College costs are rising by the year, which means the majority of students can’t afford their education through savings and student loans alone.
Fortunately, though, there IS a way to offset the high university fees - by winning a scholarship.
Some of the best types of scholarships can even cover your entire college expenses, including transportation, lodging, and meals!
Unfortunately, though, every great thing comes with a downside. When it comes to scholarships, the downside is that they’re so helpful that the competition to win one is extremely fierce.
The scholarship application process is also very time and energy-consuming. You need to pick the scholarships that fit your background just right, collect the right documents, meet all the requirements, AND make sure to apply on time.
Not sure how to do all that the right way? Worry not, we’ve got your back.
This is exactly what this ultimate scholarship guide is here to help you with! We’ll cover scholarships from A to Z, including:
- 8 Types of Scholarships
- The Scholarship Application Process in 3 Steps
- 20 Scholarship Resources
- 6 Additional Scholarship Tips
And more. Let’s dive right in.
College costs have more than doubled in the 21st century, with an annual growth rate of 6.8% according to data from an Education Data Initiative study.
Translated in numbers, the average cost of college in the US in 2022 is $35,331 per student per year, including books, supplies, and daily living expenses. This amount is significantly higher for private colleges ($53,217).
The cost of college is so high that the income and savings of the average US family can only cover 55% of college costs.
This is where scholarships come in.
A scholarship is a financial support given to students based on their academic achievements or other criteria (financial need, community involvement, etc.) to support their education.
Scholarships don’t need to be repaid, but it’s the scholarship donor (i.e. universities, non-profit organizations, foundations) that sets the selection criteria and defines how the scholarship money should be spent (e.g. towards tuition, books, dorm boarding, etc).
In addition to helping you pay off your university expenses, scholarships also come with a handful of other benefits:
- They allow students to focus on their education instead of having to work to support themselves.
- They can give your university application an advantage over other candidates, as winning a scholarship shows you’re hardworking and motivated.
- They can help you attend a more prestigious (but expensive) university.
- They make your student resume stand out from the crowd.
- They provide you with a chance to meet and engage with other scholarship winners through different networking events.
Typically, the majority of scholarships have deadlines in spring, which coincides with college admission decisions, but any time of the year is good enough to start exploring scholarship opportunities.
To get you started, here are the most popular types of scholarships out there:
8 Types of Scholarships
- Academic scholarships. These scholarships are awarded to students with good academic records. As such, they usually take into account a student’s GPA, overall academic performance, and scores on tests like the ACT and the SAT.
- Athletic scholarships. There are various scholarships for student-athletes who excel at their chosen sport, from the popular ones (like football and basketball) to lesser-known sports (like lacrosse). These scholarships can cover a student’s entire tuition, as well as other college costs including dorm stay, books, etc.
- Demographic. Demographic scholarships are available to students from specific groups (i.e. women, LGBTQ communities, or even those students who are the first in their families to attend college). You can find more information on where to look for demographic-based scholarships in our scholarships resources section below.
- Financial need. Students who show academic promise but don’t have the finances to attend college may be eligible for this type of scholarship. Typically, financial need scholarships require students to maintain a specific GPA throughout their college education.
- Community involvement. If you’re committed to a particular cause with local or global reach (i.e. environmental protection or social inclusion) or have extensive volunteering experience, you might be eligible for a community involvement scholarship.
- Professional interest. You can apply for a field-specific scholarship (e.g. computer science scholarship) if you’ve already decided what major you want to pursue. These scholarships are typically awarded by companies who are looking to sponsor up-and-coming talented professionals.
- Local scholarships. Local communities, including non-profit organizations, churches, and civic groups, often offer scholarships to promising students who can’t afford college.
- Unique scholarships. Last but not least, some scholarships are awarded on unique criteria, such as drawing, playing video games, or your personal statement on the importance of not texting and driving.
The Scholarship Application Process in 3 Steps
Now you know all about the various types of scholarships out there and why they matter so much when it comes to your education.
But that’s not enough to guarantee you’ll actually win one - and that’s ultimately what you’re after.
So, to help you out, we’ve put together a step-by-step guide for the entire scholarship application below, starting with:
- Check what scholarship committees are looking for. Oftentimes, scholarship committees are looking for well-rounded applicants with more than just an excellent academic record. Some, for example, might look for a student with plenty of extracurricular activities, while others look for someone with significant community involvement. No matter the case, make sure you know exactly what the scholarship committee is looking for before you start applying for a specific scholarship.
- Prepare for the ACT/SAT. Your ACT/SAT results are more than just an indicator of how book smart you are. They also show that you’re hard-working and dedicated to pursuing higher education, something any scholarship committee is going to take into account. As such, make sure to prepare well well for these exams - even if it means spending some cash for preparation courses. If you land the scholarship, it’s going to be absolutely worth it!
- Pursue relevant extracurricular activities. Extracurricular activities involve everything you like doing outside of class. Some popular extracurricular activities that look great in scholarship applications include sports, drama club, student government, or debate. That said, any extracurricular activity can help you with your scholarship, as long as you are genuinely interested in it and can show exactly how you were involved.
- Explore volunteering opportunities. Dedicating time to serve others looks great in scholarship applications. For example, volunteering at your local homeless shelter, a charity organization, or a children’s hospital would look great on your scholarship application.
- Seek guidance. Asking for help is never a bad idea. When it comes to scholarships, counselors are there to help. High school counselors, for example, can walk you through the application process or help you get to practice your interview skills.
- Organize all your information. Chances are, you’ll be applying for more than one single scholarship. As such, we recommend you organize all your scholarship-related information (your grades, exam scores, etc.) into a single document. Having all such data in a single document will make the process of applying for scholarships much faster and more efficient.
- Start your research early. The scholarship application process is time and energy-consuming. As such, starting your research early will give you enough time to find the right scholarships, assess everything you need to prepare to apply, and meet all the necessary deadlines.
- Prioritize quantity. Quality scholarships (or scholarships that award big amounts of money) are harder to find and win. So, it’s more efficient to first find and apply to many smaller scholarships that you can win and target the more competitive ones later.
- Begin from your target college. If you’ve already been accepted into your target university, look for what scholarships the financial aid office offers. On top of their own, universities are usually associated with organizations that also offer scholarships to students. These scholarships are usually more competitive but also more accessible.
- Take advantage of other scholarship sources. Universities aren’t the only scholarship sources out there. Oftentimes, organizations in your field of study, non-profits, foundations, community centers, federal aid and state grant agencies, employers, and local businesses also offer scholarships to students. You can find some scholarship opportunities in our ultimate list of scholarships.
- Target high-value scholarships. Once your list is long enough, start sorting the scholarships by priority. The way you prioritize them is up to you. You can, for example, start by applying to the easier ones first and leaving the most challenging ones for last. Or, you can target the ones with the highest monetary value first and leave smaller, less important ones for later. Alternatively, you can prioritize your scholarships according to their application deadlines to make sure you don’t skip any of them.
Craft a Scholarship Essay
Your scholarship application essay should be relevant, unique, and a reflection of your passions and personality.
This means that, unless you have a knack for writing, putting together a quality essay can be quite a challenging process.
These tips can help make the process easier:
- Use an outline. Writing an essay without knowing what you want to say will significantly prolong the process and is very likely to damage the quality of your essay too. Creating an outline in advance is a great way to collect your thoughts, organize your key points, and create a general structure for your essay.
- Mention examples of how an experience shaped you. Scholarship committees look for students who can prove their skills and values and demonstrate what they can bring to the table. As such, try to mention exactly how your experiences shaped you by giving plenty of examples (e.g. how did volunteering at a homeless shelter shape your views on social inequality?)
- Don’t exaggerate. Whatever you do, don’t embellish your experiences in an effort to make them seem more impressive. The scholarship committee will most likely catch the exaggeration and won’t be all too happy about it. Stick to your own, authentic experiences, even if they seem unimpressive. As long as you can explain how they shaped you and what you learned from them, they’ll be super helpful to your application.
- Proofread your essay. It goes without saying that typos and grammar mistakes should be inexistent anywhere in your scholarship application, let alone in your essay. As such, make sure to proofread it before calling it a done deal.
- Get a professional to review it. It’s sometimes difficult to look at your writing with a critical eye. Although everything might make sense to you as a writer, an unbiased reader might find loopholes, weak transitions, or logical fallacies that you might have missed. That’s why it’s always a good idea to get someone to review the final version of your essay. If you can find a professional to do it (e.g. your English teacher or scholarship counselor), that’d be even better.
Ask for a Recommendation Letter
Recommendation letters are written by people outside of your family and friends circle who can vouch for your work, skills, and academic achievements.
Here are some ways to get the most out of recommendation letters:
- Select relevant people. The people you ask for a recommendation letter should have a good understanding of the qualities you demonstrate in your application. For example, your football team coach can speak about your leadership abilities, or a teacher who saw you put in the extra work to achieve an academic goal can speak about your determination and work ethic.
- Help them complete the letter. Make the process easier for them by providing them with all the necessary information, such as the scholarship name, requirements, what they look for in a candidate, etc.
- Give them examples of your accomplishments. Even if the person writing your recommendation letter knows you well, it doesn’t hurt to point out any details you might want to get across to the scholarship committee. So, if you prepared a summary of your achievements during the preparation phase, you can share it with the person.
- Follow up. Don’t forget to thank the writer after they’ve submitted your recommendation letter. It’ll show you appreciate their time and positive recommendation.
Prepare for the Interview
Not every scholarship will ask for an interview, but the most lucrative ones most definitely will.
Interviews can be nerve-wracking, considering how much is on the line. That said, with the right prep work, you’ll be able to pass the interview just fine!
Here are some tips on how to prepare for your scholarship interview:
- Do mock interviews in advance. Practice makes perfect and that’s especially true when it comes to interviews. As such, ask your friends, teachers, or counselor to do some mock interviews and give you honest feedback on your answers, body language, and tone.
- Have some examples ready. Research what the most common interview questions are and prepare your answers in advance. Make sure you can back up your answers with concrete examples, as they will help make you much more memorable. Not to mention, having some examples under your sleeve will boost your confidence and get help get rid of pre-interview nerves.
- Rest well the day before the interview. Whatever you do, don’t leave all the prep work for the day before the interview. You might be tempted to pull an all-nighter and overdose on coffee the next morning, but that will only make you tired and jittery during the interview. What your body needs to perform well is rest, sleep, and healthy food.
- Follow proper interview dressing etiquette. Though no one is expecting you to show up to your scholarship interview in a suit and tie, there is certain interview etiquette that needs to be followed. Opt for something business casual, like a sweater and a button-down for males and a blazer and blouse for females.
- Show up on time. It goes without saying that showing up late for your interview will make a bad impression. Leave your house in advance the day of your interview to account for anything unexpected on the way, such as heavy traffic conditions. If the interview is online, make sure that your microphone, headphones, and internet are all working as intended.
6 Additional Scholarship Tips
And that’s about it with the scholarship application process! Below, we’ll cover 6 additional tips that might help you win that scholarship you’re after:
- Start early. Every step of the scholarship application process takes its own time, from gathering all the necessary information to writing a winning essay and asking for letters of recommendation. As such, starting early is essential if you want to meet all the deadlines and apply for as many scholarships as possible.
- Think local. Smaller organizations that offer scholarships also get fewer applications, which means the competition will be less harsh. Check with your school counselor or local non-profits and newspapers for local scholarship opportunities.
- Don’t ignore small awards. As we already mentioned, smaller scholarships may be less rewarding in terms of monetary value, but they’re also easier to find and win. Aim for smaller scholarships to cover various scholarship expenses, such as educational materials, lodging, etc.
- Attend a scholarship workshop. Check with your high school’s career office - chances are, it offers scholarship workshops throughout the application process to help students. These workshops can help you find scholarships, organize all the necessary information to apply, and offer you some valuable tips on how to write essays and ace interviews.
- Try again next year. Although scholarships for first-year college students are the most popular, they’re not the only ones out there. Focus on finding and applying for scholarships every year - you’ll be surprised by all the options you’ll find.
- Negotiate. Some universities (especially the less selective ones) will let you submit a financial aid appeal letter in case the amount of financial assistance they offer doesn’t meet your needs. If you can prove this is the case, appealing your financial aid is sure worth a try.
20 Scholarship Resources
There are a ton of scholarship-search websites and resources out there if you know where to look.
You can find some of our favorites below:
- Access Scholarships
- Scholarship Owl
- College Board
- Going Merry
- Sallie Mae
- College Scholarships for Latin American Students
- Scholarship Guide for Asian American & Pacific Islander Students
- College Scholarships & Financial Aid for Black Students
- College Scholarships for Underrepresented Students
- College Scholarships for LGBTQ students
- College Scholarships for Women
FAQs on Scholarships
Do you still have some questions about scholarships? Check our answers to the most frequently asked questions below:
#1. Do all scholarships require essays and letters of recommendation?
No, not all scholarships require essays (e.g. “No Essay” scholarships). Although these types of scholarships tend to select the winners more randomly than merit-based scholarships, it doesn’t hurt to apply for them too.
The same goes for letters of recommendation - smaller scholarships typically don’t require them. Keep in mind that you can usually reuse letters of recommendation, as long as they fit the context and criteria of the scholarship application.
#2. What’s the difference between scholarships and grants?
The main difference between scholarships and grants is that grants are typically awarded based on financial need, whereas scholarships are awarded based on several different criteria including financial need, academic records, and merit.
#3. Are scholarships only for low-income students?
No, scholarships are not necessarily only for low-income students. On the contrary, there are scholarships available for students across all income levels, including those from well-off families that may not be qualified for some need-based grants.
And that’s a wrap! We hope our guide to scholarships gave you the knowledge you need to search for, apply, and win scholarships!
Before you get started with your scholarship search, here’s a small summary of the key points we covered in this article:
- The cost of college is so high that families’ income and savings can only cover 55% of college costs. A scholarship is financial support given to students based on their academic achievements or other criteria (financial need, community involvement, etc.) to support their education.
- Some popular types of scholarships include academic scholarships, athletic scholarships, demographic scholarships, and financial need scholarships.
- When you’re preparing to apply for scholarships, make sure to check what scholarship committees are looking for, prepare for your CAT/SAT tests, pursue extracurricular activities and service opportunities, and get help from your school’s guidance counselor.
- While you’re searching for scholarships, don’t overlook smaller-award scholarships, target scholarships awarded from your university of choice, and take advantage of scholarship-search resources.
- Some additional tips when looking for scholarships are to start applying early, not ignore smaller awards, attend scholarship workshops, and try new scholarships each year.