College Scholarships

While a college education is a necessary prerequisite for many jobs, tuition is almost prohibitively expensive for some students, and education costs are only going up.

U.S. News reports that school tuition and fees have increased dramatically over the past 20 years, with in-state public university tuition prices rising by a whopping 296%.

Despite this steep increase, public universities are still the most affordable option for in-state students due to their comparatively lower cost — a result of subsidies provided by the government, scholarships, and other forms of financial aid available to residents.

College scholarships come in many forms, ranging from awards based on academic or athletic performance to those intended for members of minority groups, such as African Americans or members of the LGBTQ community. Many people use the terms “scholarship” and “grant” interchangeably, due to the fact that neither requires repayment. However, there are differences between the two. Grants usually come from the state or federal government and are largely awarded on need (scholarships awards are generally merit-based). Read on to learn more about finding and applying to credible scholarship programs.

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Types of Scholarships

Scholarships can be roughly categorized into three types: performance-based, student-specific, and unique. Performance-based scholarships are awarded based on high academic, creative, or athletic performance; they can also be awarded for remarkable community service. Student-specific scholarships can be awarded based on financial need or based on an individual’s gender, ethnicity, sexuality, or other defining identity characteristics. It’s common that a student who qualifies for one of these scholarships qualifies for another. For example, ethnic minority students are often also eligible for first-in-family (to attend college) awards.

Finally, unique college scholarships are awards given for specific skills or interests. This scholarship may be presented to a student who is skilled in playing the indigenous musical instruments of the Cherokee tribe, for example, or to someone who has profound interest in protecting the endangered mule deer. These awards are usually less competitive than other scholarships due to their specificity. Read on for further explanations of scholarship types.


Awarded based on financial need tied to total family income, these college scholarships require the applicant to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Many of these scholarships are short-term (a semester or a year), but allow reapplication.


Awarded based on academic, athletic, or creative merit, these scholarships are usually privately sponsored and come with a set of criteria, like maintaining a certain GPA or giving back to the specific community that the scholarship represents. For example, a student who receives a scholarship due to quality of her creative writing may be required to showcase a collection of poetry or to lead writing workshops at a local elementary school.


These scholarships are awarded to individuals studying and/or working in a particular professional or academic field like education, business administration, or biochemistry. Some awards are for general expenses like tuition, while others require a specific proposal (to pursue lab research, for example).


Sponsored by private businesses and corporations in order to promote brand recognition and to foster public goodwill, these scholarships can be awarded for a host of credentials, including academic performance, minority identity, financial hardship, and community involvement.


Student-based or student-specific scholarships constitute a large category and can range from identity markers (ethnicity and gender, for example), to professional history (scholarships for military service or veteran status), and future endeavors (commitment to environmental activism).


Many universities, predominantly public ones, have scholarships for the residents in their state. This provides an incentive for students to stay and ultimately give back in the form of intellectual or professional skill (as well as tax dollars). Regional scholarships (midwest, southern, Appalachian, etc.) are also available, sponsored through a network of states or a consortium of universities.


Just like it sounds, this type of scholarship is localized within an individual college or university. They are usually funded by an alumnus, and the application criteria can vary widely from award to award. Some are awarded to specific majors, while others are given based on merit or identity.


Awarded primarily for athletic talent and dedication, many of these college scholarships can be found through the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). Recipients are required to not only play the sport while pursuing their degree, but also to maintain a certain GPA.


Many unique scholarships fall under this category due to their remarkable specificity, though they are usually one-time awards. For example, Stuttgart, Arkansas awards college scholarships for champion duck callers, since the city is known for its duck hunting culture.

Scholarship Application Checklist

While finding and applying for college scholarships may be time-consuming, all students should seek as many awards as they can. U.S. News reported in 2014 that the average amount of debt for American students was $30,000, with roughly 70% of 2013 graduates owing that much or more. These numbers have only increased, while federal and state funding have generally held steady. It is, therefore, of utmost importance that prospective students work to get as much scholarship funding as possible.

A scholarship is essentially free money. The only costs are the time and effort you put into applying. To help streamline the process, create a spreadsheet with deadlines and criteria for each scholarship you’re interested in, and keep track of each item throughout the application process. Explore our list of common scholarship requirements. By knowing what is usually asked of applicants, you can begin preparing certain materials in advance.

  • Financial aid information

    Example: FAFSA

  • Parent financial aid information

    (if applicable)

  • High school or college transcripts

  • Test scores and dates

  • Extracurricular activities

  • Essay/personal statement

  • Citizenship or lawful permanent residence

  • Letters of recommendation

  • Interview

  • Resume or Curriculum Vitae

  • Portfolio of Work

    Commonly required of creative scholarships

  • Scholarship Application Form

Tips on Applying for Scholarships

Scholarship applications are a competitive process. Depending on the type of scholarship, you may not only be in a pool with other students from your school, but also other qualified students from around the world. Here are some essential tips to consider when applying.

Don’t wait! Start early and apply as soon as you are eligible

One of the most important steps in getting a scholarship is planning far in advance. Don’t wait until the last moment to apply, as your material will most likely be shoddy due to the lack of preparation and editing. This is especially true for applications where you must submit an essay.

Collect application dates and create a calendar for deadlines

Knowing when to start applying for scholarships is a crucial step. Find a way to organize all the small bits of information so no important details fall by the wayside. Google is helpful as it allows users to link their calendar and spreadsheet tools.

Stay organized and be sure to know what each scholarship’s requirements are

Many applicants disqualify themselves from scholarships by simply not following directions. Hundreds of people may apply for a single scholarship, and vetters are constantly looking for reasons to trim the field.

Apply to as many as you can (but be sure that you are eligible)

Cast your net wide. The more funding you get, the better, and you never know when a seemingly distant opportunity will yield dividends. However, read the description carefully to be certain you qualify for the simple reason that you don’t want to waste time and energy on an award you were never going to get in the first place.

Search for scholarships based on factors related to your academic life

  • GPA
  • Major/field
  • Geographic region

Of the various types of college scholarships, these are low-hanging fruit since they’re based on attributes that you can easily demonstrate. It’s also important to note that many of these scholarships are one-time awards and available in other places, so you don’t need to feel caged into a particular major or state.

Think creatively and search based on other things that make you unique

  • Hobbies
  • Artistic pursuits
  • Family situation
  • Medical history

While these scholarships are usually more difficult to find and apply for, funding based on specific and personal characteristics have smaller applicant pools, which increases your chances of winning. It can also be easier to write a personal essay about your interests and history, further increasing the likelihood of receiving the scholarship.

Check locally

Just as the aforementioned award for duck calling suggests, a host of scholarships for college students are available in your city, state, or region. Some students mistakenly apply for national scholarships only; these awards are well-known, highly competitive, and you’re relatively unlikely to win them. Local scholarships may award less funding than renowned ones, but your chances of receiving some money are much better.

Explore scholarship opportunities available through local businesses and organizations

These scholarships are generally less advertised and may require you to do a little sleuthing. Ask your high school advisor and other members of the community if they know of local businesses or organizations that sponsor scholarships. Your own high school may also have college funding available through the generosity of the students who came before you.

Leverage free resources like The Common Application’s partnership with Scholar Snapp to have relevant scholarship information delivered

Look for opportunities and programs that make it easy to apply for scholarships en masse. As part of the Common App, Scholar Snapp enables you to not only search for college scholarships easily, but also apply to multiple ones at once as long as they require similar materials.

Avoiding Scholarship Scams

The vast majority of college aid opportunities are facilitated online and are therefore susceptible to online scholarships scams. While charging for scholarship information and assistance (or even charging to apply for the scholarship itself) does not necessarily mean the service is a fraud, you should carefully weigh the benefits versus the cost. Paying to go to college is unpleasant but necessary; paying for the chance to pay for college is foolish. Typically, you can find similar funding and help elsewhere for free.

Many scholarship scams don’t want your cash outright, but rather your personal information, so trust your gut.

Remember that the whole point of free money is that you don’t need to pay to get it at any point in the process. This includes sending in the application and receiving the results. For example, FAFSA is a free service funded by the national government, and you should never pay to have someone apply for you. If a scholarship provider is asking for too much information, they may not be a legitimate service.

Paying for School Without Scholarships

Scholarships are not the only means to pay for your college education: grants, loans, and other funding are available to help you ease the financial burden. Below, we will briefly cover two of the most prominent options, FAFSA and Employer Tuition Assistance. For more in-depth resources, and to explore the other available options, check out our Affordability Center.


The FAFSA form is the most useful tool available when looking for college aid. Filling out the form is typically the first step in applying for need-based scholarships, as it not only finds the funds for you, but also allows you to apply to all the scholarships you’re eligible for in one fell swoop. FAFSA also enables you to apply for federal loans, which usually have a lower-than-average interest rate, and work-study programs at your school.

There are a number of factors that determine whether you should apply for FAFSA aid. Generally, you must have a high school diploma or GED and should be enrolled in a full-time college program. US citizenship is also a factor, but non-US citizens may also be eligible for FAFSA depending on their immigrant status. Most, if not all, students must show that they’re making progress on their degree by renewing their FAFSA every year in order to retain their aid. Deadlines vary depending on federal and state regulations, and your university may also have a specific deadline. Contact your school’s admissions office and look on the FAFSA website for more information on when to apply for scholarships.

Having your Employer pay for College

Students in eligible programs, predominantly the business tracks, should also look into employer tuition assistance. This aid includes tuition waivers and reductions, scholarships, and/or a lump sum of up to $5,250, tax deductable. Check with your organization to see what stipulations are attached to your award.

Additional Resources

  • FAFSA The Free Application for Federal Student Aid is one of the single most important sources for students to secure financial aid and in some cases is a requirement for applying to scholarships.
  • Federal Student Aid A branch of the U.S. Department of Education, this government website contains a comprehensive amount of information about college preparation, scholarship search application, and repayment options. It also contains free assistance pertaining FAFSA.
  • Find Aid! Another free web service that aggregates information involving college scholarships and other forms of aid. Find Aid! Is particularly useful for its loan calculator and information on scholarships for military personnel.
  • This site contains an enormous database of available scholarships, grants, and loans, searchable by criteria like income, ethnicity, career track, and even deadline. Another useful feature is its matching tool. Users fill out a personal profile and matches them with eligible forms of college aid.
  • Fastweb Another useful free website for information on college aid, Fastweb provides useful scholarship search features and video tutorials on different aspects of financial aid, including when to apply for scholarships. The site also has tools to help students search for the school that best suits them as well as advice on career planning during and after college.
  • U.S. Department of Education The official website of the government institutions that governs federal loans also provides information and data about the state of education, public and private, in the United States. What is of particular interest here is the database that allows students to search for state-sponsored loans through local contacts.
  • Career One Stop A free service sponsored by the U.S. Department of labor, Career One Stop provides a large database of scholarships for college students searchable by characteristics like level of study and location. Just as its name suggests, the site also has a plethora of tools on career search and planning, including information about local job centers and unemployment benefits agencies.