Avoiding the Scholarship Scam

PhD Student Advising Articles written by Shannon E. Williams, Director of Student Engagement at the Schar School

Did you recently receive an exciting offer to apply for a “prestigious membership” from a self-proclaimed scholar program? If so, you were one among thousands who did. The email has been making its rounds in recent weeks and suggests that the recipient has been nominated for something. The message is murky on the details about the source, the reason, and even the award itself.

A first glance at the organization’s website does not raise glaring red flags. However, a closer look reveals suspicious deficiencies. Where is the history of previous award winners? Why are the organization’s funding sources impossible to identify? If you want to call someone to find out more, why are names and contact information so hard to find? The site even fails to describe a coherent mission or organizational history. A seemingly innocuous little box below the field where the applicant enters personal information sets off the loudest alarm bell. The applicant has to check the box, indicating approval for the organization to use the information for “marketing purposes.”

With so many scholarship and grant sources out there, how can a student differentiate between legitimate programs and scams? Keeping an eye open for the ten warning signs of a scam can help you weed out dubious sources. While any single indicator below may not point to a false source, you may want to investigate a questionable organization further before proceeding with an application.

1. Fees. You should not have to pay to apply, to acquire more information, or to receive the award. Beware of any fee, no matter how small.

2. Typos and Grammatical Errors. Read the correspondence and site text carefully. The email announcement that landed in students’ email boxes recently opened with the following line: “You are invited to apply for a membership from the XYZ Scholar Program based on nomination we have received.” Did you catch the missing article?

3. Requests for Personal Information. If you have to provide unusual details about yourself (financial information, identification numbers, etc.) in order to learn more about the source or even to apply, it is possible you are dealing with a phishing or marketing scam.

4. The Run-Around. A trustworthy funding source should have clear steps for receiving further information. Contact names, a working phone number, and people on the other end of your emails and phone calls should all be within reach. A legitimate application process will involve clear, consistent steps.

5. Thin Story. Think like a reporter. Ask the Who, What, Where, When, Why and How questions of the source.

  • How is the organization funded?
  • Who are the past winners of the awards?
  • What is the mission, and how has the organization carried it out?
  • When was it founded?
  • Where is the organization physically located?

Minimal sleuthing should yield positive reviews that allow you to flesh out the organization’s story.

6. Promises and Guarantees. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. Be skeptical of any organization promising awards for minimal work. Shortcuts are rare in the educational funding game. Expect to put time and effort into applying for any grant or scholarship you might receive.

7. “First Come, First Served.” Most funding sources have specific deadlines, and do not accept applications on a rolling basis. In the rare case that an organization does have an ongoing process, the application materials should still spell out the required steps and include selection criteria. Generally, if you are feeling time pressure without a clear deadline in place, steer clear.

8. “We are contacting you because. . .” Most organizations will not seek you out until you have requested information from them. Receiving unsolicited correspondence or calls from a funding source is usually a sign of questionable motives. If you are “nominated” for something, you should be able to find out who made the nomination and how this came about.

9. Confused Looks. Ask classmates, faculty members, and others if they have heard of the source. If they have not, investigate further. Call Directory Assistance at 1-800-555-1212 from anywhere within the United States to find out if the source has a listing. Contact the Better Business Bureau to see if claims have been made against it. Even a simple Google search will be revealing. A newly formed organization may well be legitimate, but the risk of a scam increases in inverse proportion to the amount of quality information you can unearth about the source.

10. Hype. Beware of grandiose claims. High success rates, guaranteed winnings, exaggerated descriptions of the program’s excellence, and promises of prestige are all warning signs. If an organization needs to put on a show to grab your attention, it probably has little to offer in return.

Finding money for school is hard enough work without being taken for a ride by an opportunistic organization. For more information, visit the Federal Trade Commission online (http://www.ftc.gov) to learn about scholarships and scams. The Schar School's Scholarships and Funding page lists funding sources that may be of interest to Schar School students.