How to get scholarships for college may be more difficult than you think. Looking for college scholarship opportunities can be overwhelming. There are millions of scholarships out there, but only so many hours in a day. In order to maximize your total scholarship money, a very intentional plan must be put in place.

Just like in the game of chess, you must first know the rules of the game. Then, after you know the rules, you must play the game well within those rules.

With scholarships, it isn’t any different. A good place to start is to know where most scholarship money comes from. If you look at the chart below, you’ll see that most scholarships for college students come from the universities themselves.

Trends in Student Aid 2022

Knowing the different types of college scholarships will help you prioritize your efforts during the college planning process and determine when to start looking into each type of college scholarship. Knowing how to prioritize your scholarship providers and when to do the research will give you the best chance of maximizing the number of scholarships you receive.

Since most money for college comes from individual universities, it is important to pick universities that really want you to attend. Picking the school that want you the most is the biggest factor in reducing the cost of college. I hate to break this to my readers, but prestigious schools usually don’t really want you that badly. Having a 4.7 grade point average and a perfect score on the ACT or SAT with tons of leadership awards is no guarantee you will be pursued by a prestigious university. “Why?” you ask. Because they have hundreds of students just like you pouring in impressive scholarship applications, letters of recommendation, and scholarship essays.

Here is an article to help you weigh prestige with the cost of colleges. In most cases, choosing less debt over college prestige will lead to greater success and happiness in the long run. As a general rule, talented high school students shouldn’t take out student loans greater than their projected first year of pay in the work force.

It can be difficult to locate the school (scholarship provider) that is most interested in you. Therefore, determining which schools you apply to must be done in a very strategic way.

If your goal is to find a great value school and reduce college costs, the first step is to come up with your “Research List,” which should consist of about 25 schools. Then, after going through the process outlined below, you should end up with a list of about 7 to 10 schools to which you plan to apply. In the end, you should select a school that has a great field of study you’re interested in and that really wants you, which can be measured by how much money they give you.

When starting your college search, you shouldn’t automatically confine yourself to your in-state public schools because they may not be the least expensive option with the best available degree program in your area of interest.

University Automatic Scholarships

There are many important factors that go into a college search (i.e., quality of the degree program in which you are interested, location, size, community vibe, etc.), but the cost of college should be one of the biggest. One of the quickest ways to start bringing down the cost of attending a college is to look for colleges with automatic scholarships.

This is especially true if you have a high Expected Financial Contribution – EFC (aka Student Index), which is what the government and universities expect you to pay-out-of-pocket for college. Having a high EFC means you won’t receive many grants (aka Need money) from the government or universities, and most likely you won’t receive any. If you are in this situation, the best way to reduce the cost of college is to find and win scholarships.

When creating your “Research List” of about 25 schools, schools with the field of study in which you are interested and who have generous automatic scholarships should be put on your Research List. So start creating your “Research List” by first looking at schools with automatic scholarships.

Look at Colleges with Automatic Full Ride and Full Tuition scholarships

If you are a high achieving student and are more interested in attending an affordable college as opposed to buying a prestigious brand name, then you should look at universities that offer automatic full rides based on merit.  If any of these colleges have the program in which you are interested, then you should  consider adding it to your “Research List” of colleges.

Look at Colleges with Automatic Merit scholarships

If your true goal is to reduce the cost of college, then one factor that should weigh heavily on your decision is to select universities that offer generous automatic merit scholarships for which you qualify. Most of these academic scholarships are based on GPA and ACT or SAT test scores. These scholarships are a great way to lower the cost of attendance at a particular university before you even apply. Here is a preliminary list of colleges with automatic merit scholarships:

List of universities with automatic and criteria merit-based scholarships

Look at the Colleges participating in state reciprocal tuition programs

A great way to receive an instant out-of-state scholarship is to look for universities participating in state reciprocal tuition programs. This will allow you to consider out-of-state schools that have great degree programs in which you are interested.

Some of the biggest state reciprocal tuition programs include:

  1. The Western Undergraduate Exchange (WUE) program offers reduced tuition rates for students from selected states to attend more than 150 public universities in the western United States.

  2. The New England Regional Student Program (RSP) enables students from particular New England states to attend public universities and colleges in other states, with a discounted rate of tuition.

  3. The Academic Common Market enables students from participating states to attend out-of-state colleges or universities that provide the major they desire and receive tuition rates as if they were a local student.

  4. The Midwest Student Exchange Program (MSEP) enables students from eligible Midwest states to access public colleges and universities in other participating Midwest states at a discounted tuition fee.

It’s important to note that eligibility for these programs can vary and may be based on factors such as academic merit, state residency, and enrollment in specific programs or majors. Students should contact the colleges and universities they are interested in attending for more information on specific eligibility requirements and participating institutions.

Here is a resource to get you started with the list of universities that participate in such programs:

Universities participating in state reciprocal tuition programs


Look at colleges with automatic criteria-based scholarships

Some universities provide scholarships if you meet specific criteria that the school values. A lot of schools provide larger scholarships if you are a National Merit Finalist or Semifinalist. Some schools provide an out-of-state tuition waiver if you meet certain academic criteria. Also, smaller scholarships can be awarded for being a first-generation student, a veteran or child of a veteran, or if you are a legacy student. And some schools provide small scholarships if you are from a specific geographical location.

These types of scholarships should also be considered when determining your “Research List.” Here is a list to get your research started:

List of universities with automatic merit and criteria-based scholarships


Automatic State Scholarships

Now that you have reduced the Cost of Attendance (COA) at many universities by finding automatic scholarships, it is time to see if you can reduce the COA at colleges in your state. Many states have scholarship programs for students who are willing to stay in-state for college. Research the automatic scholarships your state has available and for which you qualify. Then take those amounts to estimate the reduced COA of each university in your state that participates in those programs. Here is a resource that can get you started with this effort:

States with Automatic scholarships


Summary of automatic based scholarships

The reason you want to start your automatic scholarship search first is so you can finalize your “Research List” (a.k.a., Top 25 List). With automatic scholarships, you know immediately if you will receive them, which gives you the ability to know the reduced COA at some universities. You don’t have to wait for a lengthy process like you do with competitive scholarships.

You don’t want to miss out on affordable colleges by not looking into these types of scholarships first. The sooner you can finalize your list of 25, the sooner you can focus on finding the best schools based on criteria other than cost. Keep in mind, research has discovered the amount of debt you take out for college has a much bigger influence on your ability to build wealth than the prestige of the college (brand name). Furthermore, universities with automatic scholarships for which you qualify may have a cost advantage over other options. Therefore, you want to make sure some of these universities make it onto your top 25 list, along with other affordable in-state options.


Competitive scholarships

Now you have a list of about 25 universities, many of which should have a reduced COA due to your automatic scholarship research.

The biggest factor in being able to afford college is picking the right college that really wants you to attend their university. But before you can pick the right college, you have to narrow your list down to an “Apply List” of 7 to 10 universities. And you must apply to about this many because you won’t know the true cost of attendance until you go through the entire application process and apply to all the competitive university scholarships for which you qualify. Therefore, if you apply to too few colleges, you won’t have as many price points from which to choose. If you apply to too many colleges, then you may become overwhelmed with the process and miss opportunities.

So the sooner you can come up with your “Apply List”, the more scholarship hunting you can do at each university and prepare yourself for those competitive scholarships. The competitive analysis you do on the competitive scholarships should be one of the big factors when putting together your “Apply List.” Keep in mind that there are many factors to consider when determining your “Apply List.” Here are some of the other factors you’ll need to consider in addition to scholarship availability:

  • You will need to know your Need number (COA – EFC = Need) and the average Need-based award for incoming freshmen at each university on your top 25 list.  This number is important for students who have a significant Need number.
  • Weigh the result of the Net Price Calculator for each university in your top 25 list.
  • Weigh the graduation rate of each university on your top 25 list.
  • How strong is the field of study in which you are interested at each of the top 25 schools on your list?
  • Is the school growing the field of study in which you are interested?
  • How strong is the fit within the school’s community?
  • Travel costs.
  • and many other smaller factors.

Therefore, in this next phase of scholarship hunting, you should focus on your state’s competitive scholarships and research the competitive scholarships on your “Top 25 list.”


Competitive State scholarships

In this second phase of the process, you should start by investigating your state’s competitive scholarships for a couple of reasons: 1) These scholarships apply to multiple schools in your state as opposed to just one; 2) You may already be familiar with them after doing the research for the state automatic scholarships. Most of these you apply for in your high school senior year and don’t hear anything back until after you have already applied to your “Apply List” of schools. But you need to know if you have a realistic chance at these scholarships before adding certain in-state schools to your “Apply List” which means the sooner you get familiar with the criteria to win the scholarship, you can make adjustments to better position yourself for the scholarship or know you won’t be able to count on this scholarship to help lower your out-of-pocket cost (EFC).

If you know you won’t get any state funding, then maybe you put more emphasis on out-of-state schools with better degree programs in which you are interested and who have large automatic scholarships for which you qualify.

Here is a resource to help you find your state’s competitive scholarships.

States with Competitive scholarships


University Competitive Scholarships

The next set of scholarships to look into are the university competitive scholarships. You need to review each school’s competitive scholarships in your Top 25 list and determine how competitive you would be at getting one of their offered scholarships. Here are some factors you should consider when determining how competitive you would be:

1) Are you in the top 25% academically (grades and test scores) when compared to the school’s overall student body?

2) Are you interested in a degree program the school wants to grow?

3) Can you win a scholarship at a competing school that you might be able to use to negotiate?

4) Can you prove to the school that you are a leader and will get involved with school activities?

5) Do the school’s admissions reps know you on a first-name basis?

6) Did you show interest by going on a tour and attending events?

7) Do you have a strong social media profile that promotes good citizenship and career goals?

8) Do you have a special talent the school values (sports, art, music, etc.), which opens up additional scholarships? For example, many schools will offer art, music, and/or athletic scholarships if you fill a need for open spots.

9) Can you meet all the application deadlines? It seems obvious, but no one awards scholarships to someone who has missed the deadline.

You shouldn’t make your “Apply List” of 7 to 10 schools until you have reviewed each school’s competitive scholarships in the Top 25 and determined where you would be able to best compete for a competitive scholarship.


Competitive Department Scholarships

After digging deeper into the larger competitive university-wide scholarships for undergraduate study, the next step would be to further reduce the COA on universities by looking for departmental scholarships. This is another advantage of knowing which degree program you are interested in pursuing before applying to a school. Departmental scholarships typically require you to apply directly to the individual school within the university and are often essay scholarships. In order to win these scholarships, you must prove your interest and potential within the area of interest.

Even if you aren’t sure which degree program you want to pursue, you could still apply to the honors college for undergraduate students, which is a separate department and usually has a scholarship associated with it, assuming you can get into the honors college.

This type of scholarship is typically renewable, which can really help reduce tuition costs and the entire cost of college, even if the annual amounts are small.


Competitive Private Scholarships

After you have found all the automatic scholarships for which you qualify, discovered which competitive scholarships you have a fighting chance to get, and completed your “Final Apply List,” then you can start looking into the private competitive college scholarship options.

The majority of private competitive scholarships are small and tend to be one-time awards rather than renewable scholarships. The private national scholarships with bigger payouts are very competitive and typically require you to compete with other students nationwide. Therefore, the odds of paying a significant portion of college with private, competitive scholarships are very small. One of the more popular scholarship search tools can help you find nationally competitive scholarships.

However, if you have the time to apply for competitive private scholarships, your best bet is to look for local college scholarships. These tend to be less competitive and less known. You can stack these types of college scholarships so that multiple smaller scholarships added together can be a bigger help with money for college in that first year. School counselors typically have a good list of local scholarships.

For all private competitive scholarships, try to pick ones where your student profile describes a unique experience or talent that sets you apart from others applying.


How to Get Scholarships for College Overall Summary

There are plenty of scholarships for college students to be had.

If you want to reduce your education costs by maximizing potential scholarship dollars, you should search for scholarships by prioritizing each type in the correct order and conducting the search at the appropriate times. There are about 4000 different postsecondary institutions in the U.S., so you have to filter this list down to your “Appy List” somehow without missing the best college deal for you. Here is a review of a process that will help you maximize your scholarship dollars:

Step 1: If you are a top-ranked student, you should review all automatic full-ride and full-tuition scholarships to make sure you aren’t missing out on these valuable and turnkey awards.

Step 2: Review all colleges offering automatic merit scholarships to immediately find colleges with a lower COA, and as you find great deals, start building your “Research List” (aka, the Top 25 list).

Step 3: Review colleges participating in state reciprocal tuition programs. This will help you find good out-of-state deals that may offer competing degree programs with your home state. Add some of these schools to your Top 25 list.

Step 4: Go deeper in the research on the schools on your Top 25 list and find the automatic criteria-based scholarships to reduce the COA on these schools even further.

Step 5: Research your state’s automatic scholarships and position yourself to qualify for these if possible.

Step 6: Compile your final Top 25 list. Schools with a reduced COA and the field of study you are interested in should be weighted the most at this point.  Especially if you have a high EFC number.

Step 7: Since state competitive scholarships can be applied to multiple schools, start your competitive scholarship analysis assuming your state has some. Then position yourself to qualify for these if possible and keep track of the upcoming deadlines.

Step 8: Research each competitive university award amount in your Top 25 list and determine how competitive you would be for each available scholarship. This may be the most time-consuming step, but it is a very important one in determining your final “Apply List.”

Step 9: Research additional department-based competitive university scholarships and how competitive you would be for these scholarships.

Step 10: Finalize your “Apply List” of schools.

Step 11: Look for local private scholarships and private scholarships for which you are uniquely qualified. It is best to begin this search after you have finalized your “Apply List” of schools. But if you have extra time between steps within the college search process, you could cherry pick a couple you think you have a shot at and apply for them.

Following the above steps in the correct order, in addition to meeting all the scholarship deadlines, is a great way to bring order to the world of scholarships. And how to get scholarships for college has now been made a little bit easier.




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