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Paying for college: Important deadlines, tips to earn scholarships

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — A major deadline that could save parents and students thousands of dollars is quickly approaching.

For Indiana students the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is due on March 10.

The FAFSA qualifies college age students for grants, scholarships, work study jobs and loans based on a family’s income.March is also the month for most private scholarship deadlines, and those aren’t just for college age students. 

Clayton Smith is a sophomore majoring in pharmaceuticals at Butler University. Smith started applying for scholarships when he was in seventh grade, after his parents told him he would have to pay for college on his own.

“[My mother told me] minimum wage is $7.25, so if you went to Burger King or McDonald’s you’d make $7.25. If you spent the same amount of time writing an essay for a scholarship that was only $100, let alone $500 — you’re now making 10 times or 12 times that minimum wage,” said Smith.

Smith started local, looking for scholarships in his Tipton County community. Then he branched out to state, regional and national awards. Smith made a list of all the scholarships he wanted to win.

“Then I started cranking them out and writing the essays for them and it paid off. It paid dividends. I look back on it and I’m so happy that I spent that much time applying for scholarships because some students come to school and they have no idea like how much it’s going to be,” said Smith.

Smith said he earned about $200,000 in scholarship money for a Butler University pharmaceutical degree, which takes 6 years to earn.

“Have a plan. You’ve got to start somewhere and you’ve got to start early. It’s just like investing money. You don’t want to start when you’re thirty. You want to start when you’re twenty,” said Smith.

Wells Fargo financial consultant, John Chec said prospective students need to start early. Mounting student loan debt is a problem he sees every day. National student loan debt has surpassed $1 trillion in the United States.

“That’s more than even credit card loans. We need to really be much more proactive in educating ourselves into what we can afford and how we’re going to afford it,” said Chec.

The first step for parents is a 529 college savings plan. The cash you deposit earns tax credits, and grows tax free.

“That’s like earning free money,” said Chec.

Next comes scholarship preparation. While it’s great to start in seventh grade as Smith did, Chec said not everyone will need $200,000 for college. He recommends starting the scholarship process during a student’s sophomore year.

“You have to start looking early. If you’re waiting to your senior year, you’re probably too late,” said Chec.

“A lot of people spend summers like, you know it’s vacation. But summer for me was a time to really sit down, really look into scholarships really write the essays,” said Smith.

Smith said students should apply for every scholarship they are eligible for, even if it’s competitive or a relatively small amount of money.

“You have to treat it like money because it’s free money that’s just out there to be given to students. If you don’t apply for it, you don’t ever get it. If you can start at 7th grade, or freshman year and have a plan and you can lay it out, it will pay off,” said Smith.

For more information about the FAFSA click here. To look at Indiana scholarships click here.