Whether you’re about to start as an undergraduate, headed to graduate school, or in the middle of your studies, you might be wondering how to get or maximize scholarship money to help fund your education.
You’re asking the right question. Getting a scholarship (or scholarships–you can get more than one!) can help reduce the cost burden of school on your bank account, however, it can also be a complicated process.
Below, we’ll focus on how to get scholarships that are merit-based as opposed to grants and financial aid that are need-based and based on your FAFSA.
Just as your college or graduate program application starts long before you send in your personal statement and transcripts (you can’t retroactively get better grades, after all), your chances of getting scholarships will be greater if you start thinking about what would make you a desirable applicant as early as possible—whether that’s while you’re still in high school or undergraduate studies.
Different scholarships will take into account a variety of factors, but you’ll generally set yourself up for success by getting good grades, participating in extracurricular activities, and building relationships with teachers, professors, and other people who can speak favorably on your behalf.
In addition, many scholarships will require a written submission—so don’t shirk your writing classes. Your skills in writing quickly and efficiently will be useful when completing multiple essays both for your school applications as well as the scholarships.
Explore University Scholarships
Let’s first talk about that majority of money that comes from colleges. The type of scholarships each college offers will vary, so check with the financial aid office at your school of choice.
“More than 90% of college financial aid is administered by the colleges, which means that most scholarship and grant money comes from the colleges through their aid process,” says Joe Orsolini of College Aid Planners,, a consulting group for the college application process.
Read more How to Complete Your FAFSA
Want more info on how to pay for your graduate education?
Download our new guide to get the information you need.Download Guide
For example, University of California (UC) Berkeley, a public school that’s part of the UC system in California, offers an Undergraduate Scholarship to students who meet certain GPA criteria – but the amount awarded will depend on your financial need, which is determined by your inputs on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. Since financial need will be largely based on you and your parents’ income, the only variable you can affect in this case is your grades. On the other hand, a school like Santa Clara University offers a number of different merit-based scholarships, with predetermined award amounts that will not vary based on financial need.
Most university scholarships will be awarded based on your application to the college and your FAFSA, both of which you’ll need to submit to attend that school in the first place.
That’s great news because it won’t require extra work on your end to be considered for this free money. Once you’ve maxed out university aid, however, securing private scholarships will require a bit more effort—both to find the scholarships and to apply.
Look Locally for Private Scholarships
When starting your search for additional scholarships, start locally first for outside private scholarships; the competition will be less, therefore increasing your chances of winning the award. Orsolini, who ran the scholarship program for Chamber of Commerce in Lombard, Ill., for a number of years, says they would typically receive 12-15 applications for two different scholarships. These numbers put applicants’ odds at around one in seven; that’s much better than one in thousands for something like the Dr. Pepper tuition giveaway.
For undergraduates, start the search at your high school. Many high schools will list local scholarships on the college section of their website, and guidance counselors at your school are likely to have some pointers as well.
For both undergraduate and graduate students, make sure to check your college’s website as they will also be likely to list scholarships that local organizations and alumni have made available to students of the college. If you prefer in-person help, schedule a time to go into your school’s financial aid office to talk through the options.
Expand Your Search, Strategically
Even if you’ve exhausted your local scholarship options, there are plenty more out there and it’s just a matter of choosing which are worth your time. Here are some resources to start your search:
- FinAid – www.finaid.org
- FastWEB – www.fastweb.com
- FastAid – www.fastaid.com
- The College Board – www.collegeboard.com
- Peterson’s Scholarship Search – www.petersons.com
Make sure you filter strategically to find those for which you’re most likely to have a strong application. FastWeb, for example, lists scholarships by year of study, scholarships for veterans, scholarships for bilingual students… you name it. Make sure you’re only searching for scholarships that fit your profile.
One tip from Ashley Hill, CEO of College Prep Ready, a college application consulting company, is to look for scholarships offered by industry associations in your career path of choice.
Are you an undergraduate looking to go into nursing? The National Student Nurses’ Association offers a scholarship for that. Graduate student in electrical engineering? Then check out Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. Bottom line, find scholarships that require some sort of additional qualification to apply for. Doing so will limit the number of applicants, and increase your chances of being chosen.
Prioritize the Scholarships You’re Seeking
Once you’ve identified a number of scholarships you’re eligible to receive, make a priority list based on factors like the award amount and how much effort the application will require. In many cases, you may be able to repurpose the written portion of your application; these should go higher on the list as they’ll take less time and effort.
“If you can reuse any essays while still following all of the directions and rules to the scholarship, do so.”
Kevin Ladd, COO of Scholarships.com, urges scholarships applicants to “work hard and smart… If you can reuse any essays while still following all of the directions and rules to the scholarship, do so.”
In addition to the amount of effort required to apply, compare potential scholarships based on the award amount. While it might not be worth writing a five-page essay for a $500 scholarship, a $5,000 one may well deserve some extra effort.
Don’t Stop Looking
The search for extra money to pay for your schooling doesn’t have to be over after freshman year. Many scholarships are available to college students of any age, so make a point of scheduling some time to search and apply for new scholarships each year. Even if you performed a comprehensive search last year, Ladd says new scholarships are constantly being created, so it’s worth seeing what’s new since the last time you looked.
The Bottom Line
Start early not just looking for scholarships, but also building up your resume and experiences that will make you a desirable applicant. When you are ready to apply, search strategically and prioritize so that you’re not overwhelmed by the number of applications you have to complete. Lastly, keep searching each year to maximize the total awards you receive. With a few days of work each year, you could greatly reduce the cost burden of your undergraduate or graduate education, leaving fewer student loans to deal with once you’ve graduated.