The cost of a college education has become one of those taboo topics that people just don’t want to hear about. Since 1995, tuition and fees for earning a degree in the United States have increased by at least 179%. Since not every student has a robust college fund just waiting to be spent, they have to get creative and pursue other avenues that will help them live their dream of attending college.
Securing a college scholarship–or two or three–can make a huge difference in your financial security during and after your college career. Although scholarship funds can have a few strings attached, they do not require payback. You can even reapply for many scholarships and, if you qualify, receive funds each year of college.
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to be a star athlete or the valedictorian of your class to win a scholarship. Keep reading to understand what kinds of scholarship opportunities are available and who can apply for them.
Scholarship Opportunities for All Types of Students
Academic Scholarships: Academic scholarships are based on your success in school. If you consistently get good grades and have high test scores, you could qualify for academic scholarships.
The most prestigious academic scholarship is the National Merit Scholarship. Winners, known as National Merit Scholars, receive a one-time award of $2500, which they must use at a regionally accredited US college or university.
Winners for the National Merit Scholarship (NMS) are selected based on their PSAT scores, high school course load and grades, and their participation and leadership in extracurricular and community activities. Over 50,000 students qualify for the NMS each year; they are narrowed down to 15,000 finalists and about half of those students are selected to receive awards.
Other well-known academic scholarships (that award more than $10,000 per student) include the Siemens Math, Science and Technology Awards, for students who excel in those subjects; the Coca-Cola Scholars Program Scholarship, for students with a minimum GPA of 3.0 and who plan to attend an accredited college or university in the United States; and the Davidson Fellows Scholarship, which recognizes high-achieving students in a variety of subjects including technology, literature, and music.
Athletic Scholarships: Sports scholarships are available for most sports, but the big financial awards are usually reserved for students who play football, men’s and women’s basketball, and women’s tennis, volleyball, and gymnastics. Only the most elite high school sports stars receive "full rides", meaning that they receive funds to cover all tuition, fees, books, and meal plans.
Students who play sports like lacrosse, tennis, baseball, or field hockey, can certainly receive scholarships, but they usually have to be willing to attend the specific colleges or universities that offer those awards. If your heart isn’t set on a particular school, check out AthleticScholarships.net to find scholarships for your sport.
Keep in mind that athletic scholarships almost always have strings attached to them. These scholarships usually require you to: maintain a specific grade point average, show up at all practices, games, and team meetings (at the coach’s discretion), and stay out of trouble. If you fail to meet any one of those requirements (even due to an injury), your scholarship could be revoked and you will have to find funds elsewhere to pay for the rest of the semester (and beyond).
The competition for athletic scholarships is fiercer than ever before, as high school students (and their coaches and parents) use social media to promote their athletic achievements. There are even online businesses that will teach you how to promote yourself to colleges and universities, and some even do the job for you.
Minority Scholarships: Special scholarship opportunities are available to students who are Native American, African American, Hispanic, and Latino. Additional scholarships exist for students of multi-ethnic backgrounds, as well as students who identify as LGBT.
The funds for minority scholarships usually come from organizations and corporations that support these minorities and encourage minority achievement through higher education. Since each of these sponsor organizations has a different mission or goal, qualification criteria for such scholarships will vary.
There are also scholarships for students who are the first in their family to attend college, which is often a result of being from a minority or immigrant family.
Scholarships by Major: If you’re absolutely certain about what subject you want to study in college, then a degree-based scholarship is for you. Colleges and other organizations offer scholarships to students who demonstrate exceptional talent in topics like design or writing, or students who will study to work in "high-need" industries, like nursing or education.
Requirements for major-based scholarships will vary quite a bit, as will the amount of money awarded to students, but these awards can still be a great way to pay for some or all of your education.
State or Region-based Scholarships: If you’re afraid that the pool of applicants for national scholarships will decrease your chances of winning, you’ll be pleased to find out that many states and region of the country offer scholarships that are limited by residency. When you apply, you’ll be competing only against applicants from your state or area.
Many of the scholarship types listed above–academic, athletic, minority, etc.–are often available on a state-by-state basis, as well as on a national level. In addition, many states will have scholarships that are completely unique to them, like Indiana’s Mitch Daniels Early Graduation Scholarship, which is a $4,000 award for students who graduate from an Indiana high school one year early, and plan to attend a participating Indiana college or university.
Other Types of Scholarships: If you’re a child or dependent of someone who is active duty US military, or a US veteran, you may qualify for a scholarship. If you’ve ever led an environmental cleanup project, you could win a scholarship for writing an essay about it. Your mom might work for a company that will give you a scholarship just for being her kid!
There are also many scholarships available based on criteria that you wouldn’t typically think would qualify you for an award. These include scholarships for left-handed students, and awards for students whose ancestors hail from a specific country. Get creative and think about what makes you unique. Chances are, there is a scholarship with your name on it!
In summary, there are so many different college scholarship opportunities, we can’t list them all here. Below are tips on how (and when) to search for a college scholarship yourself, and how to apply for them.
Finding Scholarships Is Easier Than Ever Before
Just like everything else these days, the internet is the obvious go-to when looking for scholarships. Free scholarship search websites like Fastweb.com and Scholarships.com have huge databases of scholarships, qualification requirements, and deadlines. Many websites also have scholarship match systems, where you enter some information about yourself and your grades, and they provide a list of scholarships for which you might qualify.
There is also the traditional route to finding scholarship information: your high school guidance counselor or your college advisor. Their offices receive information about scholarships every week. Since your guidance counselor either knows you personally, or has access to your transcript and GPA, he or she can quickly determine scholarships for which you may qualify.
Don’t be afraid to make an appointment with your school counselor or advisor; the staff at your school are there to help you. They can provide you with a lot of insight into how the selection process for scholarships work, and might even have connections that you wouldn’t find elsewhere.
Ask your parents if their employer has a scholarship program that could help pay off your tuition. This money is often left on the table, since parents forget this work benefit is available to them. Check with your church or synagogue to see if you qualify for a scholarship from them. You never know when asking a simple question could help you save thousands of dollars.
When to Start Your Scholarship Search
It is never too early to begin looking for scholarships. Even if you won’t graduate in the next year, identifying college scholarship opportunities when you are a freshman or sophomore in high school will make you aware of which scholarship requirements you’ll have to meet when you apply for the award in the future. That could be a good incentive to improve your GPA over the next two years.
If you are a junior or senior in high school and you haven’t searched for scholarships yet, you should begin a search right away so that you don’t miss out on an opportunity to help cover your college expenses.
Applying for Scholarships
First things first: if you find several scholarships for which you qualify, apply to all of them. You can’t win if you don’t try, and you could win more than one (or all) of them. One thousand dollars here, another twenty-five hundred there...it all adds up to savings for you!
To apply for scholarships, you’ll need to get organized and do a little leg work. There are usually hard deadlines by which you must submit your application. You usually have to provide documentation like your school transcript and letters of recommendation. Find out how to request these items and do it as soon as you know what you’ll need.
There are a couple of different ways to submit a scholarship application. The first is the traditional way of collecting and sending in your documentation (via postal mail, email, or a fully-online application). Large national scholarships may ask you to submit all of your information online, while smaller scholarships from your state or an independent organization may not have such high-tech methods for submission.
The second way to apply for scholarships is to let technology do it for you. Websites like ScholarshipOwl.com provide a fast-track to applying for scholarships by having just one application for you to complete. They take your application information and match your answers to scholarships, then give you the option to hit the "Apply" button to quickly submit your application to those programs.
Some scholarship applications will require you to write an essay. Don’t be intimidated by this. Unless you are applying for a top-notch academic scholarship, the essay (often called a "personal essay", because they ask you to write about something important to you) is more about what you write than about having perfect grammar. That said, good grammar will certainly help, so make sure to have a good proof-reader review your essay before you submit it.
Increase Your Chances of Winning a Scholarship
You don’t need perfect grades to win most college scholarships, but you can’t be a slacker, either. Universities, foundations, and businesses want to know that you’re going to put their money to good use when you start your freshman year as a college student. Your high school GPA is a good indicator of how seriously you take school, so shoot for A’s and B’s.
You’ve probably heard that college admissions officers and employers often check out applicant’s social media profiles before selecting them. There’s nothing stopping a scholarship selection committee from doing the same thing. Make sure that profile photos and public content about yourself is respectable. You might also consider posting photos of yourself doing community service or participating in activities that demonstrate your passion for the scholarship topic.
Finally, when filling out scholarship applications, answer the "optional"" questions. The more information you submit on the general online applications, the higher your chances of qualifying for multiple scholarships. For a scholarship-specific application, the optional information you provide can give the selection committee a better idea of the type of person you are, increasing your chances of winning the award.