To say that college is expensive would be an understatement. As you’re considering all the financing options available to you, you may wonder if you can or should try to get a scholarship. But what is a scholarship? And are these just for high school athletes or valedictorians? 

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There are actually many types of scholarships, and you probably qualify for at least a few. Let’s examine what a scholarship is and the types of scholarships that are available to you.

What Is a Scholarship?

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A scholarship is money that an outside entity gives you to help you pay for school. It can be merit-based or need-based. Sometimes a scholarship is a one-time check, and other times it can be awarded annually.

The donor of the scholarship sets the criteria of how they choose the recipient – whether by merit, background, or whim.

While many students think a scholarship is “free” money, it does often have strings attached, at least sometimes. Sometimes the donor wants you to pursue a certain career, or to give back to the community.

With athletic scholarships, you’re required to participate in the sport while maintaining a certain grade point average. But unlike a loan, you don’t need to pay the money back, which is why students find scholarships so appealing.

Types of Scholarships

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When researching “what is a scholarship,” you will find that scholarship money comes from corporations, governments, universities, or anyone who has an interest in funding the college dreams of high school students.

There are scholarships for those with perfect SAT scores, scholarships for those who are pursuing a certain career, scholarships funded by charity organizations—the list is endless. This is good news: there is bound to be a scholarship you qualify for and have a decent shot at getting.

Merit Scholarships

When researching “what is a scholarship,” you will certainly come across merit scholarships. These are the type of scholarship most people think of when they think of scholarships.

These scholarships are applicable to students who have outstanding academic achievements, or students who excel at art or music. There are also scholarships available for those students who spend a lot of time working with the homeless or raising money for cancer research.

The idea is to give money to those students with obvious talents who may not have the money to attend the best schools.

These scholarships are very competitive. It may help if you have a unique talent or if you play an instrument that not a lot of people play. One student got a full scholarship because he played the tuba

Athletic Scholarships

When researching “what is a scholarship,” you will find several athletic scholarships. Athletic scholarships are usually given by a specific college or university because they want that student to play that sport for them.

Athletic scholarships require you to play whatever sport you were recruited for and to maintain a specific grade point average. Also, athletic scholarships are hard to earn, and there are lots of competition for them.

College recruiters usually get lists of the top-ranked students in certain sports and go from there. However, you don’t have to be a football player or a runner to get an athletic scholarship.

There is money available for golfers, swimmers, soccer players, and even fencers. Some colleges also consider grades and how well-rounded a student is when handing out athletic scholarships.

First Generation Scholarships

When researching “what is a scholarship,” you will find that there is money available for students who will be the first member of their family to go to college. These scholarships exist to help high-achieving, low-income students afford college.

Contests and Other Scholarship Opportunities

There are also scholarships given out for those who write the best essay, or who submit the best greeting card design. There are some that award money to the best engineering idea, or the best science project.

Some contests are a little on the quirky side, such as the scholarship that is awarded for the best prom dress made using duct tape or to the student who submits the best survival plan when the zombie apocalypse starts.

Do your research—there are literally thousands of these scholarship opportunities out there.

How Can the Money Be Spent?

Some scholarship money is given to the college or university you plan on attending. If it doesn’t cover the full tuition, then the student is responsible for the rest of the balance. Some scholarship money is given to the student in the form of a check. 

Does that mean you can buy yourself some cool back-to-school clothes? You can, but you’re probably better off using it for school expenses like textbooks, software, or even a new computer. Some scholarships have specific parameters on what you can spend the money on, so be sure and check.

Where Do I Find Scholarships?

When researching “what is a scholarship,” you will find that there are databases you can search such as,, and These send out a lot of emails, so some experts recommend setting up an email account specifically for your scholarship search. 

That way, it won’t become overwhelming. However, it’s a good idea to find local scholarships, as there will be less competition for these, as opposed to national scholarships.Many businesses and some charity organizations near you probably offer scholarships. When you apply for scholarships, you will find that many require you to apply for the FAFSA—Free Application for Federal Student Aid, so be sure and do that.

Don’t overlook your high school guidance office. They usually have a wealth of college application information, including scholarships, and especially local ones.

Another advantage of going to your guidance office is that the counselors know you, and can possibly suggest scholarships you might have overlooked.

How to Give Yourself the Best Chance of Winning a Scholarship

Apply early. Many college seniors start applying in the fall of their senior year, but to really give yourself the best chance, you should enter your information in the scholarship databases as early as your freshman year.

You won’t be applying that early, but this will give the databases lots of extra time to find scholarships you qualify for. Some scholarships require a huge commitment, so by understanding what an award wants, you can prepare yourself accordingly. 

For example, some scholarships may require charity work or having a certain job. You can update your information every year. If it’s already your senior year, don’t despair—there are still a lot of scholarships you can apply for.Be sure and follow the directions to the letter. Many scholarships are lost because students didn’t follow directions. It makes sense – if there are a thousand well-qualified students all applying for the same amount of money, they will winnow people out for whatever reason they can.

If there’s an essay, don’t shoot yourself in the foot by going over the word count. Also, different scholarships have different requirements, so make a checklist and be sure you’ve checked all the boxes before you submit.

Avoiding Scholarship Scams

Sadly, there are many fraudulent companies that claim to find students scholarship money. The FTC expects the number of complaints regarding phony scholarship companies to rise in 2019, to mirror rising college costs and increasing competition for the best scholarships. 

How to identify a scam? Two of the biggest red flags are being asked to pay an application fee and receiving a scholarship you never applied for.

Often, when you get a scholarship you didn’t apply for, they then ask for a “processing fee” or some other charge. Then when you pay the money, the scholarship disappears.Students are especially vulnerable to scholarship scams because of inexperience, naivete, and desperation. There are also scholarship companies that work like timeshares – give them X amount of money, and they’ll guarantee X amount of scholarship money.

Some of these companies are quite sophisticated and look legit. Of course, there are legitimate college consulting businesses, and some of these will help you apply for scholarships.

Much of this information can be found for free, but if you go this route, get all promises in writing and be especially leery of promises that seem too good to be true.

For Further Reading

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When researching “what is a scholarship,” you will find that there are several excellent books you may find helpful as you explore your options.

Peterson’s Scholarship’s, Grants, and Prizes 2019

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Peterson’s will release the 2020 edition of their book in July of this year. This is basically an index, organized by academic interests, career goals, geographic location, talents, and more. It offers over 3500 profiles, so there are plenty of opportunities to look into.

The Ultimate Scholarship Book 2019:

Billions of Dollars in Scholarships, Grants and Prizes

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This book has information on 1.5 million scholarships and grants to apply for. It also offers tips on how to increase your chances of getting a scholarship, avoiding scams, and how to write the essay.


Paying for college is expensive and can feel overwhelming. College scholarships are excellent ways to subsidize your education, or even outright pay for it, if you’re fortunate. There are many resources available to help you find and apply for scholarships. 


You don’t need to be in the top ten percent of your graduating class to secure a scholarship. There are thousands of scholarships available, and at least some of them may be perfect for you.

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