A Student’s Guide to Finding the Best College Scholarships
Raising money for college can seem daunting with tuition, textbook fees, and living expenses to consider. Receiving scholarships and grants can make a big difference toward defraying the high cost of college. College financial aid packages typically don’t cover all costs and often include student loans. Applying for scholarships and grants takes time and patience, but has significant long-term benefits. These awards will help you pay for college without the financial burden created by student loans because unlike student loans, scholarships and grants don’t require repayment. Any funds you receive from these programs are considered gift aid. There are a wide range of scholarships and grants, including need-based awards, merit-based awards, and more. Here are a few simple ways to optimize your scholarship and grant search as you prepare for college:
Start Your Search Early
Starting your scholarship search as early as possible is a key factor in securing awards. There are thousands of scholarships and grants available to help students pay for college, but it’s up to you to find them. It is unlikely that a single grant or scholarship will fund all of your college expenses, but smaller awards can add up so it’s important to apply for as many awards as possible. Not only does researching awards take time, each scholarship has its own application requirements and deadline. Applications may require essays, financial documents, or letters of recommendation. In order to ensure that you have enough time to complete your application by the deadline, start your search early. Putting off your search may result in missing out on awards for your first year.
- Scholarship Search Database
- Scholarship Search Engine Directory
- Directory of National Scholarships
- Funding Resources for Students with Disabilities
Ask Your College Counselor
Talking to your school’s college counselor should be your first step in the scholarship search. They can help you asses your situation to determine what types of awards you should target. While most scholarships are merit-based, grants tend to be need-based. Scholarships will typically be awarded by schools or private organizations and have achievement criteria like stellar grades, proven athletic abilities, or other specific skills. They also may require you maintain a certain college GPA or course load. Grants, however, are usually determined by your family’s financial circumstances. Your eligibility will depend on details unique to you and your college plans. You may qualify for grants and scholarships depending on your state of residence, school of choice, or even college major and career plans. Your college counselor can help you evaluate your background for factors that will qualify you for certain merit or need-based scholarships. You may be eligible for scholarships based on criteria including: hobbies, volunteerism, organization membership, disabilities, ethnicity, and parents’ employer or military service. Your college counselor will be familiar with national and local scholarship programs, and can direct you toward legitimate resources to research additional programs. Once you have a game plan, your college counselor can also help you set a reasonable timeline for completing your FAFSA, writing personal statements, and requesting letters of recommendation or materials required by many scholarship applications.
- College Counseling: Scholarship Overview
- College Counseling Advice: Crafting Winning Scholarship Essays (PDF)
- Example of College Counseling Scholarship Application Process
Search Online for Grants from State and Federal Agencies
In addition to private scholarships and grants, state and federal government agencies also offer college grants. Some government grants are automatically determined by your completed FAFSA results. For example, the Federal government offers Pell Grants to all undergraduate students from qualifying low-income families. This is the largest need-based grant resource available. The Federal government also offers a few specialized grants to students who meet very specific eligibility criteria. The FAFSA is used to determined eligibility for these grants as well. State governments also offer grants, but the amount and qualifying criteria vary by state. Many states offer grants to students who attend in-state colleges and meet certain financial need or merit-based criteria.
Research local businesses, organizations, and religious groups
Don’t forget to consider local resources when searching for outside scholarships. Many local businesses, civic groups, social organizations, and religious groups offer college scholarships. While these scholarships usually aren’t listed in scholarship search guides, they are an invaluable resource for students. Unlike national or even state scholarships, there is much less competition for local awards and you may have an existing affiliation or connection to the awarding community group. Your college counselor or guidance counselor may have some information on established local scholarships. The public library is another excellent resource for researching local scholarships. They may have a local scholarship resource guide, or even simply directories of local businesses and groups you can contact. Don’t be afraid to ask around as you never know which of you or your family’s community ties may lead to a scholarship.
- Common Local Scholarship Opportunities (PDF)
- Suggestions of Local Scholarship Resources (PDF)
- Elks Lodge Scholarships
Here are a few resources to help you learn more about effectively finding scholarships and grants for college:
- Avoid College Grant Scams
- Scholarship Searching Tips
- Scholarship Application Tips
- Myths and Realities of College Scholarships