Zina Kumok Image Written By: Zina Kumok | Edited By: Kevin Ladd | Updated: June 22, 2024

Apply for Scholarships

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Most high school students know that applying for scholarships can help them avoid ending up with tens of thousands in student loan debt. But applying for scholarships can feel like an uphill battle or a maze that’s too difficult to navigate. That's why we've created a guide to help you learn everything you need to know about applying for scholarships, when to get started and what you need to fill out your application. Interested in applying for scholarships? Keep reading.

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How to apply for scholarships

Every scholarship has its own procedures and requirements. Even if you’ve applied for scholarships in the past, don’t assume the process is the same for every award. Even specific awards may change their procedure from year-to-year.

First, you need to know whether the scholarship deadline has already passed. If it has, you can add the scholarship to your list of prospective awards to apply for next year.

If the deadline hasn't passed yet, look at the scholarship eligibility requirements. These should show you what the scholarship committee is looking for in its applicants. Make sure you fit these requirements before applying. If you're not sure you qualify, you should email the scholarship provider. Try to do this sooner rather than later because the scholarship review committee may receive a large influx of emails.

How to organize your scholarships

If you're applying for a lot of scholarships, one of the most helpful things you can do is create a spreadsheet that will track every award. Scholarships can be confusing - especially if you're applying for dozens of different ones. If you can stay organized, you'll be less stressed and more able to focus on the applications.

A spreadsheet that you can edit online, such as Google Sheets, might be the most useful option. Each scholarship should have its own row. Your columns should include:

This will allow you to enter all of the relevant information and keep track of your progress.

Application materials

Essay

One of the most common parts of a scholarship application is the essay. A scholarship essay can range from 50 to 500 words.

While many essay scholarships only ask for one, some may require two or even three.

Some awards may give you several questions to choose from, whereas others won’t offer an option. Essays are often used to judge a student's genuine interest and passion in the topic.

Test scores

While standardized test scores are becoming less common requirements, some scholarships still use them to determine their awards. You can have the SAT or ACT organization send your results directly to the school or print out a copy and include them in your scholarship application.

Transcript

Many scholarships will ask for a transcript that shows your grade history. This can be an official or unofficial transcript, depending on what the scholarship committee requires.

If you're applying for a scholarship as a prospective student, then you probably need to send in your high school transcript. If you're already enrolled in college then you likely only need to provide your current college transcript.

Letters of recommendation

Many scholarships require a letter of recommendation, which can be from a teacher, coach, mentor or another adult who knows you well. Some scholarships, especially high-profile ones, may ask for multiple letters of recommendation.

You should ask for a letter of recommendation at least a few weeks before the application is due. If you're asking a popular teacher or it's during finals or midterms, then you should let them know as soon as possible. Remember, if you're asking a particular teacher to be a reference, then it's increasingly likely that another student is also asking them for a letter of recommendation.

Applying for Scholarships FAQs

When should I apply for scholarships?

There is no particular scholarship application “season.” Award deadlines happen throughout the year. If you know that you're going to college, you can start looking for scholarships at any point. Many scholarships open up their applications weeks or months before the due date.

It's often a good idea to look for scholarships when you're not busy with school or extracurriculars. For example, summer break is a perfect time to apply for summer scholarships because you don’t have to juggle homework on top of your scholarship essay.

Should I apply for scholarships before or after I’m accepted to college?

If you learn anything about applying for scholarships, it should be this: it's always best to apply as soon as possible. That means filling out scholarship applications even before you know where you're going to college. There are many scholarships for high school juniors as well as high school sophomore scholarships.

I don’t have a 4.0 GPA - should I still apply for scholarships?

Students often think that they have to have a perfect academic record to even be considered for a merit scholarship. But that simply isn't true. You don't need to have a 4.0 or a 1600 on the SAT to win a scholarship.

Having good grades is just one factor that may be considered. Schools and scholarship providers will also look at your background, what you’re interested in and what your letters of recommendation say.

Some scholarships are also more interested in your athletic ability or artistic achievements, not just your academics.

How early should I apply for scholarships?

There is no specific time frame on when you should start applying for scholarships, but the earlier the better. In general, most scholarships require that you at least be a high school senior. However, some may have more lenient requirements.

For example, the Doodle for Google Scholarship accepts students as young as 13 years old.

It's hard to find scholarships that accept students that early, but that doesn’t mean it hurts to look. If your child isn't in high school yet, you can set aside time once a quarter to look for scholarships.

Why was my application rejected?

Even if you think you’re the perfect candidate for a scholarship, that doesn’t mean that you’re guaranteed to be selected. You never know exactly what the scholarship committee is looking for or if your application was missing some necessary requirement.

Applying to scholarships is all about numbers. The more you apply to, the greater your chances of winning are.

If I’m already in college, is it too late to apply for scholarships?

While there's often a big push to apply to scholarships for high school seniors, many students forget that undergraduates may still be eligible for scholarships. In fact, dozens of scholarships only accept students who are already enrolled in college.

I’m in graduate school - should I still apply for scholarships?

Despite what graduate students often think, they are eligible for graduate scholarships.

Even if you think you're too old to win a scholarship, know that there are scholarships you are eligible for. Most scholarships don't have an age cutoff, only a grade requirement. For example, if you're going back to school as an older student, you can still qualify for graduate student scholarships.

Can international students apply for scholarships?

International students who live outside the U.S. may still be eligible for scholarships if they're attending school in one of the 50 states. While the pool of scholarships may be smaller than it is for domestic students, the international students may still find some awards.

One of the best things that an international student can do is to apply to schools that offer tuition waivers. Generally, international students have to pay higher tuition.

Are part-time students able to apply for scholarships?

Part-time status is determined by an individual school, but generally ranges between six and 11 credit hours. If you take more than 12 credit hours, you’re generally considered a full-time student.

Many scholarships will still accept part-time students. However, read through the eligibility requirements before you apply. Some scholarships may exclude part-time students.

If you’re currently a full-time student and drop down to part-time status, you should also make sure this won’t impact your existing scholarships. Some types of financial aid depend on you being a full-time student or may give out fewer funds to part-time students.

I’m attending community college - can I apply for scholarships?

Community or vocational college students usually pay lower tuition than those attending a four-year school. However, they may still need money to cover educational-related expenses.

That’s where scholarships for community college students come into play. There are many undergraduate scholarships that allow community college students to apply. In fact, you might be able to find specific scholarships just for community college students.

Is there a minimum GPA necessary to apply for scholarships?

When deciding which students to select, scholarship providers often use GPA as one of their criteria. A general rule of thumb says that you need to have a 3.0 or higher to qualify for most awards.

For example, the Coca-Cola Scholars Program Scholarship requires a 3.0 GPA for high school students. Winners may receive a $20,000 scholarship. One hundred and fifty winners will be chosen.

However, some scholarships may not even ask any questions about your GPA. If you don't have a stellar GPA, you should still be able to find plenty of awards. The key is to focus on what you can bring to the table, like athletic prowess, artistic skills and more. You can also look for awards based on your academic major, school year, residence state or special attributes.

If you have a poor high school GPA but are doing better in college, you shouldn’t let that deter you from applying for more scholarships.

Do I have to pay to apply for scholarships?

Legitimate scholarships should not have any fees associated with them. While you might pay money to hire a tutor to help you craft a scholarship essay, you shouldn’t have to pay a specific application fee. This is true for both traditional scholarships, as well as scholarship sweepstakes.

If a scholarship charges you a fee to apply, then it's likely a scam.

Do I have to fill out the FAFSA before applying for scholarships?

The only time that you have to complete the FAFSA before applying for a scholarship is if the scholarship application uses your FAFSA data to determine eligibility. Many need-based awards will decide who is potentially eligible to win based on their FAFSA. If you haven't filled out the FAFSA for these awards, then you won't qualify.

Can I still apply for scholarships if I’m taking a gap year?

Some scholarships will let you defer the award until you're enrolled. However, there may be a limit on how long you can defer this.

If you're applying for a scholarship and know that you want to take a gap year, make sure that you don't see anything in the rules or requirements that states you can’t do that. If you're not sure what the rules are, you should contact the scholarship committee as soon as possible.

If you want to wait until your gap year is over to apply for scholarships, make sure that you don’t wait too long to apply. Otherwise, you might miss most application deadlines and wind up without enough aid.

I have DACA status - can I still apply for scholarships?

Unfortunately, students who have DACA status are not eligible for federal financial aid, such as federal student loans, Pell Grants, and work-study. And those with DACA status are less likely to be eligible for other scholarships.

However, that doesn’t mean they won’t be eligible for any major awards. For example, the Golden Door Scholars program is available just for DACA students and others without official U.S. citizenship. Winners will receive funding for a four-year bachelor’s program at one of several selective schools across the country, including Duke University, Georgetown University, and Wake Forest University.

Some states may even have special grants for DACA students. For example, California offers generous financial aid programs for those with DACA status, as well as for other undocumented students.