Think of a scholarship as a free gift or prize. Another party gives you this money and you never have to pay them back. High schools, colleges, individuals, employers, private companies, non-profits, religious groups, towns, and social organizations award scholarships for college students. Earning scholarships is the easiest way to graduate college with less debt. Read on to learn more about how scholarships work.
What Types of Scholarships are Available?
Do not count yourself out of the scholarship search just because you have a low GPA. You can find a scholarship for almost anything. Companies award students money for designing greeting cards, making duct tape prom attire, and creating the top Google doodle. The most common scholarship types are merit-based, student-specific, career-specific, need-based, and location-based.
These are awarded based on factors like race, gender, and your belief system. They might come from an academic institution, community service group, company, or individual.
As the name implies, merit-based scholarships are awarded based on academic achievements, including test scores. The majority of these come directly from colleges and do not require an application. When you receive a college acceptance letter, the university will often offer you scholarship money upfront. They base this offer on your high school achievements.
Students pursuing high-need careers like nursing or education could end up with full-rides. Some communities and states award scholarships in exchange for the student working in a specific area for a certain number of years. This not only makes college affordable, but it also guarantees a job post-graduation.
The majority of these come from the federal government as part of your federal aid package. They help lower-income students afford the college of their choice. A large number of scholarships require proof of financial need—even if the scholarship comes from a source outside of the government.
These scholarships for college students come from states, cities, and delegates. You must reside in the area awarding the scholarship and, in some cases, attend school there.
Who Can Apply for Scholarships?
Anyone pursuing education or training beyond high school can apply for scholarships. Although some exist for young kids, the majority of scholarships go to students age 13 and up. It is common to think that scholarships are just for high school students. This is not the case. College students of any age should look for opportunities for as long as they are in school. You may not qualify for the same scholarship you received as a high school senior, but you will qualify for new ones. Nearly 50% of all scholarships are for current college students.
Where Do I Find Scholarships?
Many websites compile large lists of scholarships that you can search through. Be careful though. Some online scholarships are scams, so learn how to spot a scam before applying. The U.S. Department of Labor offers a free and reliable scholarship search tool. They vet the scholarships and only post legitimate ones. Searching online can take a long time. Luckily, there are some other surefire places you can look.
Make sure that you check in with your high school guidance counselor. Most high schools gather a list of local scholarships for college students. These are usually less competitive because they only apply to a small group of students—like those in your graduating class. Knowing about local scholarships during your freshman or sophomore year will prove very beneficial. For example, a community service organization might sponsor a scholarship that is only available to students with a certain number of volunteer hours. Knowing about this ahead of time gives you plenty of time to prepare.
Some employers offer scholarships to their direct employees or to their employees’ kids. Ask your parents if their workplace has any scholarships for college students that you qualify for. Check with your own boss too because many businesses offer employee tuition assistance and scholarships. Companies like Burger King, McDonald’s, Chik-fil-A, Walmart, and Pizza Hut have opportunities available. Working while in college could help kept your student loan debt to a minimum.
Check with local organizations like libraries, religious institutions, and community service organizations. Some church denominations give out a set number of scholarships for college students in their congregation just based on who applies first. Community service or national club organizations like Rotary International, Kiwanis, VFW, and Lions Club also award scholarships each year. You will find that list here.
When Do I Apply to Scholarships?
It is never too late or too early to pursue scholarship opportunities. Typically, high school students start applying the summer between junior and senior year. However, students in younger grades will find some they qualify for. Plan on applying for scholarships at least six months in advance of when you need the money. Starting college in September? Start applying between January and May. Need it by the start of spring semester? Apply before Halloween. This leaves you enough time to receive the scholarship money before the next tuition bill comes.
Whenever you start applying, pay close attention to each scholarship’s deadlines. Missing the deadline, even by just an hour, will automatically put you out of the running. Create a calendar or set phone reminders to prevent this.
How Do I Know if I am Eligible for a Scholarship?
Each scholarship will come with eligibility requirements, some more specific than others. Read these requirements so that you do not waste time applying to scholarships you do not qualify for. Many scholarship search engines let you search based on your age, gender, major, and other characteristics. Some, like Fast Web, will match you to scholarships based on your profile. This makes it easier to find relevant scholarships.
One eligibility requirement all school-specific scholarships have is that the student must have a FAFSA on file. Even if you do not think you qualify for any federal aid, file your FAFSA. Colleges cannot award scholarships (or any other financial aid) to students who do not file a FAFSA. Pay special attention to your college’s and your state’s FAFSA deadlines.
Some scholarships that you renew annually come with strings attached. Typically, they just require that you meet certain GPA requirements. This is especially common with merit-based scholarships granted by your college. Make note of any conditional scholarship requirements so that you do not lose out on this free money.
How Do I Choose which Scholarships to Apply For?
It is tempting to apply to as many scholarships as possible. This idea works so long as you fully qualify for every scholarship you apply to. You need to meet all requirements to have a shot at winning. Applying to scholarships you only partially qualify for just wastes your time. Do not apply to these scholarships and lie about your qualifications. This is not fair to the scholarship committee or the other applicants.
Choose scholarships that excite you and that you fully qualify for. If you find history boring, do not apply for scholarships requiring you to write a historical essay. The more specific the scholarship is to your interests, the easier the process. Your essays or projects will also come across as more genuine because you are passionate about the topic.
Always apply for scholarships that you uniquely qualify for. For example, if your dad’s engineering firm has a scholarship for employees’ children who plan to study engineering, apply if you are eligible. This niche scholarship will have much fewer applicants. In some instances, you might be the only one who qualifies. Take advantage of any scholarships like this. Check at your church, your place of employment, or your high school.
It is tempting to apply to big-ticket scholarships only. However, do not just choose scholarships based on the dollar amount. Winning a $300 scholarship that can cover book expenses is better than winning nothing.
How Do I Successfully Apply?
After locating a scholarship that you fully qualify for, read through its application criteria. You need to follow every direction for a chance at success. Something as simple as leaving out a requested photo could disqualify you. Give yourself enough time to write your essay, complete the required project, or gather the necessary paperwork.
When it comes to writing an essay, what you write about and how you write about it are equally as important. No matter the topic, make sure that your essay is focused, 100% grammatically correct, and flows well. You do not want writing errors to distract the reader from your thoughts. If the essay requires research, run it through an online plagiarism scanner to check for accidental plagiarism.
Lots of scholarships also require letters of recommendation. Come up with a list of potential references even before you start looking at scholarships. As a courtesy, let these individuals know that you may be asking them for a reference. Once you need a recommendation, give them at least two weeks’ notice. For some scholarships, your references will send their letter of recommendation directly to the organization. Make sure you follow up to make sure it arrived on time.
Where Does My Scholarship Money Go?
Every organization handles this differently. Some groups will send money directly to your college. Others will write you a check. Although not always explicitly stated, your scholarship money should go toward college costs like books, tuition, room and board, and supplies. Make sure you aren’t overspending for textbooks!
What Happens to My Student Aid Package if I Win a Scholarship?
A financial aid package can include government loans, scholarships offered by the college, grant money, and work-study. This amount cannot exceed the actual amount of attending college. If you receive a scholarship, you must notify your school’s financial aid office. They will restructure your financial aid package by reducing or removing certain parts. For example, if attendance costs $30,000, and you receive a scholarship for $20,000, your remaining aid package cannot exceed $10,000. For specifics, contact your college’s financial aid office.
Start your scholarship search by looking at our curated lists of scholarships based on demographics and interests. These represent just some of the many scholarship types that you might qualify for.
Student Debt Relief Scholarship Resource Pages
College enrollment for the Hispanic community continues to increase each year. To help accelerate the pace, lots of business and foundations have created scholarships specific to this community. Several of these go to students already enrolled in college, proving it is never too late to seek out scholarships. For example, the Northrop Grumman HENAAC Scholarship goes to one STEM undergraduate and one graduate student. To learn about others, go here.
Many scholarships specifically help Asian-Americans, Native Alaskans, and Pacific Islanders. The companies and organizations who offer them hope to make college more affordable for minorities. We compiled a list of scholarships for qualified students. Some of these opportunities award money to students studying law, engineering, medicine, or broadcasting. Others look solely at your academic reputation, leadership experience, and community service work. You will find the full list here.
Right now, Native Americans make up the most underrepresented group on college campuses. Those living on reservations often have limited resources and lack access to quality education. If you fall into this group, you may qualify for several scholarships. Keep in mind that most of these require you to prove that you have American Indian blood. Go to our page on Native American grants, scholarships, and internships to learn more.
Although getting better, African Americans are still underrepresented on higher education campuses. Several groups have created scholarships with the aim of making college more affordable for these individuals. Some examples of qualified students are those studying computer and video game arts, journalism, religious studies, education, and atmospheric science. Organizations offer non-major-specific scholarships as well. Go here to view the full list.
Many organizations have created scholarships for college students identifying as part of the LGBT community or pursuing studies relating to LGBT issues. For example, the Gates Millennium Scholars program awards money to outstanding LGBT students who have a significant financial need. Another scholarship, the Bisexual Foundation Scholarship Award, grants money to graduate students conducting research on the psychology of bisexuality. See the others here.
As of 2016, women account for more than half of all enrolled undergraduates at four-year colleges. Their decision to attend college brings with it crippling debt. Luckily, there are many scholarships available specifically for women. These include scholarships for low-income women age 35+, women pursing a STEM major, women leaving a domestic violence situation, women studying music, and women studying aviation and aerospace. Check them out on our Scholarships for Women and our Scholarships and Grants for Women pages.
Many older adults decide to enroll in college. Most see college as the step toward securing a better-paying job or achieving the dreams they abandoned as youth. To encourage them, many organizations offer scholarships for colleges students who are older. For example, the General Henry H. Arnold Education Grant gives $2,000 to Air Force service-members, retirees, and their spouses who return to college. The Educational Foundation for Women in Accounting awards up to $16,000 to homemakers who are now pursuing a degree in accounting. You will find the full list here.
Students with strong language abilities and good grades might qualify for a scholarship that helps them learn in another country. Most require that you study with a specific program or at a specific school. Before committing to one of your school’s study abroad options, look into these scholarships. Some, like the Fulbright Program, even include a living stipend, medical insurance, a food allowance, and a travel allowance. Read about the others here.
Nothing beats free money for college. Take as much time as you can apply for scholarships. Reducing the upfront cost of school will save you a lot of money in the long run. It may even eliminate the need to take out student loans.