Zina Kumok Image Written By: Zina Kumok | Edited By: Kevin Ladd | Updated: July 12, 2024

College Scholarships

Key takeaways:

  • Scholarships aren't just for academics and sports. There are many different ways to qualify for, and win, college scholarships
  • You don't have to wait until you are a high school senior to start searching and applying for scholarships for college
  • Start searching for scholarships when you start high school and keep searching into your undergrad years and beyond

As the cost of college tuition and living expenses keeps increasing, many students are realizing that the key to graduating with less debt is to apply for scholarships. Don't give up on the idea of winning scholarships before you even begin. It may seem daunting, but if you take just a few minutes to create a Scholarships.com profile, you will find there may be more scholarships out there that match well to you than you first thought.

What is a college scholarship?

A college scholarship is financial aid that does not have to be paid back, similar to a grant. The main difference is that grants almost invariably factor in a student’s financial situation, while scholarships mostly depend on merit. About one in four college scholarships require applicants to demonstrate financial need.

College scholarships can be given on a one-off or an annual basis. If a scholarship is available for multiple years, renewal will often depend on a student’s GPA or how many credit hours they’re taking. If you miss those requirements, then you may lose your renewable scholarship.

A college scholarship can be worth as little as $500 or as much as a full-ride. It all depends on the particular scholarship. Some scholarships also have rules on what you can use the money for, while many are available for any college-related expenses.

Types of scholarships

While some scholarships are very broad and open to all students, most scholarships fall into one of the following types:

Need-based

Need-based scholarships are only open to students who have demonstrated financial need. This can be proven by submitting the FAFSA or by having a certain household income. Need-based scholarships can still have academic requirements, such as a minimum GPA or a SAT or ACT score.

Academic

An academic scholarship usually requires that the student have a high GPA, but they may also require that the student major in a particular degree or be interested in a specific career.

Artistic

Artistic scholarships are given to students who have artistic talent, which can include anything from photography to painting. These types of scholarships usually require a portfolio, as well as a recommendation from an art teacher.

Athletic

Athletic scholarships are open to talented student-athletes who are making the mark in sports. There may be GPA requirements as well as a recommendation letter from a coach or a highlight reel.

Demographic

A demographic-based scholarship requires that the student have a certain ethnic, racial or religious characteristic to qualify. These are also often known as minority scholarships. There may also be academic or need-based requirements as well, depending on the scholarship.

Continue reading the article below the scholarship list.

25 College Scholarships with Approaching Deadlines

How do college scholarships work?

If you win a college scholarship, the money can either be sent directly to you or to your school, depending on the scholarship’s policy. Most scholarships can be used for tuition, fees and room and board. Some scholarships can also be used for studying abroad, transportation and other educational expenses.

In some cases, the funds may be treated as taxable income, and you’ll have to pay taxes on the amount. Some scholarships are dependent on you attending a certain kind of school or receiving a particular degree. Many will require that you be a full-time student, while others will allow part-time students. If you don’t meet these criteria, then your scholarship may be revoked.

How to apply for a college scholarship

Applying for a college scholarship Involves multiple steps that should be followed in the correct order. First, you should confirm that you are eligible for the scholarship. Many scholarships have strict rules on who can actually apply for the award. If you’re not eligible, then you won’t win - no matter how good your essays or letters of recommendation are.

Next, go through the scholarship’s list of requirements to see what you need to submit. Many scholarships ask for the following:

Some scholarships may also require a headshot, an artistic portfolio, a video or some combination of the three. If you’re confused about any of the requirements, you should send an email to the scholarship coordinator and ask them to clarify. Make sure to do this early on, because they could receive a large number of emails and take a while to respond.

One of the easiest ways to lose a scholarship is to miss the deadline. Try to give yourself a week-long grace period before the actual deadline, just in case something comes up.

Also, if you’re required to provide a letter of recommendation, make sure to give the person you’re asking at least a few weeks notice. If you don’t, you may not receive it in time.

Take your time writing the scholarship essay, since it’s one of the few ways to set yourself apart. If you get writer’s block, ask a teacher, parent or friend to help you brainstorm. Make sure to get someone to read through your first and final draft and check for basic typos and spelling mistakes.

No matter what kind of scholarships you’re applying for, you should also fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The FAFSA is often required for institutional awards or scholarships directly from schools, but third-party organizations also often ask for the FAFSA.

Submitting the FAFSA also makes you eligible for other kinds of financial aid including federal student loans, work-study and grants like the Pell Grant. If you don’t submit the FAFSA, you’ll be hurting your chances of graduating from college debt-free.

The FAFSA must be submitted every year that you’re in school, and FAFSA results may also change year-to-year. For example, if your parents get divorced, you may qualify for more financial aid than you did in years past. And the opposite is also true. If one of your parents gets a better-paying job, you may lose access to some types of need-based financial aid.

Where to find college scholarships

There are four main ways you can get college scholarships:

When you apply for college admission, you will often be automatically considered for scholarships. However, you may sometimes have to complete a separate or additional application to be considered for the maximum number of awards. Also, some departments have their own separate applications that you must complete on top of a regular scholarship application.

To win a scholarship from your state or federal government, you must usually submit the FAFSA as well as a separate application.

Third-party organizations usually have the most in-depth scholarship application requirements. You can find these opportunities through sites like Scholarships.com, where we have a directory full of potential awards. If you create an account and input your personal information, you’ll also be matched with scholarships that you’re a good fit for.

College scholarships FAQs

The world of college scholarships is vast and overwhelming, especially if you’ve never applied before. Read through the most popular questions to understand how college scholarships work:

How many scholarships should I apply for?

If you’re wondering how many scholarships you should apply to, the answer is: as many as you can. However, you should focus on the quality of scholarships, not the quantity. It’s easy to apply for no-essay scholarships, but those are much harder to win than scholarships with lengthy requirements.

Try to set yourself a reasonable amount of scholarships to apply for, like one a week. If you do that, you’ll apply for more than 50 scholarships a year.

Make sure to focus on scholarships that are specific and fit your personal circumstances. For example, if you’re interested in studying marketing, look for scholarships for marketing students. Niche scholarships have fewer applicants so they’ll be easier to win general scholarships.

When should I start applying for scholarships?

While there is usually a set timeframe when you must start applying for college admission, there is no such rule on when you should apply for college scholarships.

You can start looking for eligible scholarships once you enter high school, though you’ll find more opportunities if you’re a high school junior or senior. There are even some opportunities available for middle school or even elementary school students.

For example, the Doodle for Google Scholarship is available for students starting in kindergarten. The winner can receive $55,000 to put toward college, while five national finalists will receive a $5,000 scholarship each.

I’m already in college - can I still apply for college scholarships?

When you’re a high school senior, applying for college scholarships is top of mind. But once you’re in college, it’s easy to forget about scholarships.

There’s no reason not to keep searching for scholarships when you’re enrolled in college if you still have financial need and you have the opportunity to replace student loans with scholarships. Many scholarships are available for current college students, even upperclassmen. Sometimes schools will keep disbursing scholarships up until your senior year.

For example, the David West Memorial Scholarship is open to college freshmen, sophomores and juniors who are interested in becoming journalists. Students must also be attending school in Mercer County, New Jersey.

Can parents apply for scholarships on a student’s behalf?

If you're a parent of a prospective or current college student, you probably want to do everything possible to help them graduate from college with as little debt as possible. You might want to apply for scholarships on their behalf.

Unfortunately, most scholarships require that students submit the application themselves. Obviously, you can still help them fill out the form, review their essay or provide other types of assistance. Still, it should be the student doing the majority of the work.

The only exception might be if your employer offers scholarships for children of current employers. In this case, you may be able to submit the application for your child.

Why did I lose a college scholarship I was perfect for?

It can happen. You submit a scholarship application with a well-crafted essay, glowing letters of recommendation and a near-perfect transcript. And when the scholarship winners are announced, you discover that you didn’t win.

Winning a scholarship is a combination of hard work and luck. It also entails following the directions to the letter. Sometimes you might lose a scholarship because you didn't include all the required materials or because you weren't technically eligible.

Another problem is if you're applying for a scholarship with thousands or even tens of thousands of other candidates. In that scenario, even the most qualified student might lose. One way to avoid that situation would be to focus on niche scholarships, not major awards. That said, if it takes minimal effort and time, you should probably still apply.

Are community college students eligible for college scholarships?

Most students and parents assume that only traditional undergraduate students are eligible for college scholarships. But fortunately, that’s not the case.

Many grants and scholarships are still available to community college students. To start, community college students should always fill out the FAFSA. This gives them access to federal and state financial aid that can help reduce their cost of attendance.

Also, make sure to ask your school’s financial aid department about possible scholarships. Many two-year programs will provide financial aid to worthy students, and there are also scholarships designed just for two-year students.

For example, the Climate Tech Career Pathways Scholarship is available for both two-year and four-year students who want to work in the climate sector. Priority will be given to BIPOC students.

Can DACA students qualify for college scholarships?

While DACA students cannot receive federal financial aid, they may qualify for state-based financial aid.

Also, there are some scholarships that accept students with DACA status. For example, the Golden Door Scholars Program is available for undocumented students and those with DACA status. Students must also have a 3.0 GPA to qualify.

These types of opportunities may be less common than they are for students with lawful status. But DACA students can still find access to several types of financial aid.