EDITORS NOTE: This is part one of a two part series on financial aid for college. Look in Tuesday's e-edition for tips on how to fill out the FAFSA.


Claire Sweatt, a senior at Two Harbors High School, is on a mission to get as many scholarships as possible to help her pay for college. Sweatt said she started looking for scholarships as a junior and applied for every one available to her.

“It was hard to find scholarships that they were holding for my grade level and I wanted to start applying for scholarships as soon as possible,” Sweatt said.

While looking for scholarships her junior year, Sweatt came across a posting on her school bulletin board for a scholarship through the Minnesota Association of Townships. The application required students to answer a question about township board proceedings, which Sweat said she had no knowledge of. So she began researching on the Minnesota Association of Townships’ website and talked with a family friend, Greg Hull, who serves on the Town of Silver Creek Board in Lake County.

SEE ALSO: Minnesota high school juniors encouraged to apply for annual townships scholarship

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“He explained everything to me and I spent probably four hours with him listening to everything he had to say about meetings and how they work,” Sweatt said. “I definitely wouldn’t have learned nearly as much without his help. It really helped me write my essay with actual substance.”

All of Sweatt’s hard work paid off as she was awarded a $2,000 scholarship Nov. 21.

Putting that much effort into scholarship essays and applications is exactly what Patty Salo Downs said students should do. Salo Downs, the executive director at Marshall H. and Nellie Alworth Memorial Fund, has read thousands of essays over the years. The ones that stand out the most, she said, are ones that show passion and grit.

“The last thing you want to list on your essay is ‘I’m a hard worker’ because everybody’s going to say that,” Salo Downs said.

David Hammer, scholarship officer at the Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation, suggested students talk to their grandparents, parents, teachers, coaches and friends while brainstorming essay subjects.

“Get some ideas down on paper then start polishing and polishing it and make it into a page turner,” Hammer said. “Make it into something that you are excited about writing and that’s going to grab a committee member's attention.”

Hammer said because of the circumstances surrounding COVID-19, education and activities, committees will most likely rely more heavily on essays, so students need to make sure they are free from grammatical and spelling errors.

It’s also recommended that students pick a unique experience for them. Lori Huska, scholarship administrator at Northland Scholarship Services, said COVID-19 might not be the best topic for an essay this year.

“COVID is affecting everyone and in similar ways, so you should try to think about other things that have impacted you in a way that has caused some growth,” she said.


"Loans should be your last option in my book."

— Patty Salo Downs, executive director at Marshall H. and Nellie Alworth Memorial Fund


There’s nearly $5 million in scholarship money available to students each year in Northeastern Minnesota. The Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation has over 70 scholarships available to students. The deadline for all of these scholarships is Jan. 15 at 11:59 p.m. Hammer suggests students who want to apply for any of these scholarships should start working on them now and start asking teachers for letters of recommendation.

The Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation requires two letters of recommendation, and at least one has to come from a teacher. The Alworth Memorial Scholarship requires one letter of recommendation and it must come from a science teacher or math teacher. This scholarship is specifically given to students who want to pursue a bachelor’s degree in science or math.

“Find a teacher who can write about you and who knows you well and ask them now if you haven’t already because they need time to write a good letter of recommendation,” Salo Downs said.

Hammer, Huska and Salo Downs said students should treat applying to scholarships like a part-time job. All of them had stories about students who paid for college with scholarships.

A student from Esko High School who recently applied for 15 scholarships received 10 of them and walked away with nearly $80,000 for college.

The father of a recent Denfeld High School graduate made his son sit down at his computer for two days submitting scholarship applications. That effort earned him $18,000 to help pay for college.

Minnesota students leave college with an average of $31,000 in debt. The Minnesota Office of Higher Education lists the tuition and fees of all schools that offer the Minnesota State Grant Program, but it doesn’t include the costs of room and board, textbooks or supplies. Tuition Tracker, however, estimates that for students based on their parents’ income. Tuition Tracker (tuitiontracker.org) was created by The Hechinger Report, the Education Writers Association and the Dallas Morning News, and can be a useful tool for students to estimate the true cost of going to college.

According to Tuition Tracker, it could cost a student $12,031 to $20,229 a year to attend Lake Superior College. The cost per year at some other Minnesota colleges are:

  • $4,953 to $19,196 per year at Mesabi Range Community College.

  • $7,969 to $25,575 per year at the University of Minnesota Duluth.
  • $20,932 to $53,793 per year at The College of St. Scholastica.
  • $8,661 to $21,338 per year at the University of Wisconsin-Superior.

  • $8,472 to $29,488 per year at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.
  • $11,203 to $19,044 per year at Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College.

  • $11,725 to $22,153 per year at Bemidji State University.

  • $12,314 to $21,754 per year at Minnesota State University-Mankato.

“Loans should be your last option in my book,” Salo Downs said. “The beauty of scholarships is seeing our students graduate with little to no debt because of scholarships they’ve received.”

Salo Downs said if a student is able to secure enough money through scholarships, it might even free that student up to participate in extracurricular activities instead of having to work multiple jobs.

“Scholarships are the best way to pay for school,” Salo Downs said. “There’s less stress and greater success.”

Even if students aren’t sure what next fall will look like regarding the pandemic, Hammer said they should apply for scholarships now while they are eligible. Once they graduate in May or June, there are fewer opportunities for scholarships.

“Even if a student decides to take a year off or just the fall semester because classes are online and they just won’t get the full college experience, some scholarships will allow you to delay payment, such as the Alworth,” Salo Downs said. “So apply now so you don’t miss out.”

When applying for scholarships, students also shouldn’t dismiss scholarships that are only offering a couple of hundred dollars because those can add up quickly. Sweatt said she applies for everything and anything she can. She’s applied for around 20 scholarships so far.

“I check every day for new scholarships,” Sweatt said.

Sweatt uses the website fastweb.com to help her find scholarships. FastWeb is a free scholarship matching service, said Associate Content Editor Kathryn Randolph.

“We have a team of researchers who scour the internet for opportunities from big national scholarships to local scholarships,” Randolph said.

Students are asked to create an account on FastWeb by entering information and answering a few questions. This information is used to curate scholarships for each individual student. Randolph said once an account is created, students should go back in and update their profile with as much information as possible to help their researchers narrow in on scholarships the student can apply for.

“I like to brag about our research team because it’s a team of real individuals who are going through our entire database and making sure all of the scholarships that we have are authentic, that there is nothing fraudulent on there and checking every scholarship on an annual basis to ensure it still exists,” Randolph said.

She said FastWeb will prove everything a student needs to know about the scholarships from the amount to who qualifies for the award to how they can apply.

Hammer said another way students can find scholarships is by looking at other area school websites as well as at the college or university websites.

“If you go to Denfeld then check out Hermantown’s website or Proctor’s website because there may be scholarships listed there that you can apply for,” he said. “So just scour as many websites as you can for every scholarship you could possibly apply for.”

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