How to apply for a scholarship


    One of the biggest challenges college students face is figuring out how to pay for school. After all, the price of college continues to rise each year. In fact, according to findings from the National College Attainment Network, only 23% of 4-year public colleges were affordable for the 2018-2019 school year.

    With the price of college only increasing, it is unsurprising that students have to look for different ways to fund their higher education costs. One of these strategies often sought by students to meet their financial needs is scholarships.

    Read on to learn more about scholarships including the various types available and how to apply.

    What is a scholarship?

    A scholarship is an amount of money awarded to a student to help cover the cost of college. Even though many people think that scholarships are limited to students entering their freshman year of college, the reality is that scholarships can be found at all degree levels. Even graduate students can receive scholarships.

    In general, scholarships are based on specific characteristics and attainments.

    Scholarships are offered by educational institutions, state governments, civic organizations, and even corporations. For example, you might be able to get a scholarship from a state program while at the same time applying for a scholarship through a civic organization, like your local Rotary club. Some large retail chains, like Target, set aside money designed for local stores to offer to students in their area.

    In general, scholarships are based on specific characteristics and attainments. They are different from grants, which often have a need-based component. However, scholarships and grants are similar in that you don’t have to repay the money, as is the case with a student loan.

    Choosing a major made easier

    Start your degree search

    Types of scholarships

    The fact that there are numerous scholarship types, means that students are able to filter their scholarship search using different criteria based on factors like academic or sports achievements, financial situation, demographic status, or study plans.


    Some scholarships are based on financial need. In some cases, you might need to meet other criteria, but the main qualification is your family’s financial situation.


    For those who perform well academically and achieve good grades, there are often scholarships available. These scholarships can be provided by the college you attend, and can often by applied for prior to starting the school year. Based on grades, some schools also offer a partial scholarships on a semester basis.


    If you excel at sports, you might be offered a scholarship for your ability. In general, you need to play on the college sports team and maintain certain academic standards to keep your scholarship.


    Likewise, in some cases, you may be granted an arts-related scholarship based on your performance in music, dance, theater, or some other area of the arts. This may entail the submission of an art portfolio, a video of your performance, or participation in an audition as part of your application.

    College, society, and department scholarships

    Depending on where you attend school, there can be scholarships available for students beyond freshman year. These scholarships may be available from the academic department responsible for your degree major. Additionally, some honor societies, fraternities and sororities, other organizations, or the college itself offer scholarships. Note that some schools even have ambassador programs that offer scholarships if you take prospective students on tours and perform other tasks.

    Trait scholarships

    The next type of scholarships are aimed at students with specific traits: for example, your ethnicity, race, religion, culture, or other characteristics might qualify you for a scholarship. There are even scholarships for women who are tall or people with red hair.

    Scholarships come in a variety of amounts. Some scholarships are only a few hundred dollars, while other scholarships might be valuable enough to cover your college-related expenses including tuition, fees, and on-campus housing. Some students apply for, and receive, several scholarships to reduce the amount they have to borrow in student loans.

    What about grants?

    Grants, on the other hand, are typically based on need. Although you don’t have to repay them, you often have to demonstrate low income or other financial needs. Many grants are offered through federal and state governments. To apply, fill out the online Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form. Check out our guide to FAFSA applications for more information.

    The information from your FAFSA application is used to determine your eligibility for financial aid. This information is usually shared with the schools you apply to.  Hence, these schools are know whether you have qualified for federal, state and institutional grants.

    How to find a scholarship

    There are a number of ways to look for scholarships. One of the best places to look is our scholarship database, an up-to-date archive of 1000s of different scholarships for students. Other websites that offer access to scholarships include ScholarshipOwl, Petersons, and Fastweb.

    When looking for scholarships, think about what you might qualify for,  in addition to what and where your interests lie.

    Remember to investigate what scholarships are offered by the schools you are applying to. Check with local service clubs and organizations, as well as at local businesses like banks and credit unions. Stop in at locations of major retailers to see if they have a local scholarship program. You can even just search “scholarships” in Google to see what’s available.

    When looking for scholarships, think about what you might qualify for,  in addition to what and where your interests lie. Use filters to find different scholarships that fit your parameters. It can feel overwhelming to look at all the options. The filters can help you narrow down the options so that you can evaluate what makes the most sense for you — and what you’re more likely to actually get.

    Steps to apply for a scholarship

    It’s possible to apply for multiple scholarships at once. In fact, applying for multiple scholarships can be a good strategy because you increase your chances of success in getting some money. Additionally, if you get several smaller scholarships, they can add up to help you cover more of your education expenses in the event you don’t get one of the bigger scholarships.

    1. Fill out the FAFSA and CSS Profile

    One of the first things to do is to fill out the FAFSA so you have access to financial aid options. On top of that, information from the FAFSA might be used to see if you qualify for certain need-based scholarships. It’s also a good idea to go to the College Board website and fill out the CSS Profile. Some schools and organizations use the CSS Profile as an easy way to get the information they can use to see if you meet certain criteria.

    2. Search for scholarships

    Start by searching a scholarship database for likely applications, as well as searching online for scholarships. Check with the school you plan to attend, as well as other organizations to see what’s available.

    Make a note of the scholarships you qualify for, and that you think you have a good chance of getting. You can keep these in a spreadsheet, or organize and save this list in another system.

    3. Pay attention to due dates

    Scholarships have different due dates, so make sure you know your timeline. Arrange the information so you can track your progress and stay on top of the situation.

    4. Gather materials

    In many cases, letters of recommendation and personal essays are required when you apply for scholarships.

    Line up between 3 and 5 people who are able and willing to write letters for you. Often, they can write a basic letter that can be tweaked slightly depending on the scholarship and requirements.

    Similarly, consider writing a personal statement and a personal essay that can serve as a template for all the scholarships. Then you can make small adjustments to reflect the specifics of each scholarship.

    5. Apply

    Once you have everything in place, you can start applying for scholarships. When you have a system down, and materials you can tweak, it helps the process move faster.

    General conditions on scholarships

    Pay attention to the requirements of maintaining your scholarship. In some cases, a need-based scholarship will be reviewed regularly to see if you still qualify. For academic scholarships, you could lose your funding if your GPA falls below a certain level. Sports and arts scholarships can be revoked if you no longer qualify to play on a team or participate in performances.

    Make sure you understand what you need to do to keep the scholarship since it can be taken from you.


    Chances are that you may need to use a combination of strategies to cover your college education costs. One of the strategies you can use is to apply for scholarships. The more money you get in scholarships, the less you have to borrow in student loans.


    Each scholarship has its own requirements. In general, though, you are required to meet certain academic requirements or meet a certain level of competence in sports or arts. Check to see the criteria for a scholarship before you apply.

    There are many websites you can visit to find scholarships. Make sure you fill out the FAFSA and the CSS Profile. You can also use the database at

    Depending on your strategy, small scholarships can work well. You might be better able to get several scholarships to help you pay for your costs. On the other hand, if you think you qualify for a big scholarship, it can pay for everything at once. Big scholarships are generally more competitive, have more stringent requirements, and more rigorous application processes.

    Did you enjoy this post?