The Ultimate Guide to Finding & Winning Scholarships
Millions of scholarships award billions of dollars in financial aid every single year.
We put together this scholarship guide using our decades of experience as college admissions and financial aid officers, first-generation college students, and financially savvy parents. This guide will cover:
- Why scholarships matter
- When to apply for scholarships
- How to apply for scholarships
- The best strategy to win scholarships
- Additional scholarship tips
- Grants, Student Loans, and ISAs
- Our scholarship directory
Let’s dive in!
Why do scholarships matter?
Scholarships are considered “gift aid,” meaning money that doesn’t need to be repaid. This makes them a particularly great way for students to finance their college education when compared against options like taking out student loans.
Of course, wherever there’s free money, there’s going to be a lot of competition. And with application and eligibility requirements varying between different scholarship programs, the entire scholarship search and application process can become overwhelming, fast. How should you manage your time when applying to dozens of scholarships? How do you distinguish yourself from thousands of other applicants? Where do scholarships fit within your broader financial aid plan, anyway?
|Start your search today with our updated list of easy scholarships to apply for!|
How much does college cost?
To begin, it’s important to understand how costly higher education has become in recent years. For the 2016 – 2017 academic year, the National Center for Education Statistics estimated the total cost of undergraduate tuition, fees, room, and board to be over $17,237 at public institutions and over $44,551 at private nonprofit institutions.
|Avg. cost for 1 year of public undergrad: $17,237 / year||Avg. cost for 1 year of private undergrad: $44,551 / year|
Over the course of a 4-year undergraduate education (and not accounting for inflation or expenses like books or study abroad), the total average cost of college falls between $70,000 and $180,000. For students busy with academics or athletics or normal teenage life, this price tag begs the question–how is everyone affording this!?
How does the average family pay for college?
According to Sallie Mae, scholarships and grants account for 30% of how most families pay for college. Families pay for the remainder through savings and income (44% of spend), student loans (24%), and by borrowing from friends and family (2%). This is illustrated in the chart below.
Typical College Spend Breakdown
Source: Sallie Mae
Clearly, scholarships and grants form an important part of the financial aid picture for many college students. But why not avoid the dog and pony show of scholarship contests altogether and take out more student loans? For two main reasons:
First, student loans are sneakily expensive. For this point, it’s key to understand the cost of debt, i.e. the rate that a borrower pays on a given loan. This is best illustrated by example.
Let’s say a student decides to finance their entire college education by taking out a single, $100,000 student loan. Due to interest rates and the length of time needed to repay this loan, this individual could owe $1,100 per month for the next ten years of their life. That $100k college education will end up costing the student over $130k before it’s totally repaid.
Understanding interest rates is key to understanding why the average borrower is saddled with over $37,000 of student loan debt. With 64% of families expecting students to pay back loans on their own, taking the time out of your day to search for and apply to scholarships is suddenly starting to seem pretty good. For more on student loans, check out our Ultimate Guide to Student Loans.
|64% of families say the student will pay back their loan alone|
Source: Sallie Mae
Second, many scholarships come with perks beyond the dollars. Check out the Bezos Scholars Program, which provides transportation, lodging, meals, and passes for the Aspen Ideas Festival, or the QuestBridge College Prep Scholarship, which offers winners full scholarships to college summer programs at schools like Stanford, Yale, and Penn, among many other perks.
Programs like QuestBridge or the Jefferson Scholars program through UVA also offer students access to impressive alumni networks that can be far more valuable than any dollar amount. For students who aren’t fortunate enough to win full ride scholarships, private scholarships are a great alternative.
Hopefully it’s now clear that scholarships are a great way to pay for college. Next, let’s look at when to begin the scholarship search process, and how to put together a winning application.
When Do I Start Applying for Scholarships?
While there’s no single deadline for all scholarships, many scholarship programs have deadlines in the spring. This lines up with college admissions decisions, a time when students will have a better sense of how much they need to pay, and how much financial aid they’ll receive.
|Are you looking for personalized scholarships and financial aid advice? Complete our 60-second quiz to get started!|
While many scholarship deadlines are in the spring, we’ve seen plenty of programs with deadlines in the fall, winter, and even in the summer. In other words, any time of year is a great time to begin exploring scholarship opportunities.
A final, important note on scholarship deadlines–if you win a scholarship that pays out over a longer period of time (for example, a $10,000 scholarship that pays out $2,500 over your 4 years at school), keep an eye out for eligibility requirements. Some scholarship programs may ask you to submit your college transcript each year to make sure your GPA remains above a certain threshold. This usually doesn’t apply to smaller, one-time awards.
How Do I Apply for College Scholarships?
Most scholarship application processes are very similar to the college application process. While the exact requirements vary between different scholarship programs, in most cases you can follow the process below:
- Find scholarships that match your profile. More on this in the “strategy” section below. To find up-to-date scholarship profiles, head over to our scholarship search tool, or sign up for our daily scholarship newsletter.
- Write a great essay based on the prompt provided by the scholarship committee. For more on writing a winning scholarship essay, check out our guide on rocking scholarship and college admissions essays.
- Ask for letters of recommendation from teachers, professors, or colleagues who know you well and can speak to your abilities. Follow our 6 tips on getting the best admissions recommendation letter, since all of the same rules apply!
- Download transcripts of your grades throughout your time in high school or college. Most contests will ask for PDFs rather than paper copies.
- Find copies of your standardized test scores, i.e. the SAT or the ACT. If your standardized test scores need a bit of work, check out our guide on creating an ACT and SAT testing plan.
- Provide a demonstration of financial need, which can be self-reported, or will be assessed by the scholarship committee from your tax forms.
Note that while some of these application components these may be required, different scholarship programs weigh different pieces of your application differently. For example, the Burger King Scholars program has a minimum GPA requirement of a 2.5 / 4.0 (a C+ on the A – F scale), suggesting they’re looking for other qualities than just good grades. For more on this, check out our top scholarships for B students!
What’s the Best Strategy to Win a Scholarship?
Winning scholarships is a numbers game–your goal should be to submit to as many scholarship contests as possible while keeping the quality of your applications high. Of course, time is money, and managing your time in the scholarship search and selection process is key.
Follow our 4-step strategy to increase your odds of winning scholarships without having this process consume all of your free time.
Step 1: Figure out your “profile”
When you begin your scholarship search, you’ll quickly realize there are scholarships for everyone, which is great news for the strategic scholarship applicant. The stricter the eligibility requirements are, the higher your chances of winning the scholarship (by nature of a limited applicant pool).
So, your first step involves figuring out all of the different categories you can possibly fall into. Ask yourself the following questions:
- What academic year are you?
- What do you want to major in?
- What are your career interests?
- What extracurricular activities are you involved in?
- What do you like to do in your free time?
- What do your parents do for a living?
- What state do you live in?
- Are you a member of a minority group?
- What colleges are you applying to? (for college-specific merit aid)
Step 2: Find scholarships that match your profile
Next, use a search tool like Scholarships360’s Scholarship Finder, or type these descriptions into Google by using a formula like “scholarships for [category].” Maybe you’ll look up “Top Scholarships for High School Seniors,” or perhaps “scholarships for vegetarians.” Maybe even “scholarships for potato lovers.” Like we said, there are scholarships for everyone!
Spend an hour or two searching for scholarships that you’re eligible for, and drop all of these scholarships into a spreadsheet.
Step 3: “Rank” your scholarships
Next, asses all of the scholarships that you qualify for on a few different levels:
- Eligibility criteria. The stricter the eligibility requirements, the better for you, since that means fewer people are eligible to apply.
- Application requirements. Scholarships that require an essay or a custom letter of recommendation will take more time to apply to, which limits the time you’ll have to apply to other scholarships. Of course, this shouldn’t exclude a scholarship, but it’s worth taking into consideration.
- Award size. This one’s easy–bigger scholarships are more worth your time.
- Deadline. Prioritize scholarships with upcoming deadlines.
Now, assign each scholarship an “expected value” score (1 – 5, or whatever makes the most sense for you). Assigning scores is a subjective exercise, so this step involves putting your critical thinking hat on and making a best guess.
Step 4: Apply!
With all of your scholarships scored and sorted, it’s time to begin applying to scholarships and working your way down the list!
To make life easier for yourself, keep all of your reusable scholarship application components (transcripts, test scores, resume, letters of recommendation) in one easily accessible folder on your computer. Additionally, try setting a goal of applying to one scholarship each week to stay on top of deadlines without feeling overwhelmed.
Additional Scholarship Tips
Finally, don’t forget about the below tips and tricks for winning scholarship awards:
Begin your scholarship search and application process early. Writing essays and asking for letters of recommendation takes time, and it would stink to miss out on winning a scholarship just because you missed a deadline.
Look for smaller, local organizations that offer scholarship programs. These scholarships will naturally receive fewer applications compared to national contests, increasing your chances of winning. Some great ways to learn about local scholarships are through your school counselor, your place of worship, local newspapers, and through local nonprofits.
Check Back Next Year
While many students focus on scholarships for high school seniors, there are scholarships available for students of all different ages. Set a goal to look for new scholarships at the start of every semester; you’ll be surprised by what you may find!
Negotiate Merit Scholarships
Sometimes you can negotiate merit scholarship aid. Not all colleges are open to this, but for colleges that offer a lot of merit aid and are lesser or moderately selective with acceptance rates at/above 40%, it’s worth the shot.
Other Forms of Financial Aid: Grants, Student Loans, & ISAs
Scholarships are just one piece of the financial aid puzzle. Keep reading for a look at alternative options for financing a college education.
Grants are a form of need-based financial aid. Check out our article on Pell Grants to better understand this piece of the financial aid puzzle.
As discussed in the sections above, taking out student loans is a serious financial decision that should not be taken lightly. For more information on this complicated topic, check out our comprehensive guide on student loans.
Income Share Agreements (ISAs)
The basic idea of the ISA is simple: instead of paying tuition or taking out loans, students are promising to pay back a future percentage of their salary. The best part of the ISA is that you are not responsible for up-front tuition costs (some ISAs also cover other expenses such as room, board, and even other living expenses). Organizations offering ISAs include Lambda School, Flatiron School, and Make School.
For more on this exciting college financing option, check out our Ultimate Guide to Income Share Agreements.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
What’s the difference between a scholarship and a grant?
Grants are typically awarded on the basis of financial need (think of the Pell Grant Program, which is a form of federal, need-based aid) while scholarships are awarded based on merit.
Do all scholarships require an essay?
Many scholarship programs require no essay at all! Check out our list of no essay scholarships for some great examples. While these scholarships tend to be more of a lottery draw compared to programs asking for essays and letters of recommendation, it never hurts to throw your hat in the ring.
Do I need a letter of recommendation to apply for a scholarship?
While letters of recommendation are common for some of the corporate-sponsored scholarships, smaller contests often do not require them. Keep in mind that you can reuse letters of recommendation with different contests. Just make sure to check with the original writer of the recommendation first, and to make sure that their recommendation makes sense in the context of the new scholarship application.
Can scholarships impact my financial aid?
Potentially. This varies from college to college, but colleges may deduct your merit scholarship money from the financial aid you are awarded (as you have to report all scholarships to the college). With that said, many colleges will replace the loan portion of your financial aid package with scholarships so it can still help.
Are scholarships only for low-income students?
No! Scholarships are an important part of the financial aid puzzle for students across income levels. In the chart below, you can see that students from the most well-off families are actually the most reliant on scholarships as a form of financial aid. Among other reasons, this may be due to the fact that these students don’t qualify for some need-based grants.
Scholarships as a % of Total Cost of Attendance
|Family Income Bracket||<$35k||35k – <$100k||$100k+|
|% of cost of attendance||19%||17%||20%|
Source: Sallie Mae
How do I avoid scholarship scams?
The FTC has identified hundreds of complaints every year about scholarship scams. In these scams, fraudsters attempt to collect sensitive personal information from students by posing as scholarship organizations.
While Scholarships360 thoroughly vets every scholarship opportunity profiled on the website, there are many more scholarships than we’re able to profile. To avoid falling victim to a scholarship scam, look out for the following:
- Language such as “guaranteed or your money back”
- Requests for Social Security Number, bank account information, or credit card information to “hold” a scholarship
- Notices that you’ve been selected as a finalist for a scholarship that you never applied to
- Sketchy online presence
If you think you may be the victim of a scam, file a report through the National Consumers League online complaint form or reach out to your state attorney general. For more information, check out our article on how to avoid scholarship scams.
College Scholarship Directory
Scholarships come in all shapes and sizes. There are opportunities for fulltime and part-time students already pursuing their bachelor degree, for high school students heading to community college, even for graduate students seeking funding. Check out some of our most popular scholarship categories pulled from our scholarship directory below, or head over to our ScholarshipFinder to create a customized scholarship search.
Scholarships by academic year
- Scholarships for High School Seniors
- Scholarships for High School Juniors
- Scholarships for High School Sophomores
- Scholarships for High School Freshman
- Scholarships for College Freshmen
- Scholarships for College Sophomores
- Scholarships for College Students
- Scholarships for Community College Students
- Scholarships for Transfer Students
Scholarships by deadline
- December Scholarships
- January Scholarships
- February Scholarships
- March Scholarships
- April Scholarships
- May Scholarships
- Summer Scholarships
|Are you looking for personalized scholarships and financial aid advice? Complete our 60-second quiz to get started!|