The Ultimate College Scholarship Guide

Written by: Kristyn Pilgrim
Updated: 7/20/20

While college students rely on many kinds of financial assistance, scholarships are, by far, the most desirable form of aid. With plenty of prestige and no repayment required, they’re the ideal way to finance your education. 

As tuition costs rise at alarming rates, scholarships seem more appealing than ever. Thankfully, there are many options out there, with scholarships tailored to students with varied interests and experiences.

As you’re probably aware, however, the scholarship search can be an intimidating process. It can be difficult to know how to compete for this funding, from identifying opportunities to completing the necessary paperwork. Then there’s the competition with other candidates: How can you make your application stand out?

Plus, the staggering number of scholarships available is both a blessing and a curse. How can you tell which ones to compete for, and which probably won’t work out? You don’t want to focus on long shots and overlook options you’re more likely to be awarded.

That’s why we’ve created this ultimate guide, covering the kinds of scholarships you need to know about and the best ways to find and apply for them. We’ll introduce you to the types of scholarships that should be on your radar, and share tips for getting an edge over other applicants. 

Ready to read up on all your scholarship options? By the time you’re done with this guide, you’ll have a ton of new options. 

Scholarships and Grants: Understanding Your Aid

When it comes to discussing college financial aid, the jargon can sometimes get complicated. With plenty of acronyms and technical terms to keep in mind, mastering the language of financial aid is an important step in evaluating your options. 

One key distinction is the difference between scholarships and grants, two similar but separate forms of assistance. Although these terms are sometimes used interchangeably, they typically describe somewhat different types of aid with contrasting eligibility criteria.

The good news is that both scholarships and grants don’t need to be repaid: They’re gifts intended to advance your education. Here’s a brief explanation of both so that you can assess your eligibility for each type of funding. 

  • Grants are usually awarded based on need. If a student meets the funder’s established criteria, the funding is generally provided (at least until that funding is exhausted). 

For example, the most commonly issued federal grant is the Pell Grant, which millions of college students receive annually. To qualify for a Pell Grant, you must demonstrate financial need and maintain enrollment in college with passing grades. There are some other minimum requirements, but as long as you meet them, you’re entitled to Pell Grant money as long as funding lasts. 

  • Scholarships are generally awarded based on merit. To earn them, you must demonstrate that you are deserving of the financial award, often competing against other potential recipients. 

Many scholarships are oriented toward students with specific educational goals or outstanding abilities. Additionally, many scholarships are intended for students who belong to certain cultural communities or meet specific demographic criteria to address long-standing inequalities in higher education. 

In awarding scholarships, funders may consider your financial need to do the most good with the money at their disposal. But just because you meet their criteria and demonstrate your need doesn’t mean you’ll receive any money. Scholarships are a competitive process, and funders have significant discretion in selecting recipients.

Grants and scholarships can differ vastly in size, ranging from a few thousand dollars to all-costs-covered full rides. Accordingly, many students utilize a mix of grant and scholarship money to finance their studies. Because these types of aid usually don’t cover all the costs of being a college student, plenty of recipients take out student loans.

Although the information provided throughout this guide applies primarily to scholarships, much of the advice we’ll offer will also help obtain grants. For example, in the section on finding college scholarships, we’ll encourage you to contact your state’s Department of Education to learn about local scholarship options. That same agency can fill you in on state grant opportunities, as well. For even more information on federal grants for college students, check out the U.S. Department of Education’s page.

Types of College Scholarships: Funding Sources

Fortunately, for students across the country, there are plenty of sources of potential scholarship funding. By casting a wide net and thoroughly exploring all alternatives, you’ll be better positioned to receive the aid you need. Here’s a brief overview of the various kinds of scholarship funding available so that you don’t overlook any valuable options.

Scholarships From Your School

As with many aspects of financial aid, colleges have considerable control when it comes to awarding scholarships. Most institutions have some kind of scholarship funding at their disposal, which they can use to attract and support exceptional students. 

These scholarships can range from small gifts to full scholarships and are accompanied by varying degrees of fanfare. Some schools, for example, have endowed scholarships funded by wealthy donors, which they lavish on their most impressive applicants. Many of these awards reflect some aspect of the institution’s mission or support students whose interests align with the passions of deep-pocketed alumni. 

Of course, the availability of these scholarships depends on each institution’s financial circumstances: Private universities with massive endowments can afford to be quite generous. Typically, schools let you know if you’ve received scholarship funding in the financial aid letter that accompanies your acceptance letter.

Scholarships From Your State Government

State governments frequently offer several forms of scholarship funding, often administered in conjunction with their public institutions of higher learning. In many states, residents can attend public community colleges tuition-free, thanks to recently established scholarship programs

For example, in Florida, the Bright Futures program is tied to academic performance in high school, with awards tied to GPAs and standardized test scores. In New York, by contrast, the Excelsior Scholarship program has no academic requirements (other than earning admission to participating public colleges and demonstrating need). 

In many instances, these scholarship programs are designed to convince high-achieving students to stay local or recruit great students from other states. So, if you intend to attend college far from home, your state probably won’t pay for you to go elsewhere. 

Scholarships From Federal Government Agencies

The federal government provides billions of dollars in financial aid to college students each year, mostly in the form of loans and grants administered by the U.S. Department of Education. But some other federal agencies also offer scholarships to support students whose interests align with their missions.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), for example, offers the Ernest F. Hollings Undergraduate Scholarship to undergraduates with interest in climate science. The U.S. Department of State funds the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship for students hoping to study abroad. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) administers an Undergraduate Scholarship Program for outstanding aspiring scientists with “exceptional financial needs.” There are several other programs of this nature, so it’s worth seeing if any reflects your academic interests. 

Scholarships From Nonprofit Organizations

Many charitable organizations are passionately committed to expanding college access for students from certain communities, especially those who have historically faced barriers in higher education. Notable examples of such funders include the Hispanic Scholarship Fund, the Association on American Indian Affairs, and the Ron Brown Scholar Program for African American students. Depending on your background, you may find several organizations eager to support students with your heritage and experiences.

It’s important to note that not all such programs serve students based on ethnic or cultural identity. If your family has faced financial hardship, or you’re a first-generation college student, you might be eligible for exciting opportunities on these grounds, as well. In other instances, sheer ability is the only criterion: The Davidson Institute, for example, is dedicated to supporting “profoundly gifted” students.

Scholarships From Corporate Funders

Many of the world’s most recognizable companies sponsor college scholarships, including Coca-Cola and Siemens. These awards are widely seen as prestigious honors, with intense national (and even international) competitions for a limited number of generous scholarships.

Other companies focus on supporting specific communities or even their employees. McDonald’s, for example, funds scholarships for students at historically black colleges and universities and offers tuition assistance to its workers. Starbucks offers a uniquely appealing program, covering 100% of employees’ tuition for Arizona State University’s online programs. If you’re employed currently by a large company, look into whether they might offer you any scholarship assistance.

Types of College Scholarships: Purposes and Criteria

In addition to coming from various kinds of funders, scholarships also differ in their eligibility criteria and educational emphases. Accordingly, as you evaluate your scholarship options, it’s important to consider which opportunities to pursue. 

Are you more likely to stand out because of your background or professional aspirations? Would a specific kind of competition or selection process suit your skills? Below, we’ll cover the specific kinds of scholarships out there, allowing you to pursue opportunities that showcase your best qualities. 

Scholarships for Specific Careers and Subjects

Scholarships are intended to fund students’ academic aspirations, so many are designed for individuals with particular educational or professional interests. If you have a clear vision of your college goals and your career, it’s worth considering a scholarship aligned with those ambitions.

You might be surprised by the range of scholarships associated with certain fields of study. Here are just a few articles we’ve written on scholarships available for those pursuing specific subjects:

For those with a bachelor’s degree, there are many scholarships available for graduate or professional studies, as well. Check out the articles below for more information on each of the following options:

Scholarships for Students With Specific Backgrounds

Many scholarships are designed to aid students who belong to particular communities or demographic groups. In most cases, these awards are oriented toward groups that have been historically underrepresented in higher education due to discrimination, systemic inequalities, or socioeconomic hardship. 

Some of these scholarships serve students with very specific cultural identities, but that isn’t always the case. For example, there are multiple scholarship opportunities available to female college students, although they vary in their amounts and qualifying criteria. In short, there’s no harm in exploring whether you qualify for such scholarships, even if you are privileged in certain respects.  

Scholarships for Residents of Specific Places

As we mentioned earlier, states often offer scholarships to current residents or students who plan to attend institutions within their borders. Additionally, some city and county governments may offer scholarship funding for local students with promise. 

These scholarships are not awarded based on location alone: Students are selected because of their accomplishments, as well. But because these scholarships are intended to support specific areas and communities, the pool of potential applicants tends to be somewhat smaller than national competitions.

Scholarships for Student-Athletes

As collegiate sports fans are well aware, athletic scholarships are a vital form of financial aid for tens of thousands of student-athletes. In fact, colleges across the country provide $2.9 billion in athletic scholarships each year, and these awards typically cover tuition, room and board, and other costs and fees. 

Obviously, there is considerable competition for these scholarships, and they’re typically contingent on a student’s participation and performance in their chosen sport, as well as certain academic standards. Plus, these scholarships are tightly regulated by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). Generally speaking, these scholarships are arranged with college coaches, and recruitment protocols differ somewhat by sport. If you’re a top-level high school athlete, it might be smart to raise the subject of an athletic scholarship with your current coaches and college advisers.

Scholarships Based on Contests

In many cases, scholarships are awarded primarily or entirely based on a candidate’s submission to a contest. Some of these are creative competitions, so they’re ideal for students with a knack for artistic expression. For example, some scholarship contests reward skill in creative writing or journalism, as evidenced by an essay, a piece of fiction, or a work portfolio. 

Others involve essays focused on subjects related to the mission of the sponsoring organization. These are also great opportunities to showcase your writing skill, but you’ll need to prioritize alignment with the prompt over your creative expression.

Scholarships Based on Other Criteria – or Random Chance

Amid the stress of applying for and affording college, some scholarships elect to keep things quirky. There are options out there for tall folks, vegetarians, and diehard fans of “Star Trek.” The more you explore options that seem wacky, the more likely you are to find one that works for you.

Additionally, there are many scholarships awarded based on chance, rather than merit or other distinguishing criteria. These scholarships usually require you to submit a brief application to put yourself in the running, but winners are selected at random. 

Finding College Scholarships: Searching Strategies

Now that you know just how many kinds of scholarships are available, the next step is finding ones for which you may be eligible. This stage of the process is crucially important because you don’t want to overlook any excellent opportunities. 

Clearly, you’ll be doing some Googling to identify possibilities, and it’s a good idea to cast a wide net at first. But that approach can consume unnecessary time, and you may not immediately find the most viable options. 

Moreover, several scholarship scams online are eager to take your money and information without providing real assistance. To avoid these pitfalls and maximize your efforts, seek help from the sources below.

Colleges’ Financial Aid Offices

As you apply to various colleges, you’ll need to follow their directions to receive their consideration for school-administered scholarships. Some institutions require separate applications for specific awards, whereas others automatically consider applicants for available scholarship funding. 

In most cases, the details of the process will be described in schools’ application forms or on their websites. But it never hurts to contact the financial aid offices for the schools to which you’re applying. Inquiring will demonstrate your interest, and you may learn about aid opportunities you hadn’t previously considered. At the very least, you’ll be able to confirm that you’ve completed the requirements for scholarships at each school.

Your College Guidance Counselor

If you’re currently in high school, your college guidance counselor could be an excellent resource for learning about specific scholarship opportunities. They’ve likely seen former students successfully receive funding and might be able to steer you in a similar direction. Moreover, they can advocate on your behalf with the schools to which you’re applying, especially if scholarship money figures prominently in your decision about which college to attend. 

Scholarship Search Tools

There are a ton of scholarship search tools online, as you may have already discovered. But some are superior to others, with more extensive and accurate listings and helpful tools to refine your queries. 

We recommend this scholarship search site, operated by CareerOneStop, a program sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor. It’s extensive and unbiased, with a lot of tools to sort and limit your results. You can search by keyword, geographic location, area of study, and so many other filters, saving you valuable time and energy. 

Your State’s Department of Education

In virtually every state, the Department of Education (or a similar government agency) maintains a comprehensive online list of the scholarships and grants that it administers for eligible college students. This list generally includes helpful information related to eligibility and application requirements, as well as key deadlines and other criteria. 

To find this page in your state, try searching for the name of your state plus “college scholarships” and look for sites that end in “.gov.”

Nonprofit Organizations

Many nonprofit organizations specialize in helping aspiring students access financial aid, with a particular focus on assisting them in finding and securing scholarships. These programs can be especially helpful if your high school does not have a strong college advising program, steering you toward opportunities you might have overlooked. 

Generally, these organizations serve students from disadvantaged backgrounds, with an emphasis on assisting high schoolers who might not otherwise attend college at all. If you belong to one of these target groups, you might be eligible for mentoring, application assistance, and a ton of support in your scholarship search.

Applying for College Scholarships: Optimizing Your Odds

Once you’ve identified scholarships you might like to pursue, it’s time to begin applications in earnest. The amount of effort required will vary from case to case, but here are some basic tips for using your time wisely and putting your best foot forward.

Complete the FAFSA

This step is a no-brainer: The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), a standardized federal form used by virtually all colleges, is your key to accessing any assistance with the costs of college. Without completing it, you won’t be able to receive any federal student loans or grants, and you’ll probably be excluded from scholarship consideration, as well. You may need some financial information from your parents, so be sure to schedule some time with them in advance.

Moreover, get your FAFSA done as soon as possible. While deadlines differ by institution and state, it’s usually best to submit your FAFSA in early October for the following school year. You’ll need to submit the FAFSA again for each year you’re in college, although you can update your information easily based on prior submissions. 

Complete the CSS (If Necessary)

In addition to the FAFSA, many colleges ask that students provide financial information via a form called the College Scholarship Search (CSS) Profile. This form, developed by the College Board company, digs into the nitty-gritty of your family’s financial circumstances, allowing schools to understand your needs better. 

The CSS can feel a bit overwhelming: Your parents will need to provide tax returns, W-2 forms, and other official documents – often for multiple years. If you’re competing for a scholarship in which need and merit are considered, completing the CSS in its entirety could be well worth your time. Also, the form’s typical fee can be waived for low-income students.

Be Strategic and Realistic

There are dozens of college scholarships open to the general public, and you simply won’t have the time to apply for them all. That means you’ll need to be strategic about which you pursue, prioritizing the opportunities most likely to yield results.

For example, many of the most prestigious national scholarships offer awards worth tens of thousands of dollars – and attract thousands of eager candidates as a result. Most of them also require extensive applications, meaning you spend a long time preparing for long-shot odds. 

Your time might be better spent working on several less competitive scholarships, even if they entail smaller awards. If you focus on more modest scholarships with smaller applicant pools (such as those intended for students with specific interests or backgrounds), you may stand a better chance of winning at least some funding. 

On the other hand, some scholarships have such minimal application requirements that there’s really no downside to giving them a try. For a list of scholarships with remarkably easy applications, check out our article on the subject.

Adapt Your Application Essays

Once you identify scholarships for which you’d like to apply, you may discover that several require essay submissions – or at least short answer sections relating to your interests, background, and aspirations. Depending on which scholarships you’re pursuing, you may also realize that the essays and answers they request are somewhat similar. 

There may be an opportunity to save time by repurposing one or two essays for multiple submissions. That means you can focus on doing a smaller amount of excellent writing, rather than dividing your time and effort across multiple essays. On the other hand, don’t stretch a previous essay so much that it’s obvious you didn’t start from scratch. In each case, you’ll need to edit your writing to match the opportunity.

Think Local First

This tip is purely practical: If you focus on scholarships geared toward your geographical area or a specific school, you’ll limit your pool of potential competitors. You’ll still have to beat out other candidates, but you won’t be up against talented individuals from across the country.

Accordingly, it might pay to prioritize local scholarship options above national ones, even if the total award available is somewhat smaller. Thinking local could also give you a particular edge: If you can talk about the scholarship in the context of your neighborhood, city, or school community, you may stand out to funders. 

Follow the Guidelines Exactly

Getting a scholarship is all about standing out – but not for the wrong reasons. If you flaunt the rules of the application process, you’ll probably make a distinctly negative impression. 

Some applicants assume that bending the rules will serve them well. For example, some students figure that going over the specified word count demonstrates extra effort or that including unsolicited information will distinguish their applications. 

Unfortunately, these choices are more likely to irk reviewers who think long and hard about their application rules. Provide the best possible version of exactly what each application asks for, rather than going rogue in an attempt to impress.

Proofread Precisely

Application reviewers see a ton of strong submissions from talented, deserving students. Ultimately, they need to find reasons to turn some applicants down, distinguishing the very best from the merely outstanding. 

If your application or essay includes obvious typos or grammatical errors, you might just give them a reason to move your application to the reject pile, even if you’re an immaculately qualified candidate. Don’t let silly oversights diminish your chances. Proofread carefully and even consider asking a friend or family member to look over your work.

Affording Your Education: Persistence and Possibility

We hope this guide offers tangible tips to help you identify and obtain college scholarships. But perhaps more importantly, we hope this resource has also provided several reasons for optimism about affording your education

At first, the soaring costs of college can seem daunting or depressing. But thanks to the wide array of scholarships and grants available, you have many opportunities to reduce the price tag attached to your chosen school. Obtaining funding won’t necessarily be easy, as millions of fellow students seek financial aid each year. But the biggest mistake would be to overlook scholarships altogether or assume they’re out of reach. 

Moreover, too many students see scholarships in all-or-nothing terms. Few people get full rides, but many receive some form of scholarship funding. Accordingly, scholarships should be seen as just one dimension of financial aid, which can be combined with other kinds of assistance. If you take this multifaceted view, more possibilities emerge for making ends meet.

That’s where can help, giving you the guidance you need to approach college costs strategically. Our guides and articles explain all kinds of topics related to financial aid in straightforward terms, empowering you to make great decisions. From scholarships to student loans, we’ll show you the smartest ways to make school a reality – and help you save some money in the long run.