Paying for college is already stressful and a bit overwhelming - applying for scholarships shouldn’t be too. To help you navigate the process of finding (and applying for) this helpful type of financial aid, we’ve put together this strategy guide with everything you need to know about how to find scholarships that are right for you.
You’ll learn about searching for awards in the right places (perhaps the most difficult part of the whole process), selecting the right scholarships, and putting together high-quality applications.
Let’s get started!
Before the Applications: Optimizing Your Chances of Winning a Scholarship
There are, of course, many niche awards that go to students with very specific skills, interests, and accomplishments (we’ll get to that in a bit). If you want to increase your chances of winning significant scholarship money, however, you have to step back and look at the big-picture perspective: how can you make yourself appealing to the greatest number of scholarship programs?
Here are the most common things that scholarship programs look for:
- You can demonstrate academic excellence with ACT or SAT scores, high GPA, and high class rank.
- Show you have leadership potential with important positions (or just consistent, engaged participation) in student groups, sports, other extracurriculars, or student jobs.
- Read more about participating in student groups and getting a student job.
Commitment to Community Service
- Demonstrate that you're invested in your community with consistent, personally meaningful volunteer work.
- Learn more about the benefits of community service. Read about different community service projects and ideas.
Strong Relationships With Educators and Mentors
- This is a bit harder to define. Most scholarship programs evaluate relationships through letters of recommendation or even short phone conversations.
- Learn more about what makes for a good letter of rec, and check out examples of awesome letters.
Clear Personal Goals
- Scholarship organizations often look for students with goals and values that are congruent with those of the organization itself.
- You can demonstrate that you have clear, well-developed goals (even if you don't!) through your application essays or in-person interviews, if applicable.
- Learn more about writing application essays and coming across well in interviews.
The good news is that your scholarship strategy can be easily integrated into your greater college application goals - the things you can do to make yourself appealing to scholarships are the same things you can do to make yourself appealing to colleges.
To be most successful in making yourself appealing to scholarship programs, you have to take a long-term approach - it’s best if you start working on the above goals freshman year (or even earlier), but it’s also never too late to start.
Where to Look for Scholarships
When you’re just starting your scholarship research, the sheer number of awards available can be kind of overwhelming. Here are five suggestions for how to find scholarships.
This one’s easy - we’ve already done the legwork for you by compiling lists of different types of scholarships:
Top Scholarship Lists
- Top Scholarships for Sophomores and Freshmen
- Top Scholarships for Juniors
- Top Scholarships for Seniors
Specialty Scholarship Lists
Other Scholarship Lists
- Guide to Local Scholarships
- Guaranteed Scholarships Based on SAT/ACT Scores
- Full Ride Scholarships
- Easy Scholarships
- Weird Scholarships
Specific Scholarship Guides
- National Merit Scholarship
- Gates Millennium
- Ronald McDonald Scholarship
- Tylenol Scholarship
- Florida Bright Futures
Other Scholarship Search Tools
As I mentioned earlier, you won’t want to just apply to the big, prestigious scholarships - it’s important to apply to less competitive awards as well. To get info on almost any scholarship you can think of, check out the following online search tools.
Want more detailed info? Read our guide on how to effectively use these online search resources.
With the College Board’s scholarship search, you can look for awards based on all sorts of criteria. There are two ways you can search for scholarships:
- By keyword
- By filling out personal information about things like minority status, disability status, religious affiliation, veteran status, and club/organization membership. The search engine then finds scholarships that match the personal characteristics you’ve entered.
You can enter in as much or as little identifying or demographic information as you’d like. Obviously, the more information you enter, the more relevant and helpful the search results will be.
Scholarships.com claims to be the largest free scholarship search resource available, with a total of over 2.7 million scholarships listed in their database. The site lets you save, “favorite,” or remove scholarship matches associated with your account.
Students tend to have more luck with Scholarships.com when it comes to finding relevant awards when compared to many other scholarship search engines.
Your Favorite Search Engine
Once you get a better sense of the scholarships you’d like to apply for, you can use Google (or something similar) to search for awards. This gives you a lot of freedom and flexibility when you’re searching for scholarships, especially if you have specific keywords in mind.
You might find individual awards or lists of relevant scholarships that others have already put together.
Your Guidance or College Counselor
School counselors are an untapped resource when it comes to finding scholarship money! Definitely schedule a meeting with your guidance or college counselor - the earlier, the better, but ideally by the beginning of junior year. They likely have insider info on scholarship programs that may be a good fit for you, especially when it comes to local awards.
If you have unique skills or needs (e.g. you’re hoping to be recruited for a college sport), your counselor may also be able to help guide you through the process - this isn’t something you can get from an online scholarship search tool.
A guidance counselor can give the sort of personalized feedback that you can only get from a real, live human
How to Choose Which Scholarships to Apply for
You might come across thousands of scholarships in your college search, but you can’t apply to all of them, no matter how efficient you are. It’s important to pare down the number of scholarships you apply to in order to maximize your success of winning cash (8-10 applications is a reasonable goal here).
Here are some questions you should ask yourself when you’re putting together that all-important list of scholarship applications:
Do You Meet All of the Eligibility Requirements?
This seems obvious, but it’s really important. Carefully read through all of the eligibility requirements to make sure you meet every single one.
If the organization has set specific guidelines on things like GPA, ACT/SAT scores, community service hours, etc., don’t expect them to even look at your application if you’re just “close” to meeting the requirements. This will just waste time you could have spent applying to other scholarships.
If you have any questions about confusing requirements, reach out to the scholarship organization directly.
Are You a Good Fit for the Award?
This is similar (but not the same) as meeting the eligibility requirements. If you do meet the requirements, ask yourself (and answer honestly) whether you are this scholarship’s target audience. That is, do you fit the spirit of the award and not just the letter of it?
For example, let’s say you’re looking at an award for scholar-athletes, and you’re a great student, but you’ve never played on a varsity team. You might meet the hard requirements (i.e. you’ve played a sport), but you’re not what the organization is looking for when they say “scholar athlete.” This is an award you should pass on.
Is the Scholarship Worth the Time You'll Spend on the Application?
Some scholarship applications ask a lot of the students hoping to get the award. You might have to submit all sorts of documentation - everything from transcripts to financial docs to letters of rec to student essays
These obstacles may be worth it for relatively large awards where you’re sure you a) meet all requirements and b) are a good fit for the scholarship. But for smaller awards or awards where you’re not the ideal applicant? Pass.
When Is the Application Deadline?
Does the deadline conflict with any other big responsibilities (e.g. exams, college app deadlines, important extracurricular events)? Avoid scholarships you won't be able to finish in time as well as ones that will require you to miss schoolwork in order to finish.
Do you have enough time between now and then to put together a polished application? If you just have to fill out a few forms and write an essay or two, you won’t need that long - maybe a couple of weeks (you’ll want to build in time to get feedback from a teacher/counselor). If you have to put together a lot of documentation - like official transcripts, letters of rec, etc. - you might need 2-3 months.
Have You Looked for Niche Awards?
Most scholarships programs look for qualities that I discussed earlier in the article - academic excellence, leadership skills, community service, etc. If you can find awards that are targeted towards students with your niche interests, skills, or background, you’ll really increase your chances of winning some scholarship money.
Even if you don’t use resources like the College Board search tool to find scholarships, you should go through the questionnaire asking about various group affiliations or student characteristics. If you identify with anything listed, use those keywords to look for potential scholarships (e.g. religious affiliation, ethnic background, veteran status, unique extracurriculars).
The smaller the applicant pool for a particular award, the weaker the competition. Take advantage of these niche award opportunities.
Do You Have a Good Variety of Scholarship Applications Lined Up?
You may find a ton of great awards for which you’re an excellent applicant, but if they’re all very competitive or very popular (see: Coca-Cola scholarship, Gates Millennium scholarship), you’re doing yourself a disservice.
Just as (strategically minded) top students don't just apply to Ivy League schools, you don't want to just apply for uber-competitive awards. Try to put together a list of scholarships of varying degrees of competitiveness. Look at both national and local awards.
Ever hear that you shouldn't put all your eggs in one basket? This is why you should apply to a variety of scholarship programs.
Scholarship Application Tips and Strategies
Once you’ve chosen which scholarships you’d like to apply for, you’ll want to be as organized and as polished as possible when it comes to submitting the apps. If you want to increase your chances of submitting successful applications, follow these tips!
Set up a scholarship application plan in the same way you’d set up a college application plan - organize all of your tasks and deadlines in one place.
The easiest way to do this is to set up a spreadsheet with all this important info - like scholarship name, deadline and application components. This makes it easy to track your progress if you check off relevant tasks as you go.
If you choose to set up your own spreadsheet (like in Excel or Google Drive), start by setting up the following spreadsheet columns (you can customize these as necessary):
- Scholarship name
- Application deadline
- Link to application
- Application “start” date (the date by which you want to start working on the app)
- Application essay required? (check off when complete)
- Letters of recommendation required? (check off when submitted)
- Transcripts required? (check off when submitted)
- ACT/SAT scores required? (check off when submitted)
- Any other required documentation? (check off when submitted)
- Checkpoint: Application essay edits received and implemented
- Checkpoint: Application reviewed by friend or family member
- Checkpoint: Application submitted
Applying to scholarships is a numbers game, just like applying to colleges. You can apply to as many or as few awards as you’d like, but it's best to find some sort of optimal middle ground.
This middle ground will vary a bit for each student, depending on his or her goals and personal characteristics. Too many applications may leave you feeling overwhelmed (and cut into other important commitments); too few applications may mean you don't actually win any money. Here are some important questions to consider when putting together your list of scholarship applications:
- How badly do you need scholarship funding? If you don't think you'll end up with much need-based financial aid, but you're still worried about paying for college expenses, you might want to apply to more scholarship programs.
- Are you a competitive scholarship applicant? Unless you've stumbled upon some sort of unknown secret program, the chances are that your application for each award will be weighed against those of many other students. If you're not a strong student - say, in the top quarter of your class - you may have trouble winning merit awards. If this is the case, you may want to increase your number of scholarship apps.
- How much extra time do you have? If you have an overloaded schedule, applying to too many scholarship programs may hurt your academic and extracurricular performance. Overbooked students may want to be more selective with their scholarship applications.
On average, I would say the ideal number of scholarship applications on average is 8-10 - you'll want to adjust your own number of apps based on the questions I laid out above.
Finally, try to choose a few “reach” scholarships (i.e. very large/competitive awards), a few “safety” scholarships (i.e. small, noncompetitive or local awards), and a few “target” scholarships (mid-sized awards that you feel are a good fit).
Have Someone Review Your Applications
This is a super important step - it might be tempting to skip (especially if you’re on a deadline), but make sure SOMEONE looks over your applications with fresh eyes.
If the application requires essays, it’s best to get feedback from a teacher or guidance counselor. Try to build 2-3 weeks into your application timeline for edits and comments.
To check for typos, missed information, and general clarity, have a parent or even a trusted friend look over your apps. You could always repay the favor for a friend by looking over their applications!
Even the most conscientious student should look for feedback on her applications.
There's so much more to learn when it comes to finding and winning awards! You'd undoubtedly be interested in reading more about full ride scholarships - for more info, read about the top 15 full-ride awards, 79 colleges that offer full ride scholarships, and the top strategies for winning a full ride scholarship.
If you're considering applying for scholarships, you should also look into other forms of financial aid. Read our guides on the four different types of financial aid and how to apply for them.
Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:
Have friends who also need help with test prep? Share this article!
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.