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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:

Let’s dive in!

Why scholarships matter

Because scholarships do not have to be repaid, they are a 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. That means knowing how to find scholarships and apply to them in a timely manner is key!

For the remainder of this article, we’ll help you understand how you can do just that! So, let’s jump in and start by looking at the scariest part of this all, which is the cost of college.  Don’t get worried though, attending college is possible for you!  

How does the average family pay for college?

There are actually dozens of factors that impact the final cost of an individual’s college education. In turn, each student and/or family pays for that education in their own unique way.  The average family uses a mix of scholarships, federal aid, personal savings and loans to pay for college. Factors like whether students choose in-state, out-of-state, public, or private schools all influence the bottom line. Some students choose to start at community college, and then transfer to a four year school. In the majority of states, students are offered no-cost community college tuition. Just as no two people are the same, neither is the way they pay for college. 

Chances are, if you’re reading this guide, you plan to use scholarships to pay for as much of your college as possible, which is great. Don’t forget to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Check out our FAFSA guide to guide you through the process. 

Also read: How to pay for college (a step by step guide)

What to know about loans

During the process of scholarships and filling out the FAFSA, student loans may begin to feel like the easier route to pay for college, but there are some key factors you should explore before deciding to take out loans. Let’s take a look at those factors together! 

Student loans are expensive

The first thing you should keep in mind about loans is that what you see is not what you pay. Taking out a loan for $20,000 may not feel like too much at the time, but depending on what the interest rate is, could end up costing you much more to pay back over the span of several years. 

This doesn’t mean loans should be entirely out of the question for you, but that thorough research into all other options should be done first. Check out our loan repayment article if you plan to take out loans. For now, let’s get started with “free money” scholarships!

Remember, some scholarships are more than money! 

While the primary benefit of scholarships is money, some scholarships will come with other benefits as well. The Bezos Scholars Program provides transportation, lodging, meals, and passes for the Aspen Ideas Festival. The QuestBridge College Prep Scholarship offers winners full scholarships to college summer programs at schools like Stanford, Yale, and Penn, among many other perks. 

Be sure to check out everything that some of these generous scholarships have to offer. Next, let’s look at when to begin the scholarship search process, and how to put together a winning application.

When should you start applying for scholarships?

The simple answer is as soon as you can! It is never too early to start applying for scholarships! Scholarship deadlines occur throughout the year, which means starting the search sooner will allow you to have ample time to work on your applications. 

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!

How will I receive scholarship money?

Scholarships may either be directly deposited into your college student account or paid to you via check. Scholarships, regardless of amount, usually deposit straight into your student account in order to avoid having to provide any sort of banking information and to ensure the money is used directly toward educational expenses. You should always be aware of any scholarships that ask you to provide any kind of banking information! 

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.

What you’ll need to apply

Applying to scholarships can be a lengthy process. They often require that applicants submit essays, letters of recommendation, and test scores. While the exact requirements vary between different scholarships, they’ll all mostly follow the same process. So, let’s look at the steps you can take to apply for scholarships! 

Finding scholarships

Finding scholarships is obviously the first step of the process. There are so many out there that knowing where to start can feel challenging. Your first step should be to identify what your profile looks like. You want scholarships to match your needs and not the other way around. Check out our scholarship search tool, which uses data-driven matching to find the best scholarships for you. 

Writing essays

Not all scholarships require you to write an essay, but some may, which means your next step is to write that essay. We won’t go into details about how to write your essay in this article, but our website has plenty of resources for you to check out. If you are a student who loves writing and plans to apply for scholarships, our list of  top writing and essay scholarship is a great place to start your search. 

Further reading: How to write a winning scholarship essay

Transcripts and academic information

Some scholarships will be pretty competitive, which means your test scores and GPA are important. Other scholarships may require you to prove that you are interested in a certain major or have taken certain classes by asking you to provide your transcripts. You should make it a point to have this information handy when filling out scholarships.

Letters of recommendation

Again, like essays and transcripts, this won’t always be necessary. Scholarships on the more competitive side will usually be more likely to ask for letters of recommendation. Keep a list of a few names in mind that you could call to ask for a letter of recommendation if it is needed. Check out our article about how to ask for a letter of recommendation for a few tips. 

Demonstration of need

Okay, the last thing we will mention is making sure you can demonstrate your financial need. Many scholarships ask a student to provide either tax forms or a self-reported form of income to show that a scholarship is needed or will help the student in addition to other forms of financial assistance. 

Note that while some of these application components may be required, different scholarship programs weigh different pieces of your application differently. The main thing to take away here is to be prepared to show financial need if asked for. 

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.

Your first step involves figuring out all of the different categories you can possibly fall into. 

Identify common information about yourself 

  • Academic year
  • GPA
  • Potential major
  • Type of college you plan to attend (Private, in-state, out of state, public, etc.)

Identify unique information about yourself

  • What are your personal interests or extracurricular activities?
  • Where do you live?
  • 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.” As 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 designated document.

Step 3: “Rank” your scholarships

Next, assess all of the scholarships that you qualify for on a few different levels. The levels below are just some of the ways you can rank them. The scholarships that matter most to you should go at the top of your list. Your goal should be to apply to as many scholarships as you can, without compromising the quality of your application. 

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!

Deadlines

Prioritize scholarships with upcoming deadlines.

Step 4: Apply!

With all of your scholarships sorted, it’s time to begin applying 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

Okay, all of that was a lot. Let’s wrap up with the tips and tricks below for winning scholarship awards:

Start early

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.

Think local

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 if your parents’ workplace offers scholarships

Many companies and businesses award scholarships to the children and dependents of their employees. Make sure that you check with your parents or caretakers early in your scholarship search about whether any scholarships are offered. 

Tip from a scholarship winner

Since my dad was a teamster, I was eligible to apply for the James R. Hoffa Memorial Scholarship. I applied in the fall of my senior year of high school, and ultimately won $10,000 to put towards my college education.
Brian Geiger

Scholarships360 co-founder

Recipient of the James R. Hoffa Memorial Scholarship

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

Scholarships are just one piece of the financial aid puzzle. Alternative options for financing a college education include grants, student loans and income share agreements (ISAs). 

Grants

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. 

Federal and private loans

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)

Last but not least, are income share agreements. 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. For more information, read our article about income share agreements.

Frequently asked questions

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, or a mixture of merit and financial need.

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 all scholarships require letters of recommendation?

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 applications. 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.

Generally, you should be able to use the same recommendations that you used in the admissions process. We’ve written our very own guide to securing the very best recommendations for both scholarships and admissions.

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 all income levels. If you are a student that does not qualify for federal student aid, then scholarships may be your best friend. Remember, scholarships are for everyone! 

How do I avoid scholarship scams?

Unfortunately, scholarship scams are real and something you need to be aware of. 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




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 the Scholarships360 Search Platform to create a customized scholarship search.

Scholarships by academic year

Scholarships by deadline

Scholarships by demographic

Scholarships by interest

Scholarships by type