College is a huge investment - you spend a lot of time, energy, and money to earn a degree. Graduating from school means making financial sacrifices, but it also means reaping significant educational and professional rewards.
But what if the whole money problem wasn’t an issue? What if you could go to school without worrying about tuition expenses or accruing interest? With a full ride scholarship, all your college costs are taken care of. Instead of thinking about paying your bills, you could focus on the important things: studying for that big exam or getting your term paper in on time. Here, I’ll lay out everything you need to know about how to get a full ride scholarship: what exactly it is, who can get one, and where you can find them.
What Is a Full Ride Scholarship?
If you’ve already done your research on what college will cost, you’ll know that tuition isn’t the only expense you’ll be responsible for - you’ll also have to budget for room, board, fees, textbooks, transportation, and personal expenses. The amount of all of these expenses together is called the Cost of Attendance, or CoA. Depending on where you go to school, the CoA can come to over $200,000 for a bachelor’s degree. (For more information on college expenses, check out our guide to college costs).
Full ride scholarships are special because they fully cover all college-related costs, meaning they pay for the entire CoA. A traditional “scholarship” is awarded based on merit, not on financial need - this means that a student could win a full ride award even if her family isn’t low-income.
There are other avenues to getting a full ride beyond just traditional scholarship programs, however. Free money is free money, whether you’re getting it based on merit or financial need, so in this post, I’ll address other ways to get your CoA covered besides the private scholarship route. The best strategy for how to get a full ride scholarship (and get all of your expenses covered) is to take a multi-pronged approach, applying to all of the following:
- Private scholarship programs (both merit- and need-based)
- Institutional need-based financial aid
- Institutional merit-based scholarships
Private Full Ride Scholarship Awards
Full ride scholarships seem almost too good to be true - how could you get all of your college costs covered, regardless of your family’s financial need?
These sorts of scholarship programs do exist, but as you might imagine, they're not exactly common. Fewer than 20,000 students per year will earn a private full-ride scholarship award - that may sound like a lot, but consider that over 20 million students are expected to attend college this fall (so about 0.1% of students, or one in 1000, get full-ride scholarships).
Because these scholarships are so competitive, there will be many qualified applicants who won’t end up with funding. This should not discourage you from applying, but don’t pin your hopes on any one of these awards - you should have solid backup plans if you're set on securing outside funding (I’ll address that later).
Now for some good news: if you were worried about spending a bunch of time researching different scholarship programs, don’t be! We have some great guides on the top scholarship programs out there. Start off with our post on some of the best full ride scholarships, and then check out our guides to top scholarships for high school juniors and high school seniors.
Full Ride Scholarships From Schools
Kill two birds with one stone: get into a college and get a full ride with one application. Some schools will cover their own CoAs if you’re a particularly attractive applicant or have high financial need. To get a full scholarship from any school, though, you'll have to be a very compelling applicant - either competitive enough to earn merit-based awards or academically strong enough to get into a top-ranked school. Here's some more information about merit-based and need-based full ride scholarships from schools.
Schools That Offer Full Rides Based on Merit
Traditional scholarship awards are based on merit, not necessarily on financial need. Some schools use scholarship awards to attract strong applicants regardless of their family’s financial situation.
Top colleges don’t generally offer merit scholarships because they don’t have to attract competitive applicants (the applicant pool is already really strong). We have a list of 79 colleges that offer full ride scholarships - you may not be very familiar with the schools on this list, but if you’re academically or athletically strong with low financial need they may be good options for you.
Schools That Offer Full Rides Based on Financial Need
Some of the best financial aid programs out there are at some of the most competitive schools - like Harvard, for example.
Some schools have very generous financial aid programs that will cover the entire CoA for students with high financial need. Most schools with these types of programs are top private colleges. If you have high financial need and want to get a full ride from one of these top colleges, you'll have to focus your energy on getting in.
For a list of schools with these generous aid policies, check out our guide to colleges with the best financial aid.
5 Steps to Winning a Full Ride Scholarship
Now that you know where to get full ride scholarships, you'll want to know how to get a full ride scholarship. The following strategies will help you get an award no matter the funding source.
In general, the things you can do to make yourself a strong college applicant will also make you a strong full ride scholarship candidate. If you’re a strong college applicant, you’ll also increase your chances of getting merit-based scholarships from schools. Finally, you’ll also be more competitive at top colleges that give generous need-based aid. This strategy guide will walk you through steps you can take to increase your chances of funding across the board.
Your should start preparing for scholarship applications early - think Day 1 of your freshman year of high school. Scholarship programs and admissions officers evaluate applicants on many factors, most of which can’t be worked on at the last minute.
To optimize your chances of winning a full scholarship award, you should be close to the top of your class with a strong background in leadership and community service. You should also have strong relationships with instructors and mentors who can write you glowing letters of recommendation. Finally, you should have a concrete plan in place so that you can get all application requirements in on time.
There may be a lot of boxes to check, but this guide will help you get everything in order.
Demonstrate Academic Excellence
This isn’t just about a high GPA - it’s also about taking challenging courses. In order to stand out in a positive way, take as many advanced or AP classes as possible. If you're struggling in a particular subject (everyone has weaknesses), seek out extra help from teachers so that your grades don't suffer.
If you're gunning for a truly excellent academic performance, aim for the top 10% of your class rankings. If you have your eye on some of the most famous full scholarships (like the Gates Millennium) you’ll likely need to be at the very top of your class to be a competitive applicant.
Develop Leadership Skills
Private scholarship committees, in particular, want to invest in future leaders and give awards to students whom they anticipate will go on to be successful in business, politics, academia, etc. The only way scholarship committees can evaluate future leadership potential is by looking at your past experience.
In order to develop your own leadership skills, be an active classroom participant (teachers will be able to speak to your leadership potential in letters of recommendation). Raise your hand, volunteer to lead projects or groups, and help other students if possible.
Join extracurricular groups, but focus on quality over quantity - choose clubs or activities that you'll stick with long-term. This will lead to more opportunities to move up to club officer or team captain roles. If there aren't many activities at school that spark your interest, look into starting your own club, activity, or charity.
Invest in Community Service
Private scholarship programs and schools alike want to invest in students who will “pay it forward” or students who will do good in the world. Show funding sources that you’re this type of person with a history of community service.
Like with clubs and other extracurriculars, quality is more important than quantity. Try to pick something that you’re interested in early on and stick with it. Regular weekly participation is ideal. If you want ideas on where to start building volunteer experience, start with our guide on the nine best places to do community service work.
Develop Relationships With Mentors and Instructors
This step is important for a couple of reasons:
- It’s valuable to have mentors who can offer you trusted professional, personal, and academic advice.
- You should have people on your side who are willing to write strong letters of recommendation.
Begin building these relationships by showing respect for your class, sports team, club, or activity. Show potential mentors and instructors that you are willing and able to actively participate. Follow up by seeing leaders for extra help and showing interest in the relevant subject area.
We all need someone to go to when we have questions.
You’ll have quite a few deadlines to keep track of for both college and scholarship applications. Unfortunately, scholarship application deadlines can be all over the place. Many of the top scholarships have deadlines early in your senior year, so prepare a list of scholarship programs that you want to apply to by the end of your junior year.
It’s also important to give yourself enough time to complete applications, especially if you have to submit personal statements or essays. Also, keep in mind that if you have to submit letters of recommendation, you should provide 10-12 weeks advance notice for letter-writers.
What You Should Do If You Don't Think You'll Get a Full Ride Scholarship
Let’s say you’re a good student, but you don’t think you’ll qualify for a full ride scholarship. Maybe you're not academically strong enough to win a top merit-based scholarship or get into a top-ranked college, but you also don't demonstrate enough financial need to qualify for much aid. What are your next steps?
A full ride is still a full ride even if it’s patch-worked together through multiple funding sources. Here are some things you can do to come up with a full ride:
- Apply broadly to many scholarship programs. This is essentially a numbers game: the more programs you apply to, the better your chances of winning one (or more) scholarships.
- Do some research into more targeted or local scholarship programs. Smaller scholarships may be less competitive than the big full ride programs.
- Focus on following the advice above on how to get a full ride scholarship. Even if you don't think you'll win a big award, building your skills, resume, and grades will give your funding chances a nice boost.
Private scholarships and institutional aid are great, but the backbone of college funding often comes in the form of federal aid. Learn more about the Pell Grant, Perkins loan, Direct Subsidized loan, and Direct Unsubsidized loan.
Are you looking at full ride scholarships because you want to get through college debt-free? Read more about how to pay for college without taking out loans.
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Francesca graduated magna cum laude from Harvard and scored in the 99th percentile on the SATs. She's worked with many students on SAT prep and college counseling, and loves helping students capitalize on their strengths.