The Ultimate Guide to Finding and Winning Scholarships

Millions of grants award billions of dollars in financial aid each year. We have put together this guide using our decades of experience as first-generation college students, financial aid and college admissions officers, and financially savvy parents. Let’s dive in!

Importance of Scholarships

Scholarships are typically considered “gift aid”, i.e. money that does not have to be repaid. This makes it a particularly effective way for students to fund their college education, compared to options like student loans. Of course, where there is free money, there will be plenty of competition. And since application and eligibility requirements vary from one scholarship program to another, the whole search and application process can quickly become overwhelming.

How should you manage your time when applying for dozens of scholarships? How do you stand out from thousands of other candidates? Where do grants even fit into your larger financial aid plan?

Start your search today with our list of easy-to-apply scholarships!

How Much Does College Cost?

First of all, it is important to understand how expensive higher education has become in recent years. For the 2016 to 2017 academic year, the National Center for Education Statistics estimated that the total costs of undergraduate tuition, accommodation, fees, and meals exceeded $17,237 in the public institutions and more than $44,551 in private non-profit institutions.

Over the course of a four-year college education (not accounting for inflation or expenses such as books or study abroad), the average total cost of college is between $70,000 and $180,000. For students involved in studies, sports or the ordinary life of a teenager, at this price, how can you afford it!?

How Does the Average Family Pay for College?

According to Sallie Mae, grants and scholarships account for 30% of college expenses for most families. Families pay the rest through savings and income (44% of expenses), student loans (24%) and loans from friends and family (2%).

Scholarships and grants are clearly an important aspect of the financial aid landscape for many students. But why not skip the dog-and-pony show of scholarship contests altogether and get more student loans? For two (2) main reasons:

Student loans are insidiously expensive

The key to this point is to understand the cost of borrowing, i.e. the interest rate a borrower pays on a particular loan. This is best illustrated with an example. Suppose a student decides to finance his entire college education with a single $100,000 student loan. Because of the interest rates and the time it takes to repay that loan, that person could owe $1,100 a month for the next 10 years of their life. That $100,000 college education will end up costing the student over $130,000 before they pay off in full.

Understanding interest rates is vital to understanding why an average borrower is burdened with more than $37,000 in student loan debt. With 64 percent of families expecting students to repay their own loans, taking the time to research and apply for scholarships suddenly seems pretty good.

For more information on student loans, see our Ultimate Guide to Student Loans.

Second, many scholarships offer benefits beyond money.

Check out the Bezos Scholars program, which offers transportation, accommodation, meals, and tickets to the Aspen Ideas Festival, or the QuestBridge College Prep Scholarship, which provides winners with full scholarships for college summer programs at schools like Penn, Yale and Stanford, to name a few among many more benefits.

Programs like the Jefferson Scholars program or QuestBridge also give students access to amzing alumni networks that can be worth far more than any dollar amount. For scholars who are not lucky enough to win full scholarships, private scholarships are an excellent alternative. I hope it is now clear that scholarships are a great way to fund your studies.

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Next, we look at when to start your scholarship search and how to prepare for a successful application.

When Should you Apply for Scholarships?

Although there is no unified deadline for all scholarships, many scholarship programs have spring deadlines. This aligns with college admissions decisions, a time when students have a better idea of ​​how much they will have to pay and how much financial aid they will receive. While many grant deadlines are in the spring, we have seen many programs with winter, fall, and even summer deadlines. In other words, every season is the perfect time to start looking for scholarship opportunities.

One last important note about scholarship deadlines: If you win a scholarship that will pay for itself over an extended period of time (for example, a $16,000 scholarship that pays out $4,000 over your four years at college). Some scholarship programs may require you to submit your transcript annually to ensure your GPA stays above of a certain threshold. This does not apply to small one-time rewards.

How to Apply for College Scholarships?

Many scholarship application processes are quite similar to college application processes. Although the exact requirements vary between different scholarships programs, in most instances you can follow the process below:

  • Find scholarships that fit your profile. More on this below in the “Strategy” section.
  • Write an excellent essay based on the scholarship committee announcement. For more information on how to write a successful scholarship essay, check out our Scholarship and College Admissions Essay Guide.
  • Ask for letters of recommendation from colleagues, teachers, or professors who know you well and can validate your skills.
  • Download transcripts of your grades during your high school or college education. Most scholarship contests require PDF files instead of hard copies.
  • Find copies of your standardized test results, i.e. ACT or SAT.
  • Provide proof of financial need, which can be self-declared or assessed by the scholarship committee using your tax forms.

Please note that while some of these application components may be required, different scholarship programs separately weigh different elements of your application. For instance, the Burger King Scholars program has a minimum grade requirement of 2.5/4.0 (a C+ on the A to F scale), suggesting that they are looking for more qualities than good grades.

What is the Best Strategy to Win a Scholarship?

Winning scholarships is typically a numbers game – your goal should be to enter as many scholarship competitions as possible while keeping the quality of your applications high. Of course, time is money and managing your time in the scholarship research and selection process is vital. Follow our 4-step strategy to increase your chances of getting scholarships without this process taking up all your free time.

Step One: Determine your “profile”

When you start searching for scholarships, you will quickly find that there are scholarships for everybody, which is good news for the strategic scholarship seeker. The stricter the eligibility requirements, the better your chances of winning the scholarship (due to the limited pool of applicants). So your first step is to figure out all the different categories you can possibly fall into. Ask yourself these questions:

  • What year of studies are you in?
  • What would you like to major in?
  • What are your professional interests?
  • What extracurricular activities do you participate in?
  • What do you like to do in your free time?
  • What do your parents do professionally?
  • What state do you live in?
  • Are you a member of a minority?
  • Which universities are you applying to? (for university-specific performance scholarship)
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Step Two: Find scholarships that match your profile

Then use a search tool or type these descriptions into Google with a formula like “scholarships for [category]”. Maybe you are searching for “best scholarships for high school students” or maybe “scholarships for vegetarians”. It could even be scholarships for potato lovers. Like I said, there are scholarships for everybody! Spend an hour or two researching scholarships you may be eligible for and write down all of these scholarships on a spreadsheet.

Step Three: “Rank” your scholarships

Evaluate below all the scholarships you are eligible for at different levels:

  • Eligibility criteria. The stricter the admission requirements, the better for you, as fewer people can apply.
  • Application Requirements. Scholarships that require an essay or personal recommendation letter take longer to apply, which limits the time you have to apply for other scholarships. Of course, this should not rule out a scholarship, but it should be considered.
  • Award size. This is quite easy – larger scholarships are worth more of your time.
  • Deadline. Prioritize grants and scholarships with upcoming deadlines.

Now, give each grant an “expected value” score (1 to 5, or whatever makes the most sense to you). Assigning a value is a subjective exercise, so this strategic step involves putting on your critical thinking hat and making your best guess.

Step Four: Apply!

Once all of your scholarships have been ordered and sorted, it is time to apply for scholarships and move up the list!

For your convenience, keep all reusable parts of your scholarship application (certificates, test scores, CVs, letters of recommendation) in an easily accessible folder on your computer. Also, try to set yourself a goal of applying for a scholarship every week to meet the deadlines without feeling overwhelmed.

Additional Scholarship Advice

Finally, remember the following tips and tricks for winning scholarships:

Start Early

Start the scholarship search and application process early. Writing essays and getting letters of recommendation takes time, and it would be a shame to miss out on a scholarship opportunity just because you missed a deadline.

Think Local

Look for small local organizations that offer scholarship programs. These scholarships naturally receive fewer applications than national contests, which increases your chances of winning. Your school counselor, place of worship, local newspapers, and local non-profits are great ways to find out about local scholarships.

Come Back Next Year

While many students focus on scholarships for high school students, there are scholarships for students of all ages. Make it a goal to seek out new scholarships at the start of each semester; you will be surprised at what you can find!

Negotiate Merit Scholarships

Often, merit-based aid can be negotiated. Not all colleges are open to this, but for colleges that offer a lot of merit grants and are less or moderately selective with acceptance rates over 40%, it is worth a try.

Other Types of Financial Aid: Student loans, Grants and ISAs

Scholarships are only one piece of the financial aid puzzle. Read on to find out more ways to fund a college degree.

Student Loans

As we have seen in previous sections, obtaining a student loan is a serious financial decision that shouldn’t be taken lightly. For more information on this complicated subject, see our complete guide to student loans.


Bursaries are a form of need-based financial support. Read our Pell Grants article to better understand this piece of the financial aid puzzle.

Income Share Agreements (ISAs)

The basic idea behind ​​the income share agreements is simple: Instead of taking out loans or paying tuition, students promise to repay a future percentage of their salary. The great thing about the ISA is that you’re not responsible for the initial tuition costs (some ISAs also cover other costs like board, room, and even other living expenses). Organizations that offer ISAs include Make School, Flatiron School, and Lambda School.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is the Difference between a Grant and a Scholarship?

Grants are generally awarded based on financial need (think of the Pell Grant program, which is a need-based form of federal financial aid), while scholarships are usually awarded based on merit.

Do all Scholarships Require an Essay?

Many scholarship programs do not require an essay! Check out our list of scholarships without essay to see some good examples. Although these scholarships tend to be a bit enticing compared to programs that require essays and letters of recommendation, it never hurts to jump into the fray.

Do all Scholarships Require Letters of Recommendation?

Although letters of recommendation are common for some of the company-sponsored scholarships, they are often not required for smaller contests. Remember that you can reuse reference letters in different contests. Simply check with the original author of the recommendation first and make sure their recommendation makes sense in the context of the new scholarship application. In general, you should be able to use the same recommendations that you used during the intake process.

Can Scholarships Affect my Financial Aid?

Possibly! This varies from one college to another, but colleges can deduct your merit scholarship from the financial aid you receive (because you must report all scholarships to the college). However, many colleges replace the loan portion of your financing package with scholarships so that it can continue to help you.

Are the Scholarships Only for Low-Income Students?

No! Scholarships are a crucial piece of the funding puzzle for students of all income levels. Typically, students from the wealthiest families are, in fact, the ones who rely the most on scholarships as a source of financial aid. This may be due to, among other things, the fact that these students are not eligible for certain need-based scholarships.

How to Avoid Scholarship Scams?

The FTC (Federal Trade Commission) has identified hundreds of scholarship scam complaints each year. In these scams, scammers attempt to collect sensitive personal information from students by posing as scholarship organizations.

While we review every scholarship opportunity featured on the site, there are several other scholarships than we can feature. In order not to fall victim to a scholarship scam, please note the following:

  • Language such as “your money back or guaranteed”
  • Requests for credit card information, bank account information, or social security number to “hold” a grant.
  • Notices that you have been selected as a finalist in a scholarship for which you never applied.
  • Fragmented online presence

If you believe you have been a victim of fraud, file a complaint through the National Consumers League’s online complaint form or contact the attorney general of your state.

Explore these other scholarship categories:

Scholarships for high school seniors

Top scholarships for college students

Top scholarships for grad students

Top Law school scholarships

Scholarships for women

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