How to Apply for College Scholarships

Written by: The College Finance Team
Updated: 11/18/21

After high school, going to college for a bachelor’s degree can be an incredible and life-changing experience. However, it can also come with hefty expenses. These expenses can range from tuition and textbooks to rent and entertainment. That’s why many people look to financial aid to help offset these costs, which can include college scholarships.

A college scholarship is essentially free money that doesn’t need to be paid back. However, they may come with certain requirements related to academic performance, a selected major, musical or athletic talent, or race/ethnicity. 

Where and how do you find and apply for free scholarship programs? This article will explore how to find scholarship programs, explain the application process, and provide tips for getting a college scholarship.

Difference Between College Scholarships, Grants, and Student Loans

While scholarships and grants are considered gift aids — meaning recipients don’t usually have to pay the money back — you must pay back your student loans, whether federal or private. All are forms of financial aid, though. 

Grants are primarily awarded based on financial need. For example, federal Pell Grants are typically awarded to undergraduate students with exceptional financial need who are in the process of earning their bachelor’s degree. Need-based grants are generally awarded at the federal, state, or college level. 

However, scholarships — whether for academic excellence, athletic ability, or specific talents — are typically awarded based on merit. Generally, scholarships are awarded by federal, state, and local governments, nonprofit and for-profit organizations, and private foundations, among other sources.

When Should You Apply for Scholarships?

Scholarship application windows vary depending on the organization awarding it. While most organizations have a scholarship deadline right before the new semester, others have their deadline set as early as the year before starting college. The significance is that you may need to start preparing your scholarship application early. 

If you are a high school student who wants to waste no time in applying for scholarships, the summer after your junior year is a great time to start searching. That way, you can get adequate information about the requirements of various scholarships before finishing your high school senior year. 

The idea is to start actively applying by the fall during your senior year; you’ll want to submit your application immediately after your last high school year at the latest. Either way, starting early means you won’t have to rush the application process. 

How Does the Scholarship Application Process Usually Work?

Once you’ve gone through the eligibility requirements and confirmed your eligibility for your chosen scholarship, the application process can be pretty straightforward. Most college boards or scholarship-awarding organizations have a dedicated scholarship website that details the eligibility criteria, step-by-step application process, and related information. 

For most college scholarships, the process usually includes submitting letters of recommendation, writing essays or statements of purpose, providing academic transcripts, including ACT and/or SAT test scores, and listing volunteer experience. You can review the scholarship website to learn more about what is needed. Some scholarship providers may even require you to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). If not, you may need to create an account on their specific scholarship website and fill in your details before uploading the required documents. 

Usually, the selection process starts immediately or sometime after the deadline. The organizers will reach out to you by direct contact if you are among the selected candidates. The list of successful candidates is also usually published on their scholarship website.

Scholarship Application Tips

Here are some tips that can help you find and apply for scholarships. 

Search Widely for Scholarships

Local scholarships are a great place to start when it comes to searching for scholarship opportunities, as these awards tend to be less competitive. However, you shouldn’t limit your scope to just your local area when searching for college scholarships. A broader scope means more scholarship opportunities you can apply for, which increases your chances of winning. How do you go about it? There are many ways.

For a start, you can sign up with some national scholarship database websites. Various categories of national scholarships are available through online search tools. Foundations, college boards, religious organizations, media channels, libraries, and your intended institution’s financial aid office can provide information regarding scholarships. Additionally, you can inquire from federal and state government agencies that you know offer college scholarships. 

One way to fast-track your scholarship search is by identifying the scholarship category that fits you best. For instance, some scholarships may target minority students in low-income households and those with disabilities seeking financial aid to pursue an undergraduate degree program. Merit-based scholarships may target students with excellent academic records (as reflected in their GPA). Athletic scholarships are another merit-based scholarship for high school students who participate and excel in high school sports activities. 

Many other categories exist and you may fit multiple categories, which can improve your chances of obtaining aid. Specifying if you want partial benefits (half or full tuition without living expenses) or full benefits (full tuition with living expenses) can further narrow down your options.

Vet Scholarships Thoroughly

Vetting scholarships ensures you don’t waste time applying for scholarships you aren’t the right fit for. The idea here is to minimize the chances of getting rejected. How do you go about this? Visit the official scholarship website and thoroughly read through the scholarship requirements, guidelines, and process to ensure you qualify for it. 

Part of the vetting process is ensuring the scholarship is legit to avoid falling for a scam. No scholarship award should require any financial obligation on your part. As a rule of thumb, any scholarship that requires you to spend money during the application phase is usually a scam. 

Start Early

Although deadlines vary by scholarship, you should start your scholarship search and subsequent applications as early as possible. Starting early can benefit you in many ways. It offers ample time to adequately prepare and assemble the required documents, especially for scholarships requiring several documents. 

For example, some scholarships may require your school to send a hard copy of your transcript through the mail, which can take a few days or up to a week, depending on your location. Starting early can also help you craft a catchy scholarship essay. Additionally, you have more scholarship opportunities to apply for, increasing your chances of winning more scholarship money. Furthermore, some scholarships can run out of funds, so submitting early can prevent you from losing aid money due to depleted funds on the part of the organizers. 

Make Your Application Stand Out

Whether merit-based or need-based, college scholarships can be very competitive, and only the best candidates are awarded after a rigorous selection process. To be selected, your application needs to stand out. But how do you make your application stand out? Many factors can go into submitting a great application. However, for most scholarship categories, your essay can be a significant component.

How do you get your essay right? Well, before you start writing, try to define your long-term career and academic goals, identify how the scholarship will help you realize them, and connect them with your personal story. That way, it becomes easier to answer the question: What makes you the best candidate for this scholarship? That said, your essay should reflect your personality and ambition while strictly adhering to the word count. 

Letters of recommendation can also be important. Ensure they come from adults who know you directly and can speak favorably of you, preferably a teacher or coach. Avoid sending more letters of recommendation than required, though. 

An outstanding application with a compelling essay, a great recommendation letter, and excellent academic qualifications can differentiate you from other candidates, increasing your chances of standing out to the scholarship organizers. 

Have Your Application Reviewed by Someone Else

Regardless of your academic excellence or meticulousness, you can make mistakes in your application that may not be obvious to you, which a third party can spot. If you can get someone who has won the scholarship before to review it, the better. However, parents, teachers, and school counselors can serve this purpose. Different opinions and points of view will help you fine-tune your application before submission.

Learn More About Scholarships at

A college scholarship can be a great way to minimize or completely offset the cost of a college education; however, finding and securing the right scholarship can be challenging. That’s where can help. We offer relevant resources and information on finding college scholarships so you can spend more time applying and less time searching.