10 Ways to Win A Full-Ride College Scholarship

College student sitting at a desk with his books in front of him. He is looking at the camera and smiling.

10 Ways to Win A Full-Ride College Scholarship

Published March 10, 2024

College student sitting at a desk with his books in front of him. He is looking at the camera and smiling.

Less than 1 percent of students applying to college are offered a full ride, which usually covers tuition, plus room and board. But while it’s extremely rare, it’s certainly doable. Thousands of students achieve it every year.

We asked parents in our Paying for College 101 Facebook Group to share what they think is the secret sauce to getting full-ride scholarships to college. Many have children who were offered full rides themselves. Some of their answers may surprise you.

Start By Being in the Top 5 Percent And Apply Early Action

“For my daughter, it was that she was in the top 5 percent of applicants for the school with GPA and test scores; she applied early action; she accepted the invite to apply for the additional scholarship; and she was willing to turn down acceptances at “top-tier schools” for the scholarship. I’m certain her background in theater/vocal performance helped at the final interview stage. She is currently a junior at Southern Methodist University in Dallas as a presidential scholar.”  — Katherine M. E.

Be Willing To Put In Extra Work

“My middle daughter was offered four different full rides covering tuition, room, and board. It made local and regional news because it’s rare. The key is to have high stats and apply to colleges that have automatic and competitive full-ride scholarships available for high achievers, even if it’s a college you’ve never heard of. If invited to compete for a full ride at a college you’ve been accepted to,- by all means TRAIN FOR THE INTERVIEW. Practice as if hundreds of thousands of dollars are at stake. Zealously guard high stats by staying after school or getting free tutoring in any class you have a “B” in. This combination is how you win full rides, but many students aren’t necessarily willing to do it. I’m not speaking from an Ivy tower here. My current senior is not necessarily willing to put in the extra work to win full rides — not when there are affordable-ish options available that seem pretty good. We could press our senior to do it anyway, but mental and emotional health matters. Not every kid can be pressed without risk. I’d say press for the full ride if you are fairly certain they can handle it. But if you’re not positive they can, and you’ve got options that will be “good enough” sometimes, it makes sense to go with those.” — Sabrina M.

Be A National Merit Scholar

“Being a National Merit Scholar helps a lot. My child went for “safeties” that are highly targeted for their major.”— Sarah Z.

It Helps If You Have Experience In Your Likely Major

“I know many will say it’s the GPA and test scores, and while I agree, that just gets your foot in the door. My daughter had a unique and very engineering-specific combination of activities and awards that I believe led her to be invited to compete for several full-tuition scholarships, which coupled with additional stackable scholarships and some financial aid, led to one full ride, and several that came in close to a full ride ($3,000 to $10,000 a year out of pocket). We used Sara Harbeson’s book Soundbite as our guide in crafting her application and resume. It’s one of the most underrated books; it doesn’t get the attention it deserves. When everyone’s application looks the same, how will your student’s stand out? By the way, my daughter applied test-optional, so her test scores were completely irrelevant in her applications.” — Susan N.M. 

Aim For Schools Where You’ll Be The Cream of the Crop

“Apply to schools where you would be a shining star, academically, among applicants. Schools that need more high-achieving students are willing to pay good money for that. That means choosing schools where most of the other students won’t be as academically strong as you. But— here’s the tightrope — make sure it’s still a school where you can be challenged! If not by peers, then by the curriculum, the faculty, and the research, internship, and co-op opportunities.” — Leslie B.

Choose Highly Rated Schools For Your Major With High Acceptance Rates 

“Take the highest level of courses available so that you can achieve good grades, have a good SAT/ACT score, and have a genuine extracurricular activity that demonstrates dedication and progression over time. Now, this is where school selection is important. My daughter chose one of our state universities with a high acceptance rate but highly rated for her major and where she wanted to be geographically. She got four years of full tuition, plus room and board.” — Carolyn A.

Apply To A Lot Of Safety Schools

“Apply to a range of schools, including what for most students are considered safeties. Letting go of brand-name schools doesn’t mean you have to pick “a lesser school.” My child has one true full ride in the mix, two full-tuition scholarships, and two that will provide almost 90 percent tuition.” — Alicia W. A.

Kill It On The PSAT Your Junior Year

Ace the PSAT in 11th grade. Then be willing to go to the National Merit partner schools that offer full rides.” — Shannon M.L.

Be Open To Anything

“Be willing to attend any college, as opposed to a college you desire.” — Nancy O.

Look For Schools That Give Non-Need-Based Aid

“Take the hardest courses possible while maintaining a very high GPA. Using your unweighted GPA and test scores, look for schools where both are in the top 20 percent. From that list, look at the common data set and find schools that give significant non-need-based aid. Apply to those schools. They are not likely to be your “sweatshirt” schools, but that is where your top dollars are, especially if you don’t qualify for grants.” — Jennifer H.

Join this and other conversations with parents just like you in our Paying for College 101 Facebook Group.


Use R2C Insights to help find merit aid and schools that fit the criteria most important to your student. You’ll not only save precious time, but your student will avoid the heartache of applying to schools they aren’t likely to get into or can’t afford to attend.  

Other Articles You Might Like:

What Is a National Merit Scholarship? Should Your Student Try?

How My Average Student Got a Full-Ride to College

Secrets to Winning a Full-Ride Scholarship




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