A scholarship is money awarded to a student to help pay for college. Unlike a loan, it doesn’t have to be paid back.
The process of finding scholarships can be time-consuming—and bewildering.
Understanding where to begin, thinking outside the search box, and sticking with it are all keys to success.
Here, we’ve gathered tried and true suggestions from our Paying for College 101 Facebook group (comments are lightly edited), as well as from experts, so you can find the scholarship money your student needs.
Start at the Beginning: What Is a Scholarship?
Scholarships come from schools, and sources outside of schools, such as private companies, as well as social and community organizations; from the U.S. government (you need to submit FAFSA to determine eligibility); and state scholarships and grants.
There are lots more than you might think—and some don’t even get claimed.
Six Tips for Successful Searches, from a Parent Who’s Been There/Done That
Pam, a member of our Paying for College 101 Facebook group, has twin sons.
She says they looked for scholarships “with narrow scopes, so there would be fewer applicants.”
Both sons applied for about 10 scholarships each. One received five scholarships for a total of $19,000, and the other received three for a total of $43,000 (one is renewable).
Here’s what she learned during the search process, in her own words:
1) Search for local or regional scholarships first Focusing on local scholarships means a smaller competition pool.
2) Search for scholarships with specific demographics that fit your child or family situation (race, sexual orientation, foster child, adopted child, multiples, blended family, single parent family, disability, incarcerated parent, military families, first generation college student, etc.).
3) Search local service organizations (Rotary, VFW, Eagles, Knights of Columbus, local churches, community foundations, alumni organizations, and sororities), especially ones that you belong to.
4) Search organizations related to your employment (labor unions, local fire departments, and prominent local businesses), and companies that you do business with (credit unions, banks, insurance companies, etc.).
5) Search for scholarships related to the activities that your child has been involved in (cheerleading, band, orchestra, theater, athletics, student government, service clubs, etc.), and the major your child hopes to pursue. Check your state’s governing body for high school athletics—many of them offer academic scholarships for athletes.
6) Every high school has a list of scholarships on their website, usually found somewhere on their counseling page. Check all of the local high schools in your area, not just the one your child attends. Colleges and universities also keep lists of local and regional scholarships on their websites.
It’s a Numbers Game: Learn to Play
Many of our members say that finding private scholarships is a numbers game, meaning you have to apply to a lot in the hopes of winning a few.
Lola says, “It’s a very time-consuming, often frustrating effort, but totally worth it. You have to apply to TONS to get any hits.”
From Margo: “My take is, if you spend one hour and are awarded a $250 scholarship, you were paid $250 an hour.”
Begin Looking for Scholarships in Freshman Year of High School
(some scholarships may even be available as early as 7th grade)
Start the process much earlier than you’re probably thinking,
Jackie says: “Read through all the application rules, which can take longer than writing the essays (checking for what age your student can apply).”
Success Inspires Motivation
Lili says that her daughter was exhausted just finishing her college applications. Lili helped by doing what she called “targeted research” for her.
This included finding some scholarships that “matched up with her interests and weren’t too crazy difficult to fill out.”
Just when she was sure nothing would come of all their hard work and had grown weary of asking if she’d completed everything, they found out her daughter was awarded a $3,000 scholarship.
Now, her daughter is motivated to do it again next year.
Scholarships Without Essays
There are scholarships available that don’t require a lot of work and don’t even ask for an essay.
College Ave Student Loans, for example, has an ongoing essay-free scholarship sweepstakes where you can win $1,000.
They choose a winner each month.
Working vs. Putting the Time in to Find and Apply for Scholarships
Melissa says she made a deal with her daughters when they were seniors in high school: They didn’t need to get a job if they applied to two or three scholarships a week.
“My older daughter was awarded a total of $19,000 her first year. She has applied for scholarships each year within her college, and each year was awarded additional money.
This year is her senior year, and it’s entirely paid (room, board, and tuition with money being refunded for books).
My youngest is an incoming freshman, and I gave her the same arrangement. She was awarded $17,750 in outside scholarships.”
Beverly suggests students focus on professional/industry organizations related to their career path: “Get a job or volunteer in the industry/field they are interested in.
My daughter was awarded several scholarships that required work experience her peers did not have. Her job was part-time, across town.
She made less than $3,000, but was awarded over $13,000 in scholarships because she had real-life work experience.”
Be Careful of Scholarship Stacking
To help pay the cost of college, students often apply for multiple scholarships.
Combining awarded scholarships is called stacking, and some schools may decide that since you have outside scholarships, your need is lower and they won’t award you as much of their own money from the college.
According to Scholarshipowl.com, “Many universities set strict policies against the stacking of their own scholarships. This is done to prevent pocketing leftover money from financial aid. Universities set their own policies about stacking scholarships. They may prohibit stacking academic and leadership scholarships. In this case, they would allow the student to use the higher of the two. However, universities may allow students to stack endowed and outside scholarships.”
Warning Signs that a Scholarship is Not Legit
While doing scholarship searches, be sure to check for signs that the organization offering the awards is legitimate—especially if it’s a smaller one. Here are some red flags:
- They are charging fees, such as for applications, or disbursement.
- You’re awarded money without applying for it, and are being asked to supply bank routing information or your social security number to receive this money.
If it feels too easy, or odd, it probably is. Here’s a site with helpful information about how to spot and report a possible scholarship scam: Safety.com
Additional Scholarship Links/Scholarship-Related Information
JLV College Counseling — founded by a former admissions professional, the site has a scholarship database that is updated regularly—and it’s free.
Chegg.com —a site that helps “students get into, pay for & succeed in college & beyond.”
FAFSA.org — the U.S. Dept. of Education website where you can find the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) form to apply for financial aid for college or graduate school. The form is used by colleges for awarding federal, state and college-funded financial aid.
FinAid — a “comprehensive source of student financial aid information, advice and tools.”
Scholarships.com — helps “students find money for college as well as learn about the entire financial aid process”
Fastweb.com — an “online resource in finding scholarships to help you pay for school.”
The biggest thing to remember? Start early and stay the course. And though it may feel like you’ve reached a dead end at times, if our members have learned anything from their experiences, it’s that perseverance can pay off.
This article is sponsored by College Ave Student Loans. Check out their private student loan rates and see how they compare to parent PLUS loans.