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Comprehensive Scholarship Guide

Scholarships are a key part of paying for college, and a wide range of options is available. This guide is designed to help students identify, apply for, and win scholarships to help fund their college educations.


Written: by Laura Durham 

It's no secret that college costs are rising every year, and the vast majority of students need help funding their degree programs. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 87% of first-time undergraduate students received financial aid during the 2019-2020 school year, and scholarships are an important piece of students' funding plans.
With so many options, though, finding and applying for scholarships can be overwhelming. This guide is designed to help you navigate the entire process from understanding how scholarships work and the range of funding possibilities to specific tactics for creating scholarship applications that will stand out from the crowd. Our goal is to provide you with information that will help you identify, pursue, and win scholarships that best fit your goals, interests, and career plans.
Scholarships for College
According to research conducted by the global marketing research firm Ipsos and lender Sallie Mae, families designate an average of just over $30,000 toward college costs in 2020. The difference between public and private institutions can have a significant impact on a student's budget. Researchers at determined the average annual cost of college at a public institution was $25,396, while students attending private schools paid an average of $53,102. That means the total cost of an undergraduate degree program can be upwards of $400,000!
Scholarships are a key part of the strategy for meeting college costs, with 58% of families incorporating scholarships into their overall funding plan. Total student debt was at a record high of $1.68 trillion in 2020, while the average individual student debt totaled over $37,000, according to One of the major pluses about scholarship money is that it never needs to be repaid, so scholarships help minimize the amount of debt students incur while they're in college. Completing a college degree program does ultimately help you earn more money, but you don't want a heavy debt load eating into those earnings. Scholarships minimize the amount of money students and their families must repay, and help to minimize the impacts of interest on loans. Scholarships are awarded to students at every stage in their education journey, and can be used to pay for housing, supplies, or even certification testing like Praxis or NCLEX, after graduation.
Grants, Loans, and Scholarships
Most American families use a mix of resources to pay for their children's college education. Often, part of those funds come from parents' savings, including increasingly popular college savings accounts like 529 plans. According to Sallie Mae, 41% of families used such funds during the 2021-2022 school year. Here's an approximate breakdown of how families plan to pay for college expenses:

Savings and Income    54%
Scholarships and Grants    26%
Loans    18%

As you can see, scholarships can play a significant role when it comes to paying for college. But what exactly is a scholarship, and how are scholarships different from other funding sources grants or loans? What even are grants and loans? We have broken down the basics for you on the different options students and families can access to help pay for college.


Scholarships: Scholarships are funds awarded to students to cover education expenses, including tuition. Like grants, scholarship funds never need to be repaid; however, the full definition of a scholarship includes a couple of key features. For example, most scholarships are merit-based, meaning the recipient is chosen based on their academic abilities and skills. Scholarships are available in a wide range of areas--everything from academic or athletic performance to artistic ability, community service, and demographics like gender and ethnicity. Many types of organizations offer scholarships, too; for instance, along with colleges and universities, private businesses, community organizations, and individuals can sponsor scholarships. The funds awarded can range from under $100 to tens of thousands of dollars, enough to cover a sizeable chunk of tuition, fees, and room and board.

Grants: Like scholarships, grants are funds that do not need to be repaid. Grants are typically offered by government entities, foundations, or businesses; they're usually awarded based on financial need. Federal Pell Grants are a well-known example of this type of funding source. Pell Grants are awarded based on the cost of the student's educational program and how much a student's family can contribute.

Loans: Loans are funds from government organizations and private entities like banks that must be repaid along with interest. To pay for a college education, both parents and students may take out loans. Money loaned typically must be repaid according to a set schedule, and the specific terms are established by the lender. To be eligible for a loan, a student's parents usually need good credit scores and reliable sources of income. For a more complete breakdown about the benefits and pitfalls of loans, FAFSA, and financial aid for college students in general, check out our guide to FAFSA and financial aid.


Types of Scholarships
While you search for funding options, keep an open mind and remember that merit-based scholarships can be awarded according to a broad range of criteria. And remember that not all scholarships require top-notch performance in a given area; easy-to-qualify scholarships are out there, too. Many scholarships fall into one of the categories outlined below.

   •    Academic 
One of the most common categories of scholarships is those granted to students with strong academic records. These are usually awarded based on a student's grade point average (GPA), overall academic performance, and scores on standardized tests like the ACT® test and SAT. The National Merit Scholarship Program is a well-known grantor of academic scholarships, but many other options are also available.

   •    Athletic
Student athletes who have performed well in their chosen sport are also eligible for scholarships. In some cases, athletic scholarships can fund a student's entire college career, covering tuition, room, and board for multiple years. Athletic scholarships are available for many, from popular sports like football and basketball to lesser-known sports like lacrosse, archery, and rifle teams.

   •    Demographic
Scholarships are also available for particular demographic groups like women or those who are the first in their families to attend college. You can find more information about demographic-based scholarships in some of's other resources, including our guides to College Scholarships for Latin American Students, Scholarship Guide for Asian American & Pacific Islander Students, Guide to College Scholarships & Financial Aid for Black Students, College Scholarships for Underrepresented Students, College Scholarships for LGBTQ studehts, and College Scholarships for Women.

   •    Community Involvement
You can also qualify for scholarships because of your commitment to civic engagement or to a particular cause. Students with volunteer experience can be eligible for aid based on their involvement in their local community or their dedication to issues with global reach like diversity and inclusion, economic equality, or the environment.

   •    Financial Need
Many scholarships are designed to support students who demonstrate financial need. These scholarships maintain a merit-based approach and are often awarded to students with promising academic abilities, or to students from backgrounds considered disadvantaged (e.g. students who grew up in the foster system or who have experienced homelessness).

   •    Professional Interest
For students who apply to college knowing their particular academic field or career path, field and career-specific scholarships are available. If you know your major when you are applying for scholarships, simply type it into your scholarship website's search engine and a plethora of scholarships supporting your major will be available. Career-specific scholarships may be offered by companies in that field; for instance, scholarships for engineering students are sometimes offered by engineering firms. offers comprehensive guides for finding scholarships for your desired major including teaching & education scholarships and nursing scholarships.

   •    Local Scholarships
Scholarship opportunities can often be found within your local community. Nonprofit organizations, churches, and civic groups sometimes offer scholarships to promising students from the area, particularly if a student has been involved with the group in some way.

   •    Unique Scholarships
Some scholarships are offered based on a whole range of unique criteria. With a little effort, you can find options based on your interests and skills like drawing, collecting a particular item, sewing, or playing video games. Some scholarships are even available based on students' diets and heights!

How to Find Scholarships
With so many options out there, you may wonder what the best way is to identify scholarships that are a good fit for you. For high school students, a visit with your guidance counselor is an effective way to start researching scholarships. These experts can identify scholarships that match your interests and skills along with opportunities that have worked well for other students at your school. For students who are already in college, your advisor and your school's office of financial aid are good places to start.
Once you've narrowed down your options for which college to attend, make sure you investigate any specific scholarships those schools offer. You will also want to think about any community connections that may help in your search. For example, does a family member's employer offer scholarships? Are there any community organizations that support students? One of the most important strategies for finding scholarship opportunities is to devote sufficient time to the process. Plan to search using a variety of resources and remember: it's never too early to begin looking for scholarships.

Best Scholarship Websites
In addition to asking school counselors and advisors, there are numerous websites and online databases to help you find scholarship opportunities. Keep in mind that some of these resources may require you to create a profile or an account to gain access to their listings.
Here are some of the standout online options:

   •    Access Scholarships
Access Scholarships is a free online platform designed to connect students with scholarship opportunities that fit their goals and values. This site features a search tool and a directory containing thousands of scholarships for students to quickly and easily be matched with based on their profiles.

   •    Fastweb
Fastweb users create a short profile that matches them with scholarships that would be a good fit for their interests, abilities, and accomplishments. The site's database includes over a million scholarship possibilities and allows users to create and manage lists of scholarships they're pursuing.

   •    Unigo
At Unigo, students can find listings of over three million scholarships, including options based on academic major, demographic status, and military service. Unigo also sponsors its own scholarships and offers a personalized scholarship matching service.
While all these sites are solid resources for finding scholarships, it is important to remember that these websites are NOT the authorities on the most recent details of each individual scholarship. A crucial part of the research process for finding scholarships is to visit the home websites of each scholarship you want to apply for and carefully read the website for deadlines, eligibility criteria, and application process.
With so many scholarship opportunities out there, it's probably no surprise that some are actually scams designed to gather your personal information with no intention of helping you pay for college. How can you spot this fraudulent activity? Here are some red flags to watch out for:

   •    Offers that require you to pay to have access to elite scholarship opportunities. If a scholarship asks for money to apply, it is probably a scam.

   •    Organizations that ask you to provide detailed personal financial information, like a bank account number, social security number, or credit card information. Sometimes scams will tell you this information is need to 'hold' your scholarship, and this is never true of reputable scholarships.

   •    Notifications that you have been selected as a finalist for a scholarship that you did not apply to; if you didn't apply for a scholarship, you definitely are not a finalist for it.

   •    Language that seems out of place in a scholarship. This can include phrases like 'guaranteed or your money back.'

   •    Scholarships you can't find a legitimate website for. If a scholarship offer only exists on a social media site like Facebook or Twitter, and does not have a reputable website with eligibility criteria, information about the funding body, and a list of past winners, the scholarship might be a scam.

The best general approach to avoiding scholarship scams: Keep that old saying in mind —if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

When to Start Applying for Scholarships
Many organizations promote scholarships for high school seniors, and the first couple of months of your senior year is a good time to start the application process. Pay careful attention to due dates as different scholarships have different requirements (some may be due in the fall). Other scholarship programs have application deadlines in the early spring, which coincides with typical college admissions decisions. Ideally, you'll have a sense of which schools you've been admitted to and how much scholarship money you've been awarded during your final spring semester in high school.

Even though most of the scholarship application process occurs during senior year, you don't have to wait until you're a senior to start searching and applying for scholarships. Also keep in mind that, for some scholarships, you may need to reapply each year, so make sure you know the particular requirements you'll need to fulfill. The most important thing is to realize is that applying for scholarships can be a time-consuming process, so you'll want to give yourself plenty of time by starting as early as possible.

How to Apply for Scholarships
Competition for scholarships can be intense, so it's important to create an application package that helps you stand out. Pay close attention to application directions because each scholarship has its own requirements. Often, you'll need to submit your high school transcripts and your standardized test scores. Some scholarships request financial information or the FAFSA, and it's also common for scholarship applications to require components like essays, interviews, and letters of recommendation. We'll cover some ideas for handling those in the next few sections. Finally, remember that while the process of applying for some scholarships can be complex, easy-to-apply for scholarships to apply for are out there, too.

1) Gathering Your Documents
When you apply for scholarships, you will need some background information! Before you begin applying for scholarships, writing essays, and preparing interview responses, make sure you have the following documents:
Copies of your FAFSA application. Many scholarships require students to demonstrate financial need, and the FAFSA application is the standard document for formally reporting financial need.

Copies of your transcripts. Your final transcripts record your GPA and serve as a reminder of your academic accomplishments while you prepare your essays. Additionally, many scholarships may request copies or PDF versions of your final transcripts.

Copies of your standardized test scores. Many scholarships have minimum ACT® test or SAT score requirements, so having the score reports with you when you fill out applications means you will accurately report your scores.

Records of extracurricular activities. Some scholarships are designed to support students with specific extracurricular activities and interests. If these activities do not appear on your high school or college transcripts, try putting together a document for your own reference that accurately lists dates of involvement, hours per week of involvement, skills learned/used, and a line or two about why you love the activity. This record will help you stay focused when writing essays or preparing interview responses!

Records of service. This can include volunteer work at homeless shelters, soup kitchens, hospitals, or work with programs like Big Brothers, Big Sisters, or other charities. Some scholarships specifically target students with this kind of experience.

2) Targeting Scholarships

3) Writing Winning Essays

4) Acing Scholarship Interviews

5) Requesting Letters of Recommendation


6) Planning Your Strategy

Scholarship FAQ

By now, you probably have a good understanding of the scholarship application process. Below you'll find the answers to a few more questions you may have.

What Other Benefits do Scholarships Have?

While funding your college education is probably your primary goal when applying for scholarships, remember that winning a scholarship comes with other benefits, too:

    •    Prestige 
Winning a scholarship is like winning an award, and that can be attractive to future employers and college admissions committees. 


    •    Perks 
Some scholarships come with tangible perks, like admission to conferences or events run by the organization that funds the scholarship. 

    • Prestige 
Winning a scholarship is like winning an award, and that can be attractive to future employers and college admissions committees. 


    • Perks 
Some scholarships come with tangible perks, like admission to conferences or events run by the organization that funds the scholarship. 


    • Practice 
You get practice marketing yourself, which is a skill that will be useful when you apply to jobs, graduate programs, and other grants and awards. 

    • Practice 
You get practice marketing yourself, which is a skill that will be useful when you apply to jobs, graduate programs, and other grants and awards. 


    • Papers 
You collect and update your resume, transcripts, letters of recommendation, and personal essays, all of which will help you succeed in college and beyond. 

What If I Don't Win the Scholarship I'd Hoped For?

What if I DO Win the Scholarship I'd Hoped For?

Are Any Scholarships Easy to Apply For?
Scholarship Directory
Because of the myriad of scholarships available to students both beginning and partway through their college educations, a truly comprehensive directory of scholarships is an impossibility. However, we have given creating a directory of scholarships the old college try! Below are scholarships divided by Academic Area, Organization/Corporation, Specific Circumstances, Standardized Test Scores/GPA, and Minority Students.
Scholarships for Subject Areas
The Mary Doctor Performing Arts Scholarship
Albuquerque Community Foundation
The Alaska Space Grant Program Undergraduate Research Apprenticeships
The Boren Scholarships
The NSHSS STEAM Scholarship
The Irene Adler Prize
The Next Generation Hoosier Educators Scholarship
Scholarships from National Organizations/Corporations
The National Eagle Scout Association Scholarships
The Regeneron Science Talent Search
The National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Scholarships
The 4-H Youth in Action Awards
The National Ocean Scholar Program
The Google Lime Scholarship
The SAE Engineering Scholarships
Scholarships by Circumstance
The Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans
The House of Blues Music Forward and live Nation Scholarships
First Responders Children’s Foundation Scholarships
The Western Michigan University Foundation Scholarship
The Roadway Worker Memorial Scholarship Program
The Umps Care All-Star Scholarships
The Nicholas and Helena Patti Scholarship
The 9/11 Promise Scholarship
The Dan X Wray Memorial Big Dream Scholarship
LLS Scholarship for Blood Cancer Survivors
The CHD Coalition Scholarships for those affected by CHD
The Women with Promise Scholarship
The ANSWER Scholarship
The ISF Scholarships
The Grand Rapids Trans Foundation Academic Scholarship
Scholarships for Racial Minorities
Annapolis & Anne Arundel County Scholarship Trust 
The Against the Grain Artistic Scholarship
The AICPA Scholarship for Minority Accounting Students
The Cherokee Nation College Resources Scholarships
The Chickasaw Nation Higher Education Grants, Scholarships, and Incentives
The DAR American Indians Scholarships
Student Excellence in Archaeology Scholarships
The Blacks at Microsoft (BAM) Scholarships
The Brown Medical and Educational Scholarships
The Reverend Pickney Scholarship Program
The Legacy Lab Foundation Scholarship
Academic Scholarships
The Loren Gruber Scholarship in Literary Studies
The Augustana College Academic Scholarships
The Hope College Scholarship
The Edmund F. Maxwell Foundation Scholarship
The WMU Medallion Scholarship Program
The Elbin Scholars
The ExxonMobil/LNESC Scholarship
The Kim and Harold Louie Family Foundation Scholarship Program
Expert answers to common questions about Comprehensive Scholarship Guide?

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