How to Find Unique and Unusual Scholarships

The word "scholarship" written on a blackboard
Scholarships for college can be found in unlikely places, like your jar of peanut butter. Most students see better results searching for local scholarships.

How to Find Unique and Unusual Scholarships

Published August 1, 2019 | Last Updated June 15th, 2023 at 04:15 pm

Scholarships for college can be found in unlikely places, like your jar of peanut butter. Most students see better results searching for local scholarships.
The word "scholarship" written on a blackboard

You and your student may be scratching your heads over finding scholarships that they can apply to, but here’s a great tip: You might be climbing up the wrong tree! I highly recommend being creative when searching for them.

There are unique and unusual scholarships out there: scholarships for nearly every niche group, from academics to artists, lefties, fashionistas, women interested in engineering, and outlandish chefs – but you have to know where to look.

Not Everyone Can Be a National Merit Scholar

My daughter, a high school junior, received her PSAT/NMSQT scores toward the end of last year.

It was news that we had been anxiously awaiting since October.

We learned that she placed in the 92nd percentile nationwide. In our house, these scores are certainly refrigerator worthy.

However, they were not high enough for her to be considered for an elite National Merit or National Achievement Scholarship

According to The Princeton Review, “more than 3.4 million high school students (mostly juniors and sophomores) take this nationwide, multiple-choice test every year.”

And only 7,367 Merit Scholar® designees received Merit Scholarship awards worth a total of $31.3 million.

Though it is a preliminary test, the PSAT/NMSQT score carries weight because it is the first attention-grabbing tool for scholarships in the college application process. However, it is not the only tool.

I will give your student the same advice I gave my daughter, “If you are not in the running to be a National Merit Scholar: don’t beat yourself up.”

Finding Scholarships in Unlikely Places

Sometimes, finding scholarship money can come from the most unique and unusual sources, such as your food pantry or a local department store.

In the past, JIF Peanut Butter rewarded students with scholarships up to $25,000 for creating the most original peanut butter sandwich.

Scholarship opportunities such as that one and others from quirky sources, have been unearthed by self-proclaimed scholarship diva Sheila Cain of Kansas City, Missouri, creator of B-forc Bound for College.

Through sheer determination and all-night Google searches fueled by cups of coffee, this mom started hunting for scholarships when her child was in the eighth grade.

Since her following and business has grown, Cain has found over $700,000 in scholarship money for a select group of students she coaches through the college application process.

“I am a hoarder of Internet information, and now I like to share this so others can benefit from what I have learned,” said Cain from her hotel room in Greenville, N.C., where she was about to give a lecture on her scholarship finding savvy.

How savvy? In the 30 minutes leading up to our phone conversation, she posted five new scholarship opportunities to her website.

Not every student out there is going to be a National Merit Scholar. But, with enough persistence, where one scholarship window closes, there are many out there that will open.

Scholarships vs. Other Financial Aid Money

In the Sallie Mae 2022 study on How America Pays For College, which surveyed 1,000 parents of undergraduate students and 1,000 undergraduate students between the ages of 18 and 24, the average family covers 26% of their college costs with grants and scholarships.

According to CNBC, “1 in 8 college students has won a scholarship.”

In recent years, the average scholarship awarded was $6,355, the highest level over the past five years. The Sallie Mae study also revealed that of the parents surveyed many said that having a discussion about earning scholarship money was one of the most important conversations they could have with their child when preparing for college.

Look Local for Scholarships

Sherie English, coordinator of the college resource center for Bloomfield Hills High School in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., said the first place juniors and seniors should look for scholarship opportunities is through local private and religious organizations.

The rigors of a high school college counseling office pick up in the spring semester.

Therefore, English advised the best time for students to meet with the high school counseling department for some individualized attention is November through January.

Additionally, English suggests that students to drop in on a weekly basis to their college resource room for new scholarship opportunities.

Though it doesn’t hurt for juniors to plan ahead with some preliminary research, English said the bulk of applying for scholarships happens in the spring semester of one’s senior year.

This is because most likely the student has already decided on where they are attending and can search within the college for specific scholarships.

There are many reputable free scholarship sites that list both national and state scholarships.

Impact of Scholarships on Financial Aid

According to English, there is no limit to how many scholarships you may apply to or how much money you can get.

What she also says is that winning a scholarship from a private organization will not cancel out any scholarship or financial aid monies you may receive from your college financial aid office, but blogger Mark Kantrowitz disagrees.

He mentioned a federal policy known as “over awarding” in a New York Times blog.

This policy, also referred to as “scholarship displacement,” requires colleges to reduce the need-based financial aid package when a student wins a private scholarship.

However, colleges may will be flexible on how they reduce need-based financial aid packages. Kantrowitz mentions in his blog post that each college has individual policies on how they reduce financial aid when an outside scholarship is received.

If the policy reduces loans first, the college will have a lower net price, making it more affordable. If the policy reduces grants first, there is no net financial benefit to the student.

Winning a scholarship from a school is usually the deciding factor on where a student will attend.

Sam Hudson, a sophomore at West Virginia University in Morgantown, found himself in close consideration for a National Merit Scholarship, and his SAT scores earned him scholarship offerings at several colleges, including WVU, where he receives $6,000 annually.

Additionally, the university offered Sam an in-state tuition rate, and Sam’s annual expenses totaled about $18,000 per year.

This came satisfactorily under the $30,000-a-year budget the Hudsons set for themselves.

Therefore, Sam’s first year away at college was fully paid through savings and scholarships. Even if your child is rewarded a scholarship, there is still no coasting downhill.

During his freshman year, in an attempt to try out engineering as a major instead of business, Sam’s GPA fell below 3.0.

He lost his scholarship and had to pay back the $6,000 difference – a deal he made with his parents – with money saved in the years he worked in the family business.

Now back on track with a business major, his GPA rose and WVU restored his scholarship. (NOTE: Not every college will restore scholarship money when GPA goes back up. Make sure you check individual schools for their policies.)


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:

10 Reasons to Consider Smaller Schools with High Acceptance Rates

Steps to Success: A Full-Ride Scholarship Recipient’s Guide to the College Admissions Process

True Stories of Private Scholarship Winners and How They Did It




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