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The cost of college tuition is astronomical these days, and scholarships are getting increasingly competitive. But there are creative ways to get your college tuition covered if you start early.

My Story

I am a first-generation college student in the United States; my parents went to college in South America, where it was free. I knew that I needed to start early if I was going to get my college tuition covered. I started looking up scholarships in my freshman year of high school. I looked at academic, service, and arts scholarships and bookmarked the ones that I thought would work for me. I also looked at scholarships based on the city I lived in, my cultural heritage, my gender, and my race. By sophomore year, I had a long, comprehensive list of scholarships. That year, I also started participating in music competitions that came with cash prizes. I saved the prize money to add to my college fund. I started looking at colleges in my sophomore year, researching the success of musicians graduating from the program and their placement in musical organizations after graduation. I started taking lessons with teachers across the state and applying for summer music festivals to meet more teachers across the country.

As I attended these festivals, I learned where I ranked on the national stage of musicians, which motivated me to up my game. It was at one of these summer music festivals that I learned about the university that I ultimately chose for my master’s degree program. In my junior and senior years of high school, I was already playing in local university ensembles. At many universities, you can take classes while still in high school, and many university bands or orchestras need additional players beyond those majoring in music. I was able to play with Florida Atlantic University and New World School of the Arts Conservatory orchestra during my junior and senior years of high school. When it came time to start auditioning for colleges, the teachers came to me. I was invited to audition at the two schools where I had been playing and also at the University of Miami. At the auditions, the teachers barely listened to me play because they already knew the quality of my playing. Rather, they called for my parents and asked me to wait outside as they negotiated my eventual full scholarship to UM.

This type of networking was essential to my ability to get my full scholarship. And, on top of that, I applied for all the other scholarships that I had researched years before and received more money than I needed to cover tuition, room and board, books, and supplies—and I still had money left over. The trick is to start early. I did the same when I was looking at graduate schools. I was already taking graduate courses at University of Miami, but I started taking lessons with the teachers I was interested in studying with, and I was still attending summer music festivals. I received offers from Juilliard, Northwestern, and Rice and ultimately was able to go to the school of my choice on scholarship.

Today, with all the virtual options, it is even easier to reach out to the colleges that you are interested in. Many famous musicians are giving lessons online, so you don’t have to wait for them to give a concert in your city, sneak backstage, and finagle a meeting. All you have to do is email them for a lesson. You will need to pay for these lessons, but if it gets you a scholarship, it is money well spent.

How Can You Make This Happen?

The first thing you need to do is research local, regional, and national scholarships for anything related to you and your interests. Make a list of types of scholarships you can look for. Enlist the help of a local librarian to expand your reach. When you find those local scholarships, reach out early to the organizers. Volunteer for them. This lets them get to know you before you apply for money from them. Start looking at the colleges that you want to apply to. Attend concerts, and get to know students and faculty members there. Ask if you can join the ensemble, even if it requires paying the course fee. Look for summer opportunities like music festivals or camps, volunteer opportunities, internships—anything to make yourself known to the people involved in getting you a scholarship. Many universities offer summer programs for high school students or music festivals on their campus. You can also meet faculty at regional or statewide music competitions. Make those connections early so that when you are ready to apply, the powers that be know your name, your face, and your ability. Reach out to those people personally once you have applied and be sure to thank them individually for helping you get to know their programs.

You can get a full scholarship to college, but it will take a four-year commitment and a lot of research and legwork.

Questions for Discussion

  1. What colleges and universities are you interested in attending?
  2. What organizations are offering funding in my local area?
  3. Who are the professors that you want to study with, and how can you reach out to them?