How to Find & Apply for College Scholarships

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Paying for a higher education can be a costly endeavor, with parents often starting to save money even before their children are born. Although there are many ways to pay for college—grants, loans, tax-advantaged savings plans or simply out of pocket—nothing is more attractive than free money in the form of scholarships.

While you might automatically assume that scholarships are a lost cause because you don’t have an A average or a spot on a school sport’s team, scholarship opportunities have become increasingly diverse over the last decade. That’s not to say that they’ll give a scholarship to just anybody, but there are many different scholarship opportunities that are awarded based on skills and other merits, some of which may surprise you. 

To start your scholarship search and get on your way to reducing the financial burden of attending school, you need to know where to look and how to apply. After all, you can’t get a scholarship if you don’t try. 

Use this guide to learn more about scholarship opportunities and how to go about securing the funding you need for schooling. Get a full overview or use the links below to navigate to a specific section.

What Is a Scholarship?

A scholarship is a type of financial aid that is awarded for individuals who are seeking to attend college or other type of schooling. The most enticing thing about scholarships is that they do not need to be paid back. Grants and scholarships are both ways to get free money for college. However, scholarships are awarded from a variety of sources (meaning you have more opportunities to get scholarships), while grants are typically dispersed by the government.

Unlike other types of financial aid, scholarships for college are awarded based on need, academic achievement, or merit for meeting other special criteria. There are many different types of scholarships available, which will be covered later in this post.

Where to Find College Scholarships

There are more ways to find scholarships than ever, from scholarship websites to on-campus resources. If you’re just starting your search, here are some of the places you can find scholarship opportunities:

  • Your high school counselor. Get ahead of the curve by asking your high school counselor about potential scholarship opportunities. They may be a good resource because they know your educational background, where you’re applying to college, and other important details that can help you qualify.
  • Your school’s financial aid office. On-campus financial aid offices are an excellent resource for finding scholarships. If you go into the office you can get pamphlets as well as speak to a financial advisor. Your college should also have their own financial aid site. 
  • Professional associations and organizations that pertain to your field of study. Many professions have their own regional or national associations. These organizations are good to be aware of not only because you’ll want to join when you begin your career, but because they have resources for those entering the field, including scholarships and internship opportunities. 
  • Federal agencies: The U.S. Department of Education’s office of Federal Student Aid provides more than $120 billion in financial aid to help pay for college or career school each year. Here are a few federal agencies you can apply for scholarships through:
  • State agencies: Each state should also have their own financial aid programs. Check your state’s Department of Education site to see what’s available. 
  • Religious organizations: If you belong to a local religious organization, you may be able to inquire about whether they offer scholarships. On a larger scale, there are many faith-based organizations that award scholarships to students, especially those who plan to do religious work.
  • Community organizations and civic organizations: These groups are dedicated to serving the community. In some cases, your local community organizations may offer scholarship opportunities.
  • Scholarship foundations: Scholarship foundations are established to help students from certain areas, backgrounds, and more. Search for scholarship foundations in your city or state.
  • Local businesses: Businesses can write off charitable donations, so they typically give away a certain amount of money per year—including scholarship awards. 
  • Your parents’ employers: As mentioned above, businesses write off charitable donations, so it couldn’t hurt for your parents to inquire with their employer about scholarship opportunities.

If these avenues don’t pan out, or you’re just looking for the most straightforward way to find a scholarship, you might want to try a scholarship finding tool. There are a variety of online tools and directories that allow you to filter through scholarships to find ones that might apply to you. 

When it comes to scholarships for college, you don’t want to put all your eggs in one basket, so it’s important to apply for other types of financial aid as well, such as grants. Similar resources can also be used to find grants

Types of Scholarships for College

Scholarships generally fall into these categories: 

  • Need-based: Scholarships awarded to individuals in financial need.
  • Merit-based: Scholarships awarded to individuals who meet specific athletic, academic, or other abilities, including the arts.
  • Athletics: Scholarships awarded to exceptional athletes, typically on the contingency basis that they will join a specific athletic team at the school.
  • Hobby-based: Scholarships awarded for individuals who specialize in different hobbies such as cooking, writing, birding, or gardening.
  • Field of study: Scholarships awarded based on your major or career path. Examples include medical, legal, criminal justice, etc.
  • Ethnicity: Scholarships awarded for specific ethnic groups including Latinx students, Native American students, Black students, etc.
  • Religion: Scholarships awarded based on faith or affiliation with religious organizations.
  • Graduate studies focus: Scholarships awarded to graduate students based on their field of study.

With the average yearly cost of tuition, fees, and room and board for the 2019-2020 year at a 4-year public institution ranging from $21,950 (in-state) to $38,330 (out of state), you’re going to want to use every possible avenue to secure free money for school.

How to Apply for College Scholarships

While scholarships aren’t necessarily easy, the process for how to get a scholarship is generally straightforward. To ensure that your application is done correctly, follow these steps: 

  1. Find the scholarship you are interested in applying for.
  2. Carefully read through the criteria to find out:
    1. Who qualifies for this scholarship (is it reserved for a specific age group, region, etc.)
    2. What is required (this may simply be an application form or as elaborate as a short film, portfolio, essay, etc.)
    3. When the deadline is 
  3. Complete all of the required paperwork before the deadline
  4. Submit your application via online submission or by mail (whatever is specified by the scholarship sponsor)

If you have specific questions about how to get a scholarship through a certain organization, reaching out to them directly via phone or email is probably your best bet for getting a clear answer. 

A Note on Scholarship Competition

When applying for scholarships, it’s never a sure thing, so it’s important to have backup plans in place. In this case, the backup plan is applying for multiple scholarships.

With more and more students trying to avoid accumulating massive debt in exchange for an education, scholarship competition is stiff. When applying for scholarships, always make sure to follow the instructions and put your best foot forward in order to give yourself the best changes of being selected for the award.

When to Apply for Scholarships

In many cases, you’ll need to apply for scholarships much earlier than the period during which you’ll use them. This is because there needs to be enough time for people to complete their application (which often includes an essay or some other deliverable), the review committee to process all applications and choose the scholarship recipients, and then notify the winner and disperse the funds. 

Typically, a year before is the ideal timeline. For example, if you are hoping to secure scholarships for your freshman year of college, you should start applying the summer before your senior year. That said, some scholarships have a faster turn around, so it’s important to check deadlines and timelines on a case-by-case basis.

If you are part of a Foreign Service family, you will need to start planning for college a bit earlier. Visit state.gov to learn more about the scholarship process and the steps you need to take.

How Will I Receive My Scholarship Money?

Scholarship funds are generally dispersed in one of two ways:

  1. To the school: Typically, scholarship funds are first released to the educational institution you’re attending. This allows them to take the amount that’s needed to cover tuition, fees, on-campus housing expenses, and any other money that’s owed for the semester or quarter. If there is any money left over, the funds will typically be released back to you.
  2. To the student: In some cases, funds are directly released to the student via check or direct deposit. If this is the case, you will be responsible for ensuring these funds are utilized correctly.

Each scholarship program may disperse funds differently, so it’s important to closely read the fine print. If you can’t find a clear answer, ask.

How Does My Scholarship Affect My Other Financial Aid?

Yes, receiving a scholarship will affect your other financial aid. This is because financial aid maxes out at the cost of attendance (tuition, books and supplies, transportation, room and board, and personal expenses). So, all together,  all the sources of financial aid that you receive cannot exceed this amount.

For example, if the calculated cost of attendance for a semester is $10,000 and all of your sources of financial aid total up to $11,000, that is considered an over-award. The extra $1,000 in aid will typically be accounted for by reducing the amount of a loan you’re being offered (which will benefit you later on because you’ll have fewer loans).

Because of this delicate balance, you will need to notify your school if you have received a scholarship to ensure your financial aid is processed correctly and minimize the risk of delay in receiving your funds.

Secure Free Money for Your Schooling

Don’t hesitate to apply for scholarships for college. While the odds might seem like they’re stacked against you, there are plenty of opportunities to secure free money for schooling—plus, you never know until you try. Start applying for scholarships as soon as possible to make paying for college and repaying your loans less of a burden on you and your family, your future self will be grateful you did. 

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