I have had at least one scholarship through most of my post-secondary education. Am I academically gifted or otherwise special? No.

But I know how to apply for scholarships.

I know what scholarships to apply for and what scholarships to leave behind. This understanding of how to apply for scholarships has been an essential part of paying for my education. From merit-based scholarships to departmental scholarships, I have taken advantage of every available opportunity to lower my tuition bill.

I’m not alone.

Students all over the country use scholarships to help pay for college. None of us are intrinsically better than other students.

Students who apply for scholarships

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Students who apply for scholarships understand what this free student aid can do. Scholarships are a free source of funding to pay for college, and they’re an excellent way to reduce your student debt. Here’s what you need to know:

Scholarship Basics

Scholarships are a great way to lower the cost of college, but many students don’t know how to apply for scholarships. There are different types of scholarships, and you don’t have to limit yourself to just one scholarship.

graduation cap and money

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If you win multiple scholarships, that will help you maximize the amount of money you can save on college.

Scholarships are one type of student financial aid along with:



Work Study Position

What a Scholarship Is?

A scholarship is a type of financial aid for students. Unlike student loans, scholarships don’t need to be repaid.  You can apply for and receive scholarships for having good grades, for participating in sports, or for weird traits like left-handedness.

Costs you can, and can’t, cover with scholarships

As a college student, tuition is just one type of expense you will have. You will also have to pay for housing, food, student fees, and personal costs. Some scholarships will only cover your tuition, but there are plenty of scholarships that allow you to use the award for other expenses. When you apply for a scholarship, you should figure out if you can use it for costs other than tuition.

But I have other financial aid

Here’s the kicker: Outside scholarships can affect any need-based aid you receive from your college or university. You should report any outside scholarships to your school so they can adjust the amount of aid they will offer to you.


modern college campus

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If the total amount of aid you receive exceeds your total need by more than $300, your school is required to reduce the amount of need-based aid they give you. Merit-based aid shouldn’t be affected by outside scholarships.

Scholarships are Important

Scholarships decrease the amount of money you have to pay for college. In a country where student debt tops $1 trillion, you want to get as much free money as you can.

Knowing how to apply for scholarships is key to minimizing student debt later on. Student loans are an option, but the debt you incur from such loans can be crippling. It’s nearly impossible for student loans to be discharged, even if you file for bankruptcy.

While student loans are often necessary, the more scholarships you receive, the fewer loans you will have to take out to pay for college.


Scholarship information in the US

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Scholarships, grants, and similar awards are considered free money. Federal and private student loans are considered borrowed money. Students can also earn money through part-time jobs and work-study programs.

The More You Know

Some students simply don’t know how to apply for scholarships. Schools might make the scholarships page hard to find, or the application might be long and tedious. In addition, there are a few common misconceptions about scholarships that keep students from applying.

One common myth is that scholarships are only for freshmen. Applying for scholarships is an essential part of the entire college application process. Once you start college, however, you can still apply for scholarships. You need an outstanding GPA to receive a scholarship. There are plenty of scholarships that don’t require an immaculate GPA.

Another misconception is that scholarships are for specific types of students. Everyone knows about merit scholarships for that student with perfect grades. There are also plenty of sports scholarships, too. Finally, many incoming graduate students think that scholarships are only for undergraduates.

While not as common for graduate students, graduate scholarships do exist. They can be a great way to further your education for less money.

There are many scholarships available just for being you. You can find scholarships for women, minorities, former Girl and Boy Scouts, and more.

Scholarship Benefits

There are many ways you can benefit from scholarships aside from financially. Scholarships can make some out of reach schools more realistic, and they can even encourage you to get involved on campus.

If you know how to apply for scholarships, you are one step closer to reaping the benefits of the best form of financial aid.

Free Money

We can’t stress enough how important free money is for college. Loans are a popular option, but you’re on the hook to pay them back. Commit this to memory:

Scholarships don’t require repayment. So, they’re the best way to make college more affordable. You don’t have to get a full ride scholarship. Even a small award can do wonders for your tuition bill.

Student Loan Stats

About 40 percent of adults under 30 years old have student loan debt. Scholarships are a great way to pay for college without the stress of having to pay that money back.

More Schools to Choose From

If you feel like you’re stuck with choosing from schools in your home state, scholarships can open you up to many other schools.

Here’s the deal:

Scholarships can help you pay for private schools and public schools in other states. Most public schools charge non-resident students higher tuition, but scholarships can bridge the gap and can even make those out of state schools more affordable than schools in your own state.

large school

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Some states even have reciprocal agreements to make college more affordable for students in surrounding states. While they aren’t scholarships per se, they offer free money to pay for different schools. However, in some cases, you do have to maintain a certain GPA to keep your discount.

In the case of private universities, these schools know that tuition is high. They can use a generous scholarship to try and recruit you to their campus. Don’t focus too heavily on a school’s tuition and fees because there are ways to lower that number.

New Experiences

Some scholarships encourage you to get involved on your college campus. If you get an athletic or performing arts scholarship, you will most likely have to participate in a sport or performance group.


college campus

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Regardless of your major, these scholarships can provide you with plenty of opportunities that you wouldn’t have otherwise. Other scholarships take the form of research grants.

Once you choose a field of study, you can create a research project and apply for funding through your school. Many research awards allow you to use the funding for anything related to the project from materials to travel costs.

Types of Scholarships

You’ve probably heard of merit-based scholarships, but you don’t need an excellent GPA to qualify for a scholarship. Other types of scholarships include athletic scholarships, departmental scholarships, and weird scholarships.

Types of Scholarships

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If you know how to apply for scholarships of one variety, you can transfer that knowledge to any others.

Some scholarships might not even require an application. Consider different types of scholarships because every bit of money helps. You also might find scholarships that are surprisingly easy to apply for. The more scholarship applications you submit, the better your odds are of receiving one.

Let’s break it down:


Scholarship Facts

Scholarships aren’t just for first-year students. Upperclassmen and even graduate students can apply for scholarships.

Merit-based Scholarships

Merit-based scholarships are the easiest to understand because they’re the most common. If you have a great GPA, odds are you will be offered one or more merit-based scholarships. These scholarships are usually offered by individual schools, though some private organizations might stipulate minimum GPA requirements.

Some merit-based scholarships are smaller while others cover a decent part of your college costs. The amount varies between schools and organizations. But don’t forget about smaller scholarships, they can add up over time.

Merit-based scholarship form

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Departmental Scholarships

If you know what you want to study in college, then you can apply for a departmental scholarship.These scholarships are awarded by a specific department or school within a university. They’re often related to the work you do as a student for that department. Some common departmental scholarships include fine arts scholarships and research awards. Of course, you also have to know what school or schools you want to attend. Different schools have their own scholarship programs, and funding will vary.

Scholarship Myth

Some students believe that they don’t qualify for scholarships if their parents make too much money. Luckily, this is FALSE

Athletic Scholarships

After merit-based scholarships, athletic scholarships are probably the most well-known type of award. If you plan to participate in a sport during your college years, you might be offered an athletic scholarship. Athletic scholarships apply to almost any sport, from football to soccer, and even marching band. An athletic scholarship is a great way to save money and get to know other students.

But there are even more options:

soccer varsity students

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Location or Residence Based Scholarships

Many schools want to recruit students from all over the country if not the world. Some of these schools even go so far as to offer scholarships to students from certain areas. If your state is under-represented at a school you’re interested in, ask about a potential scholarship.

a group of students

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Some scholarship websites also have scholarships for students from specific states. Many websites allow you to filter scholarship results by location, so you can find an award that’s perfectly suited to where you live.

Military Scholarships

If you or a family member has served in the military, you probably qualify for a military scholarship. You can apply for military scholarships through a school directly or through a scholarship database.

military man carrying books

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Like other types of scholarships, the award amount varies, and you can apply for multiple awards.

Weird Scholarships

There are scholarships for some weird things. You can apply for a scholarship by writing an essay on a zombie apocalypse or by making a prom dress out of duct tape. Some scholarships are specific to left-handed students, and others are for students who love gaming.

person resting his arm on books

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No matter your interests or traits, there’s probably a scholarship that’s perfect for you. If you did a lot of community service in high school, it could help you find a scholarship as well. Think about your hobbies and interests, and search for relevant scholarships.



  • Merit-based scholarships
  • Departmental scholarships
  • Athletic scholarships
  • Location or residence based scholarships
  • Military scholarships
  • Weird scholarships

How to Find Scholarships

Scholarships might seem like they’re hard to find, but you can find a ton if you know just where to look. You can look anywhere from your university’s website to professional organizations to Google. Once you find scholarships, you can use these online resources to figure out how to apply for scholarships.

You can also ask family, friends, and teachers if they know of any scholarships. If a parent or teacher does know of a scholarship for you, they can point you in the right direction.

students smiling on the teacher

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Who Should Apply for Scholarships?

You should! Every current and future college student should apply for scholarships. It doesn’t matter what school you’re attending, what field you want to study, or where you’re from. You can go to the cheapest public university in the next town over, and you can still benefit from scholarships.

man studying his lesson

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Even if you don’t think you’ll win a particular scholarship, you never know. There are scholarships for everything, so you can find something relevant. Some scholarships are more competitive than others, however, don’t let the competition keep you from applying.

When to Search for Scholarships

Like all other aspects of planning for college, there is a basic timeline you can follow when searching for and applying for scholarships. However, if you’ve missed one of these “deadlines,” that doesn’t mean you’re too late. The search for scholarships only ends when your education ends.

Infographic on when to search for scholarship

Your University

Once you decide where to apply for college, check out the website of every school on your list. Search for any scholarships that the university offers and figure out how to apply for scholarships at each school. Your university might offer merit-based, athletic, departmental, and military scholarships. Some schools will have different forms to fill out while some scholarships may be automatic.

Don’t be afraid to contact a school’s financial aid office if you have questions about how to apply for scholarships at that school.

school financial aid office

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Professional Organizations

One of the best ways to find scholarships is through a professional organization. If you know what field of study you want to pursue, become a student member of an organization in that field. Some professional organizations offer different scholarships or even research grants for students.

large scholarship application office

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If possible, consider joining multiple organizations. Different organizations will have their own scholarships. You probably won’t qualify for every scholarship at one organization. Joining various organizations will give you the ability to apply for different scholarships. Also, each organization can show you how to apply for the scholarships that they offer.

Scholarship Websites

This one might be controversial, because how can you trust a random website on the internet? While there are some scams out there, there are plenty of legitimate scholarship databases where you can search for different types of scholarships.

Many of these websites have you complete a profile with your name, contact information, demographics, major, and school level. Then the database will then match you with potential scholarships. Here are a few tried and true scholarship websites:

Scholarship Search

Sign up for as many scholarship websites as you can to maximize scholarship opportunities and chances of winning.


Fastweb is a great place to find information on paying for school. They can match you to different scholarships based on your profile. They also let you search for part-time jobs and learn about financial aid in general. Fastweb is completely free to use, and it only takes a few minutes to complete your profile.

Fastweb logo


Niche is similar to Fastweb, but it has a few unique features. In addition to scholarship matching, you can search for scholarships based on your state or major or how easy it is to apply. Niche also offers their own $2,000 No Essay Scholarship, but you do have to have an account to apply. Just create an account and click apply.

niche logo


With Unigo, you can create a profile to find scholarships that match you and your interests. You can also search for scholarships based on your state, major, or grade level. Unigo also has tons of information on how to save money as a student including a list of stores that offer student discounts.

UNIGO logo

Course Hero

Course Hero is a great place to find scholarships and connect with other students. You can apply for as many scholarships as you like, and you can use their study resources and tutoring services. If you’re knowledgeable about a certain subject, you can even share your own resources and tutor other students.

Course Hero logowarning

Scam Warning!

If you have to pay to apply for or receive a scholarship, it’s probably a scam!

How to Avoid Scholarship Scams

While there are many great places to search for scholarships, there are also plenty of scams out there. Most legitimate scholarship websites are free and not guaranteed. Some common scholarship scams will charge you a fee to apply, or they will charge you a fee to receive your “winnings.” These scams cost the public thousands of dollars each year, so remember this:

When in doubt, get out.

Being able to spot a scholarship scam is an underrated step in knowing how to apply for scholarships.

How to Apply for Scholarships

scholarship application paper

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How to Apply for Scholarships Through Your University

The scholarship application process varies from school to school, so you should check with any schools you’re interested in about their process. Some schools allow you to apply for scholarships as soon as you submit your application for admission.

writing a scholarship application

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Other schools require you to wait until you receive an acceptance letter. You can usually apply for these scholarships through your student portal or by filling out a form in person or online.

How to Apply for Scholarships Through a Professional Organization

Professional organizations work similarly to universities, and their scholarship application process will vary. Some organizations might allow you to apply online while others might require a paper form or even a letter of recommendation.

person pointing on the table

Image via loverealty

Like universities, start with the organization’s website to see if they have information on the scholarship application, and feel free to contact someone if you have any questions.


Financial Aid Fact

The average student loan borrower owes $34,000. Scholarships bring down the amount of debt you have to take out as a student.

How to Apply for Scholarships Online?

There are many different scholarship websites, so you shouldn’t limit yourself to just one. Since many legitimate websites are free, you can create as many accounts as you choose. The more scholarship websites you sign up for, the more scholarships you can apply for. The more scholarships you apply for, the better your odds are of winning a scholarship.

scholarship infographic

How to Get Scholarships

While it’s important to know how to apply for scholarships, you want to make sure your applications stand out so that you get scholarships. Applying for scholarships is much easier than getting or winning them, but there are things you can do to increase your chances of getting one or more scholarships.

scholarship and arrow

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If you know how to apply for scholarships the right way, then you’re well on your way to getting the scholarship.

Follow these tips:?

1. Apply to many scholarships

There’s no foolproof way to get a scholarship, but applying to multiple scholarships will give you better odds than applying to one scholarship. It will also increase your odds of getting at least one of them. Because some scholarships are easy to apply for, it doesn’t take much time to apply for multiple scholarships in one sitting.

person typing on a laptop

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2. Apply for smaller awards

Many of the larger scholarships are extremely competitive because tons of students apply. What student doesn’t want a four or five-figure scholarship? But you shouldn’t neglect smaller scholarships and awards. There are plenty of scholarships for less than $1,000 each, but they don’t get many applications.

Students think the small awards aren’t worth the time it takes to apply but look at it another way. If your application takes one hour and you win a $100 scholarship, you just earned $100 in an hour. Because fewer students apply to smaller scholarships, that means you will have a better chance or winning one.


Image via studenttorget

Scholarship Myth

Small scholarships aren’t worth it. Smaller scholarships are a great way to fund your education due to less competition.

3. Take your time

It can be tempting to rush through your scholarship applications but don’t. Take your time and verify that all of your information is correct. Ensure you fulfill the application requirements. Make sure any essay you write fits the prompt. A few extra minutes could result in an additional scholarship.

yellow green alarm clock

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Make Your Essays Work for You

If you have two scholarship applications with similar essay requirements, don’t write two separate essays. You can write one essay and then tweak it for the second application. Similarly, if you’re auditioning for a performance scholarship, use the same monologue or the same piece of music.

Just make sure it fills the requirements for different scholarships.

never give up giphy

You might not get any scholarships during your first round of applications, but don’t give up. Some scholarships get tons of applications, and many winners are lucky. Scholarship websites attract many college students, so those scholarships can be especially cutthroat.

Set a goal of one scholarship application per day or week. Make it manageable, and work it into your schedule.

If you don’t apply to scholarships, the answer will always be no.

So give yourself another chance, because you never know what might happen.

Just ask

Want an easy way to get a scholarship? Ask around at your school or department. I asked my advisor about potential scholarships, and they nominated me for a generous award that I received.

All I had to do was say I was interested, and the school took it from there. I didn’t have any applications or forms to fill out. So just ask, because there might be free money waiting for you to claim.

Scholarship TruthGive scholarships just as much thought as colleges. You want to give your applications your all, and you don’t want to spread yourself too thin.


How to Write a Scholarship Essay

Many scholarships applications require an essay. An essential part of understanding how to apply for scholarships is completing all of the components of an application.

Essays are no exception.

Scholarship essays can be quite different from academic essays. Many scholarship essays are personal or very short. Plus, you don’t have to do a ton of research for them. Make sure you follow these tips to make your scholarship essay the best it can be.

Understand the directions

Some scholarship essays have vague prompts. They might want you to talk about yourself or why you want to go to college. Other scholarship essays have specific prompts like what you would do in a certain situation.

Another important part of a scholarship essay is the word count. Some essays may be short, and others might be long. Before you even start writing your scholarship essay, know what’s expected of you. Understand the prompt, word count, and other directions.

Scholarship Essay Tip

One of the worst reasons to lose a scholarship is because you couldn’t follow simple directions.

Don’t be Generic

While you can, and should, use the same essay when possible, make it unique. Tailor your scholarship essay to that specific application. Change the style, word count, or format to fit a particular application. A generic scholarship essay can seem forced, and scholarship committees want to know more about you.

Why do you want the scholarship? Why should they give it to you instead of John or Jane Doe?

A generic essay can come off as impersonal and lazy. If you do choose to use one essay for multiple applications, be sure you change it for each scholarship.


Image via theodysseyonline

Show Your Personality

Some prompts are super fun, like what you would do for a zombie apocalypse. That is the perfect time to show a bit of your personality. If you have a more serious prompt like a trying time in your life, share how that event made you the person you are today. Scholarship essays aren’t the same as academic essays. You can be a little more free and personable.

Scholarship Essay Fact

Scholarship essays should be fun and personal, not rigid like academic essays. This is your time to shine and show your true self.

Don’t Rush Through it

Make sure your essay fits all of the requirements including word count and style. Have a friend or family member read it over for clarity. Check your essay for grammar and spelling mistakes. Don’t just write your essay and hit submit on the application. The extra time spent perfecting your essay will be well worth it.

Scholarship Essay Do’s

  • Follow the directions
  • Be yourself
  • Spend time on your essay

Scholarship Essay Don’t’s

  • Rush through it
  • Write whatever you want
  • Be generic

How to Collect Scholarship Earnings

Once you win a scholarship, you have to figure out how to collect those earnings. The method of payment will depend on the scholarship you earn and where that scholarship money comes from.

There are two common ways that scholarship funds pay you:

Your University

If you get a scholarship through your university, odds are they will pay the award directly to your student account. Some outside scholarships will also pay your school directly, especially if the scholarship only covers tuition. That will decrease the amount you owe the school.

student walking in campus

Image via timeshighereducation

If you’ve already paid your tuition, then they will probably contact you to determine how to reimburse you for the award. The same is true if the award exceeds your current balance.

A Check Made to You

Another popular way that you can receive your scholarship winnings is in the form of a check. If you win an outside scholarship, you might get a check from the company or organization. You can then deposit that check into your bank account and use it as you see fit. Therefore, you can use the money from the check to pay for tuition, books, housing, or other related expenses.

Here’s the bottom line:

College Doesn’t Have to Cost an Arm and a Leg

The cost of college has been rising steadily for decades. More students are taking on more debt to afford their education. The problem with loans is they stay with you after graduation. You have to pay loans back. Scholarships, on the other hand, don’t require you to pay them back. If you get a scholarship, that is free money.

teacher teaching students outside the classroom

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While everyone knows about merit-based scholarships, you don’t need an excellent GPA to get free money. There are scholarships for just about everything from athletic scholarships to military scholarships to zombie apocalypse scholarships.

You can find scholarships from a variety of sources including universities, professional organizations, and the internet. Be wary of the internet though. There are many scholarship scams, but also many legitimate scholarships. Once you find a few scholarships, you need to figure out how to apply for scholarships.

But relax:

Some applications are easy, and you can complete them with one click. Other applications require an essay or a letter of recommendation. And here’s the thing: No matter what scholarships you apply for, you want to do your best on an application. Take your time. Have someone proofread your essay. Understand that scholarship applications differ between schools and organizations. Know how to apply for scholarships at these institutions. Finally, don’t limit yourself to one scholarship or one source of scholarships.

You can apply for scholarships. You can make college more affordable. 

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