High School Seniors: How to Get a Jump-Start on Finding Scholarships

Written by: Kristyn Pilgrim
Updated: 2/19/20

College scholarships can make all the difference when deciding on where to go and even if you can afford higher education. There are many different ways to get gift aid as high school students and incoming undergraduate freshmen. You should start looking early to get a jump-start on applying for financial aid.

Some of the options for scholarships open to high school seniors are offered by:

  • Colleges and universities
  • Corporations
  • Nonprofit and community organizations
  • Private donors

Do you have a special talent? Are you active in your community? Do you show leadership skills, get good grades, or come from a minority or underrepresented population? Have you overcome hardship? All these things can qualify you for a scholarship.

Scholarships are often considered either need-based or merit-based. They can provide you with free money that you don’t have to pay back and help you afford the high costs of postsecondary education.

Looking for Scholarships Before College

There are several ways to get started on the college scholarship search as a high school senior.

  1. Talk to your high school guidance counselor. These trained professionals have information on many different types of scholarships and opportunities that are open to you. They can provide you with information on where to look, how to fill out the forms, and how to submit the necessary information on time and to the right location.
  2. Assess your abilities and skills. Scholarships are granted for both need and merit. Making a list of your achievements, accomplishments, special skills, and career goals can be a good place to start. Need-based scholarships are often granted to low-income students, as well as those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Merit-based scholarships generally expect qualified students to excel in a specific area (such as athletics, leadership, community service, or academics) or field of study.
  3. Fill out your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). If you already have a college or university in mind, this step can help determine if you qualify for federal, state, and institutional-based financial aid. These funds are need-based. FAFSA calculates your total expected family contribution (EFC) and subtracts that from the total cost of attendance (COA) at your school to figure out how much help you will need.
  4. Contact local and national organizations. Focus on those that you (or your parents) belong to, those you have done work or service for, or those you are interested in for future opportunities.

    Community organizations, nonprofits, membership affiliations, service foundations, corporations, and private donors all provide scholarship opportunities. These agencies often look for exceptional high school students: those who show leadership skills, those who have been extensively involved with their communities, and those who have faced significant hardship.

    Check with your parents’ employers for opportunities. Companies often offer dependent students of employees gift aid. If you have any military affiliation, there are additional options open to you.
  5. Start early and set aside time to work on scholarship applications. There are hundreds of scholarship opportunities that can range from as little as $100 up to the full cost of your attendance. You are likely eligible for more than one scholarship at a time, so don’t limit yourself to applying for just one. Many scholarships have early fall deadlines, so the sooner you get started, the better.

Some scholarships, such as national and merit-based options, are highly competitive. You will need to apply early to have the best chances of being chosen. Take your time writing your scholarship essays and put some thought into the people you ask for letters of recommendation. 

Scholarships for High School Seniors

Specific colleges and universities offer scholarships based on athletic ability, academics, and certain fields of study. Minority populations and students from disadvantaged backgrounds who are unable to attend college without financial support are often populations of focus as well.

Certain fields, such as STEM programs, may feature special scholarships. Schools will recruit talented students who show promise in certain areas, like math, science, and technology, into their programs by providing scholarships.

Here are some examples of scholarships you can apply for as a high school senior:

  • National Merit Scholarship Program
    • $2,500 scholarship based on academic standards
    • Additional merit scholarships offered through corporations and universities
    • Must be a U.S. high school student
    • Need to take the PSAT/NMSQT and score high to qualify
    • Highly competitive program
    • High scorers on PSAT/NMSQT are selected as semifinalists. Your high school will notify you if you are chosen and what your next application steps will be.
  • Gates Scholarship
    • 300 winners selected each year based on need and merit
    • Up to full COA (minus financial aid) provided
    • Must be a U.S. citizen and high school senior
    • Must be eligible for a Pell Grant (demonstrate financial hardship)
    • Must be part of a minority population: African American, Asian and Pacific Islander American, Hispanic American, or American Indian/Alaska Native
    • Must have good academic standing (weighted GPA of at least 3.3)
    • Must plan to enroll in a U.S.-accredited four-year degree program at a public or private university or college
    • Requires short questionnaire
    • Competitive and ideal candidates are in top 10% of their class, show exceptional leadership abilities, and personal success skills
  • Voice of Democracy Scholarship
    • First place receives $30,000 paid to school of choice
    • Open to high school students
    • Audio essay program, where applicants submit a recorded patriotic-themed essay on a supplied topic
    • Must be a U.S. citizen in an American high school
    • To apply, submit a three- to five-minute original audio essay burned on an audio CD or flash drive along with your entry form.
  • Coca-Cola Scholars Program Scholarship
    • 150 students receive a $20,000 scholarship
    • Open to U.S. high school seniors 
    • Must have plans to pursue a degree at a U.S.-accredited postsecondary institution
    • Achievement-based scholarship, selecting students with leadership and community service
    • To apply, create an account with the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation and follow the instructions
  • Dell Scholars Scholarship Program
    • Awards students $20,000, a laptop, and textbook credits
    • Must be from middle- to low-income families and among the first in their family to go to college
    • Must participate in an approved college readiness program (CRP) in junior and senior year of high school
    • Must be eligible for a Pell Grant
    • Must have a minimum GPA of 2.4
    • Must show grit, ambition, and potential
    • To apply, submit the online application and answer the application questions
    • Chosen semifinalists will then need to provide a current high school transcript, an online recommendation, and the SAR (Student Aid Report) from FAFSA
  • Ronald McDonald House Charities Scholarships
    • Awarded by local Ronald McDonald House Charity (RMHC) chapters
    • Varying eligibility based on specific chapter, with some requiring financial need or ethnicity specifics
    • Awards of up to $100,000
    • Must be a high school senior 
    • Check with your local RMHC chapter for more details.
  • Burger King Scholars Scholarship
    • Awards between $1,000 and $50,000 to eligible high school students
    • Granted based on GPA, work experience, community service, and extracurricular activities
    • Employee-based track open to Burger King employees and their spouses and children
    • General track open to all U.S. high school seniors planning to enroll full time in an accredited postsecondary institution in Canada, the U.S., or Puerto Rico
    • Must have a GPA of at least 2.5
    • You will need to create an account and supply an official high school transcript. You’ll provide details of work experience, extracurricular activities, and community service, as well as Burger King employment and financial records (when applicable).
  • Ayn Rand Institute (ARI) Essay Contests and Scholarships
    • Essay contests on one of Ayn Rand’s books, including “Atlas Shrugged,” “The Fountainhead,” or “Anthem”
    • 230 prizes and up to $70,000 will be awarded
    • You can sign up for updates to learn how to write a better essay and get information on how to apply for the scholarships
  • Create-a-Greeting Card Scholarship
    • $10,000 award, plus $1,000 for your school
    • Must be 14 years old, living in the United States, and enrolled in high school or college
    • You will create an original work of art or submit a photograph, and you can only submit one entry
    • Fill out the online application, and submit your greeting card design to apply
  • American Legion National High School Oratorical Contest Scholarship
    • First-place prize of $18,000, second-place prize of $16,000, and third-place prize of $14,000 
    • Must be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident currently enrolled in high school
    • Must prepare an eight- to 10-minute oration on an aspect of the U.S. Constitution
    • You will compete in a competition at your local American Legion department. Winners advance to the state and national levels.
  • Elks National Foundation Most Valuable Student Scholarship
    • Awards ranging from $1,000 to $12,500 per year
    • Must be a high school senior and U.S. citizen
    • Must have plans to enroll in a four-year college or university full time
    • Create an account online to apply.
  • Horatio Alger Association Scholarships
    • National award of $25,000 and state-level awards of $10,000 
    • Awarded to high school seniors
    • Must demonstrate financial need and show perseverance, overcoming great hardships or obstacles
    • Various different scholarships 
    • Apply online
  • UNCF Scholarships
    • More than $100 million awarded yearly to over 10,000 students
    • Open to African American students
    • You will need to submit a FAFSA and show financial need
    • Eligibility criteria differ based on scholarship selected
    • Apply online
  • Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF) Scholarships
    • Awards an average of $3,100 per student per semester
    • Must attend one of the 47 member schools that are public historically black colleges and universities (HBCU)
    • Awarded based on merit and financial need, as well as a demonstration of leadership and community service activities
    • Must submit the FAFSA
    • Must have a GPA of 3.0 or higher
    • Must be recommended by a staff or faculty member at your school
  • GE-Reagan Foundation Scholarship Program
    • Awards multiple students $10,000, which is renewable for an additional three years for $40,000 in total
    • Must be U.S. high school student planning to attend a full-time undergraduate bachelor’s program 
    • Must have excellent academics, with a minimum GPA of 3.0 
    • Must show drive, integrity, citizenship, and leadership qualities within the community
    • Must apply online during the application window
  • Jackie Robinson Foundation (JRF) Scholarship Program
    • Provides up to $30,000 over four years
    • Must be a graduating U.S. high school student
    • Intended to help minority students achieve higher education
    • Must have a minimum SAT score of 1,000 combined or an ACT score of 21 
    • Must provide evidence of financial need
    • Must be dedicated to community service and show leadership potential
    • Must plan to enroll in a four-year accredited and approved U.S. institution
    • Application and letter of recommendation should be submitted online to apply
  • Cooke College Scholarship Program
    • Awards up to $40,000 per year for a four-year accredited undergraduate program
    • Granted to high-achieving high school seniors
    • Average unweighted high school GPA of 3.86
    • Participation in civic or community service in high school recommended
    • Must demonstrate financial need
    • Apply online
  • Engebretson Foundation Scholarship
    • Awards $5,000 per semester toward college tuition costs
    • Must be high school senior with leadership qualities and high academics 
    • Fill out application and submit with official transcript and SAT/ACT scores, teacher recommendation, FAFSA results, a resume detailing work experience, achievements, and extracurricular activities
    • One essay is required, but two are recommended. The required essay is based on college and career goals, and the optional one is based on personal or family circumstances detailing financial need.
  • Asian and Pacific Islander Association (APIA) Scholarship Program
    • Distributes one-time $2,500 awards, as well as multi-year $20,000 awards
    • Must be the first in your family to attend college
    • Must be representative of an APIA geographic and/or ethnic diverse community, with particular emphasis placed on populations underrepresented at college
    • Must be at or below the federal poverty level
    • Must have solid academic performance, strong community service, and leadership skills
    • Apply online

There are additional college scholarships for high school seniors available through community and charitable foundations, nonprofit organizations, member clubs, private donors, and employers. Ask around to maximize your scholarship opportunities.

Improving Your Scholarship Chances

Many college scholarships are granted based on the following criteria:

  • Financial need
  • Academic merit
  • Special talents
  • Particular field of study or career goals
  • Ethnic diversity or being a member of a minority group
  • Community service
  • Leadership qualities

Getting good grades and doing well on national tests can help you to get a leg up on college scholarships, but there are many other things you can do, as well. Lots of students have excellent academic records, so it can be helpful to find unique ways to stand out in the crowd.

Things like community service and participation in multiple extracurricular activities, particularly those that show leadership qualities, can go a long way. Consider getting involved in charities and local volunteer opportunities.

If you have a special skill, be sure to highlight it. Colleges are often looking for diversity and students who can bring something extra to their campuses. Take time with your application essays. Look at past applicants and winners of scholarships for tips and resources on how to apply and be noticed.

Your high school counselor can be a great resource for helping you to find and apply for college scholarships as a high school senior. Start your search by talking to them.