When you’re applying to colleges, it’s easy to get lost in a sea of numbers — the number of essays you have to write, the test scores you need to get in, how many miles campus is away from home (the more, the better) and, of course, the cold, hard cash you’re going to shell out to earn that degree.
If that dollar figure freaks you out, we’re with you: according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the annual published tuition at four-year public colleges increased nearly 35% between 2008 and 2017.
But the key word there is “published tuition,” as in “sticker price.” Savvy students know the path to making college affordable is finding scholarships, and we’re not talking those elusive full-rides that accomplished athletes or future Marie Curies may receive. The truth is, there’s money out there for almost everyone, if you know where to look.
Where to Find College Scholarships
1. University scholarships. Schools award two main types of financial aid: need-based (dependent on your family household income) and merit-based (offered because of your achievements, whether academic, athletic or artistic, to name a few).
While the FAFSA should be on your radar to qualify for need-based aid, you can go one step further and maximize your merit-based potential. “The best way to get scholarships is to apply to schools where you are a top candidate or offer something schools want,” says Kristen Miller, a college consultant in Portland, Oregon, and owner of College Bound & Ready, “whether it’s stellar grades, a talent or some element of diversity that will help round out their student population.”
Scholarship funds don’t stop at the university level either, says Jocelyn Paonita Pearson, founder of The Scholarship System. Instead, see if there are department-specific scholarships awarded to students within your major, she suggests — and don’t forget to check back every year you’re in school.
2. Local scholarships. If you’re a high school student, your school counselor is usually the first stop for local organizations that want to spread the word that they have dollars to dole out, Miller says.
Among the groups that often support local students:
- High school groups, like booster clubs or youth sports organizations
- Civic groups, like the Rotary Club or Elks Club
- Community foundations
- Local businesses
- Trade groups, especially those your parents belong to or ones that support your field of study
- State programs (find yours by searching your state name plus “Student Aid Commission”)
3. National scholarships. There are literally thousands of scholarships available, but be wary of any entry that seems too easy or is based on luck, says Pearson, adding that you should never pay an entrance fee.
A great place to start is with the large scholarship-matching websites. Here are some sites Miller recommends to her students:
- Big Future/College Board Scholarship Search
- Student Scholarship Search
- Scholarship Monkey
- College Net
You’ll create a profile with your academic experiences, interests, activities and such, and the site will compare your background with their database and send you lists of awards identified as potential matches.
Be prepared for an avalanche of email, Miller cautions (although you can lessen it by opting out of marketing emails when you create your profile). She also recommends creating a specific email address for scholarship hunting.
And remember most of these third-party scholarships are not just for state schools or other big four-year universities, notes Pearson. After all, 40% of undergrads go to community college, and typically, most scholarships only require that the school be "accredited,” which applies to the vast majority of two- and four-year schools.
You don’t have to be a fresh-faced high school senior either. “Many scholarships do not have an age limit; the requirements are generally based on intended enrollment rather than graduation,” Pearson says.
Strategies to Win College Scholarships
1. Nail your essay. Stellar grades aren’t enough to cut it — judges are also looking for a next-level essay, says Diane Elizabeth, founder of Skin Care Ox, which hosts a scholarship contest of its own. “Have someone, whether it’s a family member, friend or teacher, proofread it and give you honest feedback,” she says.
Your editor should be able to figure out the essay prompt just by reading the essay, notes Pearson, who says it’s essential the essay be unique so that scholarship committee members remember you as an applicant. Given the sheer volume of essays you're competing with, you’ll want to cut to the chase, too. “Grab their attention at the beginning, but remember to tie it all in together at the end,” she adds.
Finally, if the entry asks whether there’s anything else you think reviewers should know, never leave that question blank. “It's another opportunity for students to sell themselves. Always go the extra mile and include something here,” Pearson says.
2. Go narrow. National scholarships abound, but that also means you’re competing against thousands of other students for the same money pool. Instead, Miller suggests focusing more time on local or community scholarships, as well as ones that target a specific interest. “If you can narrow your search down to something unique about you, like that you’re a Native American history buff, that will help you focus,” she says.
And the opportunities for a niche approach are vast. Did you create a prom look out of duct tape? There’s a scholarship for that! Are you an underwater photography pro? There’s college money for that, too! Keep looking, and you’re bound to find something that fits you to a T.
3. Or, go wide. It could take more time, but the numbers game can also yield a high success rate. Take Elizabeth: before she founded Skin Care Ox, she was a scholarship superstar who earned more than $250,000 in outside funds — enough to finance her entire application process and education. She estimates she applied for 350 scholarships and won roughly 10% of them. “If I was eligible, then I applied,” she says.
She even researched requirements early in high school, so if she found a scholarship she wasn’t eligible for yet — for example, if it required more community service hours than she had at the time — she would make a note to apply when she met the requirements.
4. Make economies of scale your friend. The reason Elizabeth was able to apply for so many scholarships is because she got her system down. “Many scholarships ask for the same essay prompt — the classic ‘career goals’ essay. If you can write a 500-word stunner for this topic, then you can pretty much apply for scholarships rapid-fire,” she says.
Elizabeth also requested letters of recommendation and transcripts in bulk — sometimes 20 at a time — so she wouldn't have to make a mad dash to get the documents when she needed them.
If some of these strategies seem time-consuming, think about it this way: A few hundred bucks in scholarship money is that much less you have to pay out of pocket. Multiply that a few times throughout your college career, and we’re talking serious cash you won’t have to pony up — or take out in student loans. And, trust us, your future self will thank you for that.