Everything You Need To Know About College Scholarships – Including How to Get Them

Renee Layberry
May 4, 2021

The one thing everyone knows about college is how expensive it can be. As the semester gets closer and closer, you might be thinking you're running out of time to start actually saving money for college.  But if financial worries are keeping you from applying, think again. There's always a way to find money for college that won't put you in insurmountable debt. Our favorite is via scholarships.   Before we dive into scholarships, it's important to take advantage of other financial aid available to you.   The first thing you should understand is that just because there's a tuition price listed, doesn't mean that's what you have to pay. There's a lot of ways to pay less for college that most people don't take the time to research.   One way to lower the price of your tuition is by applying for a tuition waiver. This is a discount off the sticker price of college you could be eligible for based on your ethnicity, personal history, or several other various factors. Tuition waivers help lower the cost of the initial price of college helping students save money in the long-term.   When applying for any financial aid, make sure you fill out the FAFSA as soon as you can to ensure you get the most amount of money possible. Keep in mind that when filing the FAFSA for multiple kids in college simultaneously there are ways to ensure you get a sufficient financial aid package per kid.   There are a lot of factors when it comes to determining your financial aid package, and if you fall in the middle class you might need to look for more options, or if you think you didn't receive an adequate amount of financial aid, simply ask your financial aid office if you can negotiate.   At least 17 states offer financial aid programs that make community colleges virtually free. Plus the maximum Pell Grant award of $6,345 more than covers full-time tuition and fees at most community colleges nationwide.   If you want to go to college with the least amount of debt, check the options out above, but also keep reading on how to unlock the secret of scholarships.  

How are scholarships different from grants?

You probably already know that scholarships are essentially financial gifts awarded to high school and college students. They’re usually funded by businesses, nonprofits, governmental organizations, groups of people, and individuals.    Unlike grants, scholarships are available to all students. If you happen to have financial need, you will be eligible for both grants and scholarships.  

A closer look at grants

Grants are similar to scholarships. They provide financial support for college tuition and expenses, and do not need to be paid back.    There’s one big difference between grants and scholarships. Grants, which are typically issued by state and federal governments, always require applicants to show financial need.   If you are 24 or younger, grants are generally awarded based on your family’s financial situation. That means you might be dead broke, but if your parents can contribute money toward your college education, you are not likely to receive a grant.  

Grants with strings

If you do receive a grant, be sure you understand any service obligations that may accompany your award. For example, if you receive a TEACH grant, you’ll need to teach at a school that serves low-income students for four years within eight years of graduating from college. If you don’t, your grant will become a loan with unsubsidized interest charged from the date of disbursement.   Photo by StockSnap

The grant application process

The first step toward applying for any grant is to fill out the FAFSA form. It’s the application used by the federal government to determine if you qualify for grants and/or loans. Many scholarships require a FAFSA as well, so it’s a good idea to fill out the FAFSA as early as the summer after your junior year in high school. You’ll need to update it every year.   Once your FAFSA is done, you can find and apply for many grants and other financial aid award opportunities at CareerOneStop, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor.  

How do I find college scholarships?

Whether you qualify for grants or not, you will be able to find many scholarship opportunities.   Before you start searching, take a few minutes to jot down some answers to the following questions:
  • What social, political, and/or religious groups or clubs do you or your parents belong to?
  • What is your ethnic and cultural heritage?
  • Where do your parents work?
  • Have you or your parents been in the military (or are currently in the military)?
  • Name two career paths you think you would enjoy.
  • What are two possible majors you might pursue in college? (Don’t worry, you don’t have to commit to these! Just get them down on paper.)
  • List any talents you have.
  • What awards have you won?
  • How many sports have you played in high school? What are they?
  • What is your GPA right now?
  • Name your two best subjects.
  • Have you done volunteer work? If so, what kind?
  • What are three hobbies you love and devote a lot of time to?
  Once you have your list, you have already taken the first step in your scholarship journey. The list you just wrote is going to help you narrow your search for scholarships that are tailor-made for you.   Photo by StockSnap

3 Best places to find scholarship opportunities

You can find scholarships almost anywhere, but here the three best ways to start your search:
  1. Your school. If you’re in high school, ask your guidance counselor. Also, check the websites at the colleges you’re thinking of attending. Start with the admissions page, or use the site’s search engine to look for “scholarship.” Email or call their financial aid offices to get more detailed responses.
  2. CareerOneStop, mentioned above. This site is a regularly updated scholarship finder. Use terms from the list you created to search for relevant scholarships. 
  3. CollegeScholarships.org is a financial aid search engine that does not require user registration, email accounts, or any other personal data to use. 
  There are more free scholarship resources recommended by Federal Student Aid. These include:
  • your library’s reference section
  • foundations, religious or community organizations, local businesses or civic groups
  • organizations (including professional associations) related to your field of interest
  • ethnicity-based organizations
  • your employer or your parents’ employers

Scholarship service search tool

If you want to get serious about applying for scholarships and maximize your time, consider signing up for a scholarship service. One such free service is The College Board, a nonprofit organization made up of over 6,000 institutions. Their mission is to help students get access to higher education.    That includes helping match students with scholarships from their database that has 2,200 scholarships worth nearly $6 billion.   To get started, complete the personal information to filter scholarships you don’t qualify for. Once you submit the form, you’ll be matched to all of the awards you can apply for. The more information you enter, the more potential matches can be found.   You don’t have to worry about vetting the quality of the scholarships and grants because The College Board does that for you by directly gathering information from Financial Aid programs at thousands of schools.   A database tool like this can save you tons of time. Search often because you may find new awards or you may qualify for awards that you didn’t last time you searched.   Photo by StockSnap

Who actually gets the scholarship money?

When you win a scholarship award, you’ll be notified by phone or email. In most cases, the scholarship funds will be given directly to your school. The college will then apply the money toward your tuition, fees, room and board, or supplies.   If your scholarship money exceeds the amount you owe the school, they may give you a refund that you can use for books or other things you need. Keep in mind that a scholarship refund is taxable income.   When actually shopping for school supplies, be smart, and have a plan so you don't waste all your money in one sweep. You should always make sure the textbook is required for a class before you spend hundreds of dollars on one. There are sites where you can get textbooks for free, there are also sites where you can get used textbooks. This is something a lot of students get tripped up on in their first year of college but it can actually save you a lot of money if you have a plan and don't wait until last minute.   Some scholarship funds are paid directly to you. If that’s the case, be sure you understand precisely what you are allowed to spend it on and what kind of documentation might be required. You’ll want to let your school know as well since your scholarships can affect your total financial aid package.   Read the terms and conditions of your scholarship carefully. If it is a recurring scholarship, you may have to maintain a certain GPA and/or carry a certain number of credit hours. If you break the terms, you may have to pay the money back, or you may simply lose it.  

When should I start applying for scholarships?

It’s almost never too early to start applying for scholarships. The best time is the summer after your junior year of high school.   Continue your search until the end of your senior year in college. You’d be surprised how many scholarships are available for students who are already in school. Scholarships are also available for graduate school.   Photo by StockSnap

What are some good scholarships for college freshmen?

Some scholarships are specifically earmarked for first-year college students. Those are the scholarships you want to go after early before you even start college.   When using scholarship databases and search engines, set your search parameters to include awards that are just for first-year students.   In general, scholarships that require essays offer better odds. The less work a scholarship application requires, the more likely that thousands of students will apply. Apply to as many essay scholarships as you can. Your chances of winning are much higher than with those that don’t require an essay.  

Is there really a scholarship for me?

If you search diligently and take the application process seriously, you’re almost guaranteed to find a scholarship. You’ll also want to put your best foot forward as a writer, so consider getting some help from a teacher, parent, or guidance counselor.   Even if your GPA isn’t great, you’d be surprised how many wacky scholarships exist for the strangest things! For example, Duck Brand Duct Tape has a yearly Stuck at Prom challenge for applicants who make the best prom clothes out of Duck Brand duct tape. The winner receives a $10,000 scholarship.