27 Apr

How to Get a Scholarship – The Essential Guide

how to get a scholarship essential guide

If you want help paying for college and don't want to take on massive debt, a scholarship is the way to go. Before you start applying, you should know how to get a scholarship. Many organizations, businesses, and schools offer scholarship programs, and most require an application. How well you complete the application and how great your essay is can mean the difference between getting some free money for college and taking on lots of debt.

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What Is A Scholarship And How Does It Work?

A scholarship is money given to a student to help him or her pay for school. What separates scholarships from other types of financial aid, such as student loans, is that you do not have to pay back the amount you receive once you finish or leave school.

How a scholarship works depends in large part on the type of scholarship you receive. Many are merit-based, which means that organizations give them out to students based on grades or some other type of achievement.

For example, if you are in the top 10 percent of your high school graduating class, you might be eligible for a scholarship for students with the highest grades. If you've spent the bulk of your extracurricular time studying dance, you can qualify for a scholarship for talented dancers. Athletes usually also receive awards in recognition of their talent on the field or court.

In some cases, you might be eligible for an award not because of what you do, but because of who you are. Larger companies often have scholarship programs for the children of employees, for example. Some scholarships are designed to increase opportunities for traditionally under-represented groups, such as women and minorities.

While some scholarships are based solely on your achievements or who you are, others take your financial status into consideration. Need-based scholarships use the information on your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to determine if you are a good candidate for the award. You might meet the other requirements for the scholarship, but if you don't have financial need, you won't receive it.

Usually, there are two ways to get a scholarship. Often, schools have their own scholarship programs and will automatically offer awards to accepted students. The school looks at your current and past grades, activities and in some cases, your FAFSA to determine if you are eligible for an award.

If you want to receive a scholarship from an institution or organization that isn't your school, you'll need to fill out a separate application. Many scholarship applications require you to write an essay that reflects on your life, shares a goal or lets the scholarship judges get to know you in some other way.

Tips for Winning Scholarships

Is there a magic formula when it comes to winning scholarship money? The answer is yes and no. While you can't expect scholarship committees just to give you money, there are a few things you can do to increase your odds of getting the award.

Personalize Your Essay

The judges who review scholarship applications have to read hundreds, if not thousands of personal essays. Reading all those essays can get boring after a while, especially if every student says the same thing over and over.

Make your essay stand out from the crowd by getting personal with and diving deep into your topic. Choose to write about something you love, rather than something you think will impress the judges. Look for the “why” behind what you do, instead of only telling the judges what you do.

After reading your essay, a judge should think, “I got to know that student.” That all said, don't make the piece too personal. Many contests are judged blindly, meaning that you shouldn't put your name in the essay.

Look Professional

Are scholarship judges going to do a Google search on you? They might and they might not.

It's better to assume that they will and take the time to polish up your online and social media presence. Take down any photos that don't show you in the best light (pictures of you with a drink in hand, pictures of you smoking) and make sure you remove any posts that contain offensive language or comments.

Spend Plenty of Time

Students might award bragging rights to others who manage to write up an entire 15-page paper in a single evening or to those who stay up until 3 or 4 am cramming for a big exam.

But when it comes to finding money for college, you don't want to put things off until the last minute. Give yourself plenty of time to brainstorm what you'll write about, to actually write it and to proofread and edit it at the end.

So that you don't miss deadlines or feel that you must rush through your applications, make a calendar that is specifically for all the scholarships you are applying for. Write out the deadline for each scholarship on the calendar, then count backward to figure out when you should have the first draft of your essay completed, when you should finish editing and revising and when you want to submit the application.

Polish & Perfect Submission

Giving yourself plenty of time to work on your scholarship applications will give you plenty of time to polish them and make them perfect. Remember that it's not only what's in your essay that matters.

It is how the essay is formatted and appears on the paper. You want to send in an essay and application packet that tells the judges you're a professional, serious student. You also want to send in something that the judges can read with ease.

Choose a font that's not difficult to read. There's a reason why your teachers ask you to use Times New Roman or Arial when you hand in papers. The text of those fonts is legible.

There's also a reason why teachers ask that you use 12-point font. It's not too small to read, and it's not so large that you can barely fit a few hundred words on a page.

Although you want your essay and application to reflect who you are, avoid using goofy or “fun” fonts like Comic Sans or anything in cursive. Additionally, follow the recommendations given for spacing and margins. One inch margins and double spacing are usually the norms, but check to make sure a particular scholarship doesn't have other requirements.

Along with focusing on the appearance of your essay and application, take the time to polish it up. Read it over several times to make sure there are no misspellings or grammar issues. Reading the essay out loud can help you hear if it is flows or not.

Ask someone else to read the essay for you and give you feedback. A teacher or close friend can be the ideal person to ask, as long as that person knows you and has an understanding of grammar rules. A second set of eyes on your application can help you catch things that might have slipped your attention or give you a different perspective on your essay.

Pay attention to the word count on your essay. If the application asks for a 500-word personal statement, you don't want to send in a 1,500-word manifesto. You also don't want to err on the side of too short and send in a 250-word micro-essay. Don't go over the word count, but don't be too concise either.

Apply to Scholarships That Interest You

If you're not really into the subject matter of a scholarship or if you sort of meet the qualifications, the judges will be able to tell. They'll read it in your uninspired essay.

While you do want to keep an open mind when it comes to applying for scholarships, you don't want to spread yourself too thin. If you feel like you need for apply to every scholarship that comes your way, the quality of your applications will diminish, and you may end up missing out on the scholarship you really wanted.

Before you start your scholarship search, make a list of what interests you. Be honest here, as it will influence the awards you go after. If you love tennis, find scholarships for tennis players. If you like to dance, but have only taken one dance class in your life, don't try to go after a dance scholarship.

There are as many scholarships out there as there are interests, skills, and qualifications. Even if you only have one or two hobbies, it's likely that you'll find several organizations who want to give students with those hobbies money for school.

Don’t Ignore Optional Questions

A scholarship application might have a series of optional questions, or you might find some optional questions on a scholarship search page. Although these questions are not officially required, answering them is usually in your best interest.

In the case of a scholarship search service, answering the additional questions will allow the service to find more scholarships for you. In the case of an application, taking the time to answer the optional questions shows the scholarship committee that you care about the award. It also gives the committee a better idea of who you are.

Think of it this way. A scholarship decision might come down to two people. Who do you think the judges will choose, the applicant who didn't answer the optional questions or the one who took the time to answer them?

Community Involvement

Being involved with your community in some way can pay off when you are applying for scholarships. For one thing, several scholarships are dedicated to active student volunteers. For another, performing community service or volunteer work often gives you something to share or write about in your scholarship essay.

That said, don't sign up to be a volunteer or to perform community service just to have something to add to your application. Find a program that resonates with you and that you'll want to spend your time working with.

If you love sports, look for ways to get involved in local youth sports organizations. If you want to be a teacher, find programs that let you tutor younger students or after school programs that include lessons in your subject area, such as an after-school science club or writing program.

Don’t Miss Deadlines

Deadlines aren't just suggestions. They are the be all, end all of your scholarship application. Don't think that scholarship committees will be willing to look the other way if your application is “just a day late.”

The programs have set those deadlines for a reason. They need the time to read over applications and choose the best students from the bunch. Deadlines are also a bit of a test. If you submit before the deadline, you demonstrate to the judges that you can follow directions. If you don't, you're showing the judges that not only can you not follow instructions, you also don't have much respect for their time.

Because things can (and do) go wrong, it's best to aim to get your applications in well before the deadline. You don't want a computer problem or a faulty email service to be the thing that stands in the way of you and some free money for school.

Apply to As Many As Possible

Although you do want to apply for the scholarships that interest you, it's best to spread your scholarship net far and wide. Apply for as many scholarships are you're eligible for and have time for.

Try to prioritize your scholarship application process. Go after the big ones first, as they usually have the earliest deadlines and often the most requirements. Leave time to pursue the smaller ones or, the more local scholarships next. Finally, apply for the scholarships that interest you the least last. You can also use scholarship search engines like ScholarshipOwl, Scholly, and Scholarship America to help with this process.

Don't Ignore Small Awards

Don't turn your nose up at $500 or $1,000 scholarships. While $500 might be barely enough to cover your books and $1,000 might pay for a single course credit, winning multiple small scholarships adds up.

You can try going after the smaller prizes after you've applied for the bigger awards, but keep one thing in mind. Since plenty of students are snubbing those smaller prizes, the applicant pool might be considerably smaller, improving your odds of winning. Everyone wants the $10,000 or $20,000 scholarship, so much so that they might pass on a few $1,000 awards.

Types of Scholarships

Scholarships fall into some different categories. The kind of scholarship you apply for determines the size of the applicant pool and often the size of the award.

National

National scholarships are available to students in all 50 states. These scholarships are often the most competitive since they have the largest applicant pool. Still, if you meet the requirements, it is worth applying for them.

A few examples of national scholarships include the National Merit Scholarship. Students qualify for the scholarship by taking the Pre-SAT and earning a high score on the exam. To become a finalist for the scholarship, a student needs to demonstrate academic achievement and needs to complete a separate application.

Local

Local scholarships come in a wide range of sources. A scholarship offered by a student's church or religious organization is an example of a local scholarship since only students who attend the organization are usually eligible.

Clubs such as the Rotary Club or Lions Club often have scholarship programs for students who are members or who have parents who are members. Other local scholarship opportunities can include programs offered by your employer or your parent's employer, programs provided by local nonprofits, and programs offered by the Boy or Girl Scouts.

State

If you are considering attending school in your state of residence, it's worth exploring the scholarship options available to students who remain in-state. For example, the College of New Jersey automatically considers in-state freshman year students for some merit scholarships.

Students in Tennessee who live in the state for at least a year and attend one of the state's universities can apply for the Hope Scholarship. New York state has some scholarship programs for students who attend either SUNY or CUNY schools.

Even if you aren't planning on attending a state school, it can be worth checking out your state's scholarship options. The awards available might be enough to change your mind and convince you to attend a public university.

Internal vs. External

Scholarships vary by source as well. Internal scholarships come directly from the school you are attending. They often come from endowments or student scholarship funds. Some schools will award you a scholarship automatically, based on your grades and admissions essays.

Some schools have separate programs or programs for individual departments, but not others. Often, you'll need to complete a separate application and send in supporting materials to qualify for those scholarships.

External scholarships are awards that come from any source that isn't your college or university. These include scholarships from big companies like Microsoft or Coca-Cola, scholarships from your local credit union or bank, and scholarships from a nonprofit organization.

Occasionally, an external scholarship program might only be available to students who attend a certain school. It can be worth checking out your college's financial aid page or dropping by the financial aid office to learn about scholarship opportunities from outside sources that might not be advertised anywhere else.

Online

The web can be a great place not only to find scholarships but also to get scholarships. Some scholarship programs are based online, which can simplify the application process.

But be warned. Some online scholarship programs are little more than scams. According to the Federal Trade Commission, there are a few red flags you can look out for to figure out if an online scholarship program is a scam. One major red flag is if the scholarship program asks for your social security number or credit card information.

Places to Find Scholarship Opportunities

Where do you look for scholarship opportunities? The good news is that life in the 21st century means numerous places list scholarships and various ways to get the information you need to apply.

Online

Online sources and apps take some of the stress out of searching for scholarships. These services look at your qualifications and interests and provide you with a list of relevant awards.

  • Scholly. Created by a student who had won $1.3 million worth of scholarships, Scholly features a database that contains thousands of scholarship opportunities at a time. You fill out a profile, and it matches you to scholarships, which you can choose to apply to or not. The app does cost $2.99 a month, but for many students, the upfront cost is worth the rewards. Check out our full review of Scholly to learn more.
  • Scholarship Owl. Scholarship Owl is similar to Scholly but goes a step further. It also lets you apply to scholarships you match with, using the same application form for each. Check out our in-depth review to learn more about Scholarship Owl.
  • Scholarship America. Scholarship America not only helps students find money for college. It also works with organizations to help them put together scholarship programs. Get the full story on the website from our review.
  • ScholarshipPoints. As its name suggests, Scholarship Points gives you the option to earn points by completing surveys and other online tasks.You can then use your points to enter drawings for the chance to win scholarships. Is it worth it? Check out our review.
  • Chegg. Chegg is an online textbook rental service that also has a scholarship search feature. You can browse for scholarships without creating an account. Having an account lets you save results and get matches that are relevant to you. We reviewed Chegg in depth to see if it is worth the effort.

 

If you're nervous about handing over your personal information or want to use the scholarship resource that will give you best options, check out our comprehensive review of the best scholarship websites to see which one really is worth your time.

Schools

Your school can be a great resource when it comes to learning about available scholarships. If you are still in high school, your guidance counselor should be able to tell you more about programs that are available to you. In fact, a great guidance counselor is going to be pro-active about providing you with that information.

If your's isn't, go ahead and make an appointment to see him or her. When you schedule your appointment, let the counselor know that you want to discuss scholarship options. That will give him or her time to find awards that are relevant to you.

You can still apply for scholarships after you've started college. In fact, some awards are only available to upperclassmen. Your school's financial aid office is a good place to start your search. It also helps to check in with your academic department. Depending on their size, many academic programs offers scholarships exclusively to students in their departments.

Library

Whether it's your school library or a public library, odds are it has a reference section that is full of information about scholarships. The drawback of using your local library is that some of the information printed in books might be a little out of date.

Scholarship Guide Books

Every year, new guidebooks are published that contain information on available scholarships, including how to apply and deadlines. It might be worth investing in a book so that you have the most up-to-date version available and so that you have the information you need at your fingertips.

Organizations

Call around to local nonprofits and other organizations in your area to find out if they offer scholarships. If so, find out if you qualify or what the application procedure is. You can also look online at an organization's web page to learn more about available award programs.

Your Employer

Your employer or your parent's employer might offer a program to workers or their families. If you aren't aware of any programs, pay a visit to HR and ask.

If you're looking for a job and considering going to school or returning to school at any point, it can be worth it to find an employer who specifically offers scholarship programs.

When to Start Looking for Scholarships

If you're in high school, it's never too early to start looking for scholarships. When you’re a freshman or sophomore, look at the options available. If you find a scholarship that interests you, you can choose your activities and classes during the next few years of your high school career to make yourself an ideal candidate for that award.

When you're getting ready to apply for scholarships, start at the beginning of your junior year. Some programs have a deadline in the early summer before you've even applied to most schools.

Of course, some scholarships are available later or have rolling deadlines. Begin your search early and keep on looking throughout your academic career.

How to Get A Full Ride Scholarship

It's the ultimate goal: get a scholarship that pays for your entire college education, including room and board, books, and fees. Think it can't be done? Think again.

Tips for Winning A Full Ride Scholarship

Rule number one of winning a full ride scholarship: be amazing. Rule two: find people who can convince others that you are amazing. During your high school career, latch onto one or two teachers and get them to be your mentors.

Building deeper relationships with your teachers allows them to really get to know you. Getting to know you means they can write great recommendation letters for you, which allows you to stand above the rest.

Part of being amazing is having a killer grade point average. Don't think that taking super easy, slacker classes is the way to a great GPA. Scholarship programs are going to look at the classes you take, along with the grades you earned.

If you're struggling in a subject, get a tutor to help you out. Many tutors offer a money-back guarantee if you don't see an improvement in your grades. Your teachers are also there to help if you are struggling in class. Don't be shy about staying after school for extra help or about asking for extra credit in classes where you're really having trouble.

Scholarships aren't just about grades. You also need to demonstrate that you're well-rounded. You can do that by committing to few community programs or volunteer programs. Find one or two extracurricular activities that you love and give those your all.

It's better to be selective about your activities than to try everything. Scholarship committees would rather see you devoted to a few programs instead of displaying passing interest in dozens.

Keep in mind that some schools are more likely to offer full ride scholarships than others. Find the schools that like to pay in full for student and apply to at least one or two of them. Make sure you follow all the instructions and include all required and optional materials with your application. You want to ensure you really shine.

It's also possible to get a full ride by getting multiple scholarships. A $25,000 scholarship here, combined with a $10,000 there, combined with a handful of $2,000 awards is likely going to be more than enough to cover your college costs.

“Full ride” doesn't have to mean one enormous scholarship. It just means enough money to pay for all of your expenses without having to take out loans or pay out of pocket.

How to Write the Best Essay

Your scholarship essay is what really sets you apart from other applicants and can be what makes or breaks your application. There are a few things to keep in mind when writing to make sure your essay is the best it can be.

  • Know Your Audience. Don't write the same essay for every application. Customize your statement for the people who are going to read. It helps to look at samples of winning essays from the past to get an idea of what judges are looking for.
  • Follow Directions Carefully. Instructions provided with the essay and application aren't recommendations. They are directives. If you don't want your essay tossed aside on a technicality, such as using the wrong font or not double-spacing, read over and follow all the directions.
  • Proofread AND Have Someone Else Proofread. Again, you don't want to miss out on a scholarship because you misspelled “weird” or had a series of grammatical mistakes in your essay. Read it over carefully and have at least one other person take a close look at it.
  • Personalize Your Essay. It's called a personal statement for a reason — it should give the judges a clear idea of who you are and what you are passionate about. Avoid cookie-cutter cliches and vagueness. Find something important to you and let the judges know why it's important.

Get Help

You don't have to work on your scholarship essay alone. You have some resources available, both paid and free, to help you craft the best essay possible. For example, EssayEdge and ScholarshipOwl offer professional editors and direct assistance with writing your essay, for a fee.

You can also work with a teacher or with a classmate who's a gifted writer. If your school has a writing center, use it. Many writing centers have tutors on hand to read over and offer commentary on your essays.

For more information on how to put together the best scholarship essay possible, check out our comprehensive guide to writing an essay.

How to Avoid Scams

These days, you can't conduct a simple online search without coming across a college scholarship scam or two. Luckily for you, most scams are easy to spot, once you know what to look for. Here's how to find and avoid the most common scams.

Don’t Pay to Enter

One of the most common scams out there is a “scholarship” that requires you to pay a large fee upfront. It's simple — you need money for school, you shouldn't have to pay to get that money. Avoid any programs that ask you for an application fee or other upfront fee or that want access to your credit card number.

Too-good-to-be-true Offers

You know it — an offer that seems too good to be true usually is. If a program guarantees that you'll win something or if you're suddenly presented with an award you didn't apply for, run the opposite direction.

Sweepstakes

While not all scholarship sweepstakes are scams, the bulk of them isn't worth your time. If you're going to enter a sweepstakes contest, such as the ones offered by Scholarship Owl, make sure it's a legitimate program. Do some research to see who's won and how much. Again, steer clear of any programs that want you to pay a lot upfront.

Free Seminar/Interview

If you're invited to a seminar about a scholarship, be on guard. As the FTC notes, many seminars are actually high-pressure sales pitches designed to make you feel desperate and make you part with your money.

You can attend a seminar, but just be aware that there's likely no money at the end of it. In fact, most seminars are designed to take money from you.

Excessive “Hype” In Post

If a scholarship is so great, will its organizers really have to use superlatives in its description? Or, if a scholarship is so amazing, why are its organizers so desperate to find people for it?

Scam artists tend to use a lot of “hype” and expressive language to get you excited about the scholarship. In the long run, it's usually the case that there's no money to be had.

Requests for Personal Information

How much does a scholarship committee need to know about you? Your name and contact information should be enough, at least until you've won an actual award. A scholarship that wants the fine details, such as your social security number, right away, usually isn't a scholarship at all.

Spelling Errors

You're expected to submit an application that's perfect, but the scholarship committee can't even spell “Universty?” That's a big red flag.

Watch Out for Time Pressure

It's a common tactic for scam artists everywhere to tell you that an offer is going to expire or that you need to decide right away. You don't and you shouldn't. Those tactics are often used to get you to give up private information or to hand over a large amount of cash.

“We’ll Do the Work for You”

Legitimate scholarship services will help streamline the search process. But it should ultimately be your responsibility to fill out the applications and write the essays. Be wary of any company that promises to handle all the nitty-gritty details.

Read Reviews First

If you're not sure about a site or if a scholarship program seems too good to be true, do a search for reviews. People who have been scammed by a program are likely to be very vocal about their dissatisfaction. Learning from the mistakes of others can help you avoid making the same mistake yourself.

Don’t Give Up

You now know how to get a scholarship, now it's time to go get them. There are thousands of legitimate scholarship programs out there. You can't expect to win every award you try to get. The key thing to remember is not to give up. You might get turned down for a scholarship today, only to apply for three more next week and win them all.

You can't win any scholarships if you don't try. And the more you try, the more likely you are to win. Ready to start applying? Try our #1 recommended scholarship search engine: ScholarshipOwl.

SurveysSay Annual Marketing Scholarship

Every year we award one college student $1,000 to be used for college expenses (tuition, books, fees, etc). Most students with a business-related major qualify, and applying is easy and relatively fast. To get all the details, visit our scholarship page.

FAQs

Want to know more about scholarships, how you can use them and what they mean for your aid package? Read on for a few frequently asked questions.

  • How does a scholarship affect my other student aid? Your scholarships can reduce the aid you receive from your school if the scholarships come from an outside source. Ideally, your school will reduce the amount of loans you receive (which need to be paid back) and the not the amount of grant money you receive (which you don't pay back).
  • How do I get my scholarship money? The answer varies from scholarship to scholarship. Some pay your school directly; others will pay you, then you pay your school.
  • Can you use scholarships to pay for room and board? Again, the answer to this depends on the scholarship. Some can only cover the cost of tuition. Others can help cover any costs associated with college, including books and fees. Check to see what you can use the scholarship for when you apply.