beneficiaries of these forms of assistance when a degree doesn’t guarantee a job or skills that employers say are lacking in most college graduates. (Don’t believe me, read this book about the skills gap).

Hannah graduated from high school and has no plans to attend college. Instead, she’s participating in a program that matches highly motivated young people with a small business or startup willing to train them.

Praxis charges tuition but boasts a net-zero cost because the total payment is less than the guaranteed pay the participant receives from the business partner during the apprenticeship. In addition to skills training, Praxis offers one-on-one mentorship, weekly group discussions and guidance on personal and professional development projects. Every participant has a tangible body of work to show potential employers at the conclusion of the program. The Praxis model has been so effective that business partners now commit to a full-time offer with a minimum salary of $40,000 for participants. No college will guarantee that.

By the time her classmates graduate, Hannah will likely have saved as much or more than they have borrowed in the same time period. She’ll be earning as much or more and she’ll likely be living on her own. Compared to other 18-34-year-olds, who, for the first time ever, are living with parents more than any other living arrangement.

So, what to do with all that money we saved for college? We could transfer the 529 to one of Hannah’s siblings.  We put that money aside for Hannah, though, and frankly, I’d rather see it go to photo equipment (Hannah’s business), studio space, even a car, than an over-priced college.

Even though she’ll pay taxes (at her rate) and a 10% penalty on the interest, we’ve decided to use the money in Hannah’s 529 plan to pay the tuition for Praxis. The interest and penalty combined don’t compare to the interest that most students will end up paying for the lifetime of the loans they’re taking.

I’m not so put-off by the taxes owed because if we had it in any other type of fund, we would have been paying taxes on the interest all along. The penalty stings a little since she’s using the money for a program that has a guaranteed ROI and is tens of thousands less than college would have been.

Hopefully, 529 rules will expand with growing opportunities in our rapidly-changing world that make more sense than college. Any changes will likely come too slowly to help my children.

I’m not sure what will happen when the college bubble finally pops. Likely, even those who opt out will be stuck holding the bag. University Provosts everywhere will continue to receive their bloated salaries or maybe they’ll run for the hills taking their golden parachutes with them.

Rethink opening that 529. There are other ways to save in a high-growth fund for a minor. You can still use that money for college but you’ll have other options.

Opting Out of the Awful School Pictures



4th grade me with my Dorothy Hammill haircut

I’ve had it. I used to feel guilty that my kids didn’t have school pictures since they were homeschooled.

This year, I’m opting out.

I’ve purchased a “package” for each of the kids for each of the years that they have been in school. I never display them. I rarely share them. They sit in the cellophane window envelope in a drawer somewhere.

To be perfectly honest, none of them are any good. Not one school picture actually looks like the kid in it. Bad smile, pasty face, awkward angle. They are just bad.

The photo packages are too expensive and they’re purposely designed to NOT include the sizes you might want.

I thought Mark would be offended that I didn’t want to buy them this year but then forgot that he’s a boy and doesn’t care about stuff like that. I knew Kate wouldn’t care. The only year she let me buy photos, she wouldn’t let me see them. She wasn’t interested in doubling down on her humiliation by getting the “retake”.






First Day of High School


My youngest is a freshman. No more junior high!

Last year, 4 of the kids headed out the door to school. This year only 2. Hannah graduated and Luke is finishing up his high school career online.

I have to admit, I felt a certain measure of comfort when they were in the same building together. Also, they kept each other accountable and had each other’s backs-most of the time.

Mark (off work due to injury) got to enjoy the after-school debriefing on the first day, made slightly more interesting when Hannah’s post directly or indirectly provided the content for the “First-Day-of-School-Let’s-Make-This-The-Best-Year-Ever” assembly.

There were the usual schedule mistakes. The disappointment of getting this teacher or that teacher. Satisfaction with others. Gossip about personnel changes. Hannah and Luke generally rubbing it in that they don’t have to deal with it anymore. But it was fun to sit around and get caught up together. Mark enjoyed it, too.

So, only 35 more weeks to go. The school year is too long in my opinion. Thirteen years of compulsory education (legally, it’s fewer in PA but most people adhere to the K-12 prescription) is too many and the school day should be 4 hours instead of 7.5. But, we’ll get through it.



In Sickness & In Health


So, Mark and I are celebrating our 23rd anniversary today. Just shy of 3 weeks after his physical catastrophe.

I’m not an overly emotional or sentimental person but I clearly remember my voice cracking only once during our vows…”in sickness and in health”. In an instant, I was overwhelmed by the thought of him being sick and vulnerable.

He’s had some minor surgeries (that dual hernia operation just before our 10th anniversary wasn’t too fun) but nothing as challenging as this.

The thing is, as challenging as this is physically, emotionally and probably financially, I know it isn’t even close to the worst that can happen to a couple. Not even close.

So I’m thankful that we work well together because just about everything he does, we do together. I’m thankful that we enjoy each other’s company (as long as he doesn’t try to tell jokes). I’m thankful that we trust each other to get through this. And yes, I’m thankful that we love and trust each other and even on our worst days, there still isn’t anyone I would rather spend time with (no offense to my children, who come second in that category).

I don’t feel all that much different than that day 23 years ago. Marrying Mark felt like the rightest, most natural thing. Helping him do just about everything feels just as right and natural (though, I have to keep reminding him the kids can fetch the this or the that when they’re here).

Happy Anniversary. Oh and Happy Birthday to Luke who was our 5th anniversary gift!

Crisis Mode


I WISH Mark’s room had a desk like that!

Mark blew out both knees last week. He’s a full-time tennis teaching pro. Yes, that’s his real job.

Truth be told, I can’t believe something like this hasn’t happened before this. He really wasn’t doing anything nutty or risky. He’s pretty conservative because his joints have always ached. He dislocated both shoulders before he graduated from college. Plus, teaching on a hard surface 8-10 hours a day for 30 years might lead to some wear-and-tear.

Here’s how I react to crisis:

My brain goes into hyper-efficiency lock-down. Do the bare minimum. Prune the unimportant, take care of only what’s necessary. The kids are at an age where they’re pretty self-sufficient and can help each other get where they need to go. I also have lots of family and good friends around who can help. (S/O to my brother John who took care of details at home when it happened).

The other thing my brain does which makes me hopeful and positive is to think about how much worse things could have been. In a weird, backwards way, it helps me be grateful even in what seems like a catastrophe.

Here’s what I’m talking about:

  1. Mark had just returned from taking Luke to a tournament in Boston. He easily could have been walking fast or running for a flight and this could have happened. I can’t imagine how traumatized Luke would have been on top of managing this type of crisis long distance.
  2. I’m glad it happened at work because…worker’s comp.
  3. I’m grateful I don’t have the stress of managing a job outside the house on top of this.
  4. I’m grateful I didn’t get the car crash call or the heart-attack-on-the-court call.
  5. My mom can care for my aunt at her house while we get our bearings again. That means Mark has a hospital bed and a bathroom on the first floor because he won’t be able to bear weight on either leg for a while. My brain hasn’t quite caught up to that concept but we’ll deal with it.
  6. Mark ran up to our cabin by himself the weekend before this happened to take care of some things. It’s remote and even if he remembers to take his phone with him, reception is sketchy. The nearest neighbor is not visible through the woods. Shudder.
  7. Most surgeons haven’t seen a bilateral rupture of this type but it is repairable and they’re confident that he will be better than he ever was.

So, that’s how my brain works. You might think it’s pathetic denial but I’m sticking with it. It has given me a better outlook on what’s ahead.