How to apply for a scholarship

Miranda Marquit
Miranda Marquit

Miranda Marquit, MBA, is a freelance financial writer and money expert. Her work has appeared in multiple media outlets, including Marketwatch, NPR, Yahoo! Finance, Entrepreneur, Forbes, and more.

How to apply for a scholarship

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

    Given the staggering price of college, it is no surprise that students have to look for alternative ways to fund their higher education. After loans and grants, scholarships are one of the primary ways students use to fund their higher education.

    What is a scholarship?

    A scholarship is money awarded to a student to help cover the cost of college. Many people think that scholarships are only for students entering their freshman year, but actually they can be found at all degree levels. Even graduate students can receive scholarships.

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

    You can get scholarships from many different places:

    • educational institutions
    • state governments
    • civic organizations
    • corporations

    You might be able to get a scholarship from a state program on top of a scholarship from a civic organization, like your local Rotary Club. Some large retail chains, such as Target, set aside money so that local stores can offer scholarships to students in their area.

    Types of scholarships

    There are numerous scholarship types, meaning that students can filter their scholarship search using different criteria like academic or sports achievements, financial situation, demographic status, and study plans.


    Some scholarships are based on financial need. You might have to meet other criteria too, but the main qualification is your family’s financial situation.


    There are many scholarships for those who perform well academically, and you can often apply to them prior to starting the school year. Some schools also offer partial scholarships on a semester basis to students with good grades. To find an academic scholarship, check out your school’s resources or search for outside scholarships.


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


    You may be eligible for an arts-related scholarship based on your talents in music, dance, theater, or some other art. This could entail submitting an art portfolio, a video of your performance, or participating in an audition.

    College, society, and department scholarships

    Depending on where you attend school, scholarships could be available beyond freshman year. These scholarships may be offered by the academic department responsible for your degree major. Additionally, some honor societies, fraternities and sororities, other organizations, and colleges themselves offer scholarships. Some schools even have ambassador programs that offer scholarships if you take prospective students on tours and perform other tasks.

    Trait scholarships

    These 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 tall women and red-haired people.

    The amount of money that scholarships are worth varies greatly. Some scholarships are only a few hundred dollars, while others might be valuable enough to cover all your college-related expenses, including tuition, fees, and on-campus housing. Some students receive several scholarships to reduce the amount they borrow in student loans.

    Full-ride vs full-tuition scholarships

    Full-ride scholarships cover your tuition as well as educational fees, room, and board. Some even provide living stipends, money for textbooks, and more. This means few, if any, out-of-pocket expenses as a student. Full-tuition scholarships cover all your tuition costs for the entirety or part of your program, but additional fees and costs are not covered.

    What about grants?

    Grants 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. Some schools may want you to fill out a CSS form, which serves a similar purpose.

    » Read: How to apply for FAFSA

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

    General conditions for 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.

    Steps to apply for a scholarship

    It’s possible to apply for multiple scholarships at once. In fact, this can be a good strategy, because you increase your chances of getting money. Smaller scholarships can add up, helping you cover more of your education expenses if you don’t get one of the bigger scholarships.

    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 to see what kinds of financial aid you are eligible for.

    Search for scholarships

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

    Make note of the scholarships you qualify for that are within reach. Organize them in a spreadsheet or keep a list.

    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 things.

    Gather materials

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

    Find 3 to 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.


    Once you have everything in place, you can start applying for scholarships. Having an essay and recommendations prepared in advance can help the process move faster.


    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?