How to get a scholarship: 4 tips for college students

If you’re headed to college, you’ve got a lot of decisions to make. What to major in. Where to live. And how to pay for your education—that’s a big one. You may want to explore ways to help offset the cost of your education and improve your financial situation after you graduate.

Scholarships are one option. While some scholarships strictly focus on a student’s grade point average (GPA), others may focus on their specific background or financial need. Use this guide to learn
how to find and apply for scholarships that match your goals and circumstances.

Key takeaways

  • A scholarship is a financial award granted to a student based on certain criteria—and it generally doesn't have to be paid back.
  • Scholarships typically help with the cost of things like college tuition, textbooks, and room and board. 
  • There are numerous types of scholarships, including merit based and need based.
  • You can generally apply for a scholarship directly through the giver’s website. If the option to apply online isn’t available, you may be able to send the materials through the mail.

College Students and Credit Cards

In search of a credit card for students? Here are some things to look for.

Learn More

What is a scholarship?

A scholarship is a type of financial support granted to a student to help them pay for a degree from a college or university. It typically helps with the cost of things like tuition, textbooks, and room and board. A scholarship might cover a student’s full tuition—or it might be given for a much smaller amount and granted on a one-time basis. 

Scholarships can come from lots of different sources—for example, colleges and universities, employers, religious groups, professional organizations and community organizations. Scholarships typically don’t have to be paid back—but to maintain the scholarship, certain requirements may need to be met. They can include things like maintaining a certain GPA or playing on one of the school’s sports teams.

What are the different types of scholarships available?

Merit based scholarships
A merit-based scholarship is awarded to students who excel academically—or in both academics and extracurricular activities. Students have to meet certain criteria and standards set by the scholarship giver to receive this type of award. 

Need based scholarships
Need based scholarships are granted to prospective college students based on their financial need. Like other types of scholarships, need-based scholarships can be awarded from different sources—for example, the student’s college or university, a nonprofit organization, or through a state or federal government grant. 

Federal scholarships
Federal scholarships are awarded from government-backed agencies. They can be need based or merit based. These types of scholarships are funded by various government agencies, like the Department of Transportation or the National Institutes of Health.  

Athletic scholarships
Athletic scholarships are awarded to prospective college students who excel in a certain sport. The amount of money a student can be awarded typically depends on the type of sport, the college sports division, and how the coach decides to divide the money between the individual players on the team. In most cases, athletic scholarships are yearlong agreements arranged between the school and the athlete—and they’re rarely offered as a full ride. 

Student-specific scholarships
Student-specific scholarships are offered to groups of people who meet criteria determined by the scholarship provider. These scholarships aren’t necessarily reserved for academic achievements and can be awarded strictly based on a student’s background. There are a wide variety of identity-based scholarships available. They can include awards for students with disabilities, community service participants or legacy students with family members who’ve attended the school. 

Military scholarships
Military scholarships can be awarded to active-duty personnel, veterans, future military personnel or their relatives—either through federal grants or from nonprofit organizations. Some military scholarships are available through the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) partnering with colleges and universities. While the ROTC may be one of the better-known sources of military scholarships, there are other sources to consider as well.

How to find scholarships

There are a number of ways to find scholarships to help ease the burden of paying full college tuition.

Here are some potential sources of free information:

  • High school counselors
  • College financial aid offices
  • Federal agencies
  • Online college scholarship databases
  • Library scholarship databases
  • Local foundations
  • Religious organizations
  • Ethnicity based organizations
  • Other local organizations related to a student’s field of study
  • State departments of education
  • A student’s employer, previous employers or a parent’s employer

It may help to keep in mind that applying for scholarships involves disclosing personal information—and that some organizations offering assistance may not be reputable. To avoid getting scammed, you should verify that the organization awarding the scholarship is legitimate. Also, be sure that you’re not paying money from your pocket to secure the award—that’s because charging a fee for a scholarship can be a sign of a scam.

A photo of a student sitting at a desk at home, filling out a college scholarship application.

Scholarships typically help offset the cost of things like college tuition, textbooks, and room and board.

4 tips to get a scholarship for college

1. Begin your search early
When applying for scholarships, be mindful of the deadlines. Some applications are due a year in advance, so it’s important to start your research as early as possible. The Federal Student Aid Information Center recommends researching scholarships during the summer between your junior and senior years of high school to have the most options available. 

2. Continue submitting applications throughout college
Your eligibility to receive a college scholarship doesn’t end once you enroll as a freshman. According to Sallie Mae, a private student loan originator, 50% of existing scholarships are reserved for students who are already enrolled in college. 

In some cases, applying for a scholarship might feel a lot like applying for a job. Tips about writing a resume and cover letter might help. And keeping them updated can help you be prepared for new opportunities—or work after college.

3. Apply for smaller amounts
Not all scholarships cover tuition—smaller amounts can be reserved for books, room and board, or even to offset things like study-abroad programs. A few hundred dollars here and there can add up—and could help you pay off student loans earlier by lessening the total cost of your education.

4. Pay attention to the details
Remember to be thorough when reviewing the materials needed for scholarship applications, as they can vary. For example, one scholarship may require a resume and a letter of recommendation—and another may request an essay or video interview. 

Either way, it’s important to proofread your application materials to ensure there aren’t any errors. Read through the terms carefully to be sure you’re submitting the application as requested and on time.

How to apply for scholarships 

There are different ways to apply, depending on the scholarship. Check the requirements and qualifications by referring to the scholarship giver’s website. Generally, you can apply through the scholarship provider’s website or by sending the application materials through the mail.

If you’re interested in multiple scholarships, it may help to prioritize them based on the best fit for your circumstances and the deadline date. Remember to organize your materials so you can easily access them while applying for various scholarships. 

You’ll also want to read through the fine print on applications. That way, you can learn about special requirements—for example, different portions of the application having different deadlines. If possible, ask a teacher or professor to proofread your scholarship essay or other application materials to help make sure your application is exemplary. 

How is scholarship money paid? 

Scholarship money can be paid in a few ways. For example, it can be sent to the college or university, mailed as a check to the student, or directly deposited into the student’s bank account. It’s best to check with the scholarship giver to determine how the award will be distributed. 

Check the terms of the scholarship to determine how the award should be paid out. For example, some scholarships may be reserved to only pay for tuition. Others, however, can be used to subsidize other school-related expenses such as books, room and board, or meal plans. 

Can I receive financial aid and a scholarship?

It’s possible to receive both financial aid and a scholarship to offset the cost of tuition. However, the amount of scholarship money you receive can affect the total financial aid granted. According to the Federal Student Aid Information Center, the total amount of financial aid a student receives can’t total more than the cost of attendance at a school. 

If you receive both financial aid and a scholarship, you must let the school know so they can recalculate your total financial aid package. 

How to get a scholarship in a nutshell

Getting a scholarship can help support the cost of your education—so researching and applying for numerous awards can be helpful during your college search. The good news is that there are a wide variety of scholarships available—and you can increase your chances by knowing where to look. 

Winning a scholarship could help you avoid student debt and achieve some of your big-picture financial goals for life after college. It might also help to consider ways to start building credit. Learn how you can use a student credit card to earn cash back on purchases now and build your credit for the future.

Related Content