College Scholarships 101
College Courses are typically given a number as well as a name.  More advanced classes tend to have higher numbers.  College students start out though, with the foundational courses.  “Psychology 101” or “Sociology 101” come to mind.  This paper, in true “101” style, will introduce you to some very basic ideas regarding how to obtain scholarships to help pay for college.  It is by no means the final word on the subject, but I think it’s an excellent start, and at 5 pages, it’s something you can read in the time it takes to enjoy a cup of coffee.
When  you’re done reading, you can easily begin an effective scholarship hunt, but for you committed over-achievers, I’ll list mention a couple of excellent books that deal with the topic.
The Scholarship Hunt: Part I
In Part I, I’ll be talking about those scholarships you apply for, win, and then take to the school of your choice.  Later on we’ll take a look at scholarships which are awarded to you from a particular institution for use only at that institution.
First the bad news.  In my experience, there is not a scholarship out there for everyone.  The good news though, is that there are lots of scholarships out there, and you (or your child) may qualify for one or more.  And, since most students won’t put in the time to find or apply for the right scholarships, the odds of you finding one or more are good.  The key is finding and applying for the right ones!
Many scholarships will fit a tiny slice of the overall population.  For example, many will be based on a particular disability.  Others might be reserved for those who had committed “an heroic act.”  One might be for students who plan to study mortuary science.  I know of one that is only available to students of Croatian descent.
This kind of specific focus, which tends to rule out a large percentage of the population, is common with scholarships.  While it may work against the “average” student, it may be helpful to you.  Is there some way in which you or your goals stand out?  If so, there may be a scholarship waiting for you!
Because of these narrowly focused scholarships, it’s critically important to complete the online questionnaires at and/or accurately.  While completing those questionnaires, think carefully about giving them permission to share your information.  While you might be contacted with useful offers, you might also get less useful offers, and information overload from simply too many offers is also a possibility.  (College Board and Peterson’ are also available if you’d like to experiment a bit further.)
There are also many scholarships that are based on outstanding performance in academics, athletics, or areas such as music, theater, art, etc.  To earn a scholarship in these areas, you would most likely have to be truly exceptional.  You never know for sure, but in these categories you’ll probably have to be in the top 1-5% of your peers to have a decent shot.
There are also many scholarships that are based on a combination of factors.  A common description might be “academics, activities, and leadership.”  For these scholarships, a student might not have to excel to the extreme in any one area, but might have to rank in the top 10-20% of their peers in EVERY area, and be outstanding in one area.
One issue that comes up more and more often in the scholarships I see is community service.  It is not used often as the sole criteria for awarding money, but it is often used as a required part of the total picture.  While it may not be practical for every student to do volunteer work, this may be worth considering for those who are “on the fence” about whether or not to do some volunteer work.
Some of the scholarships based largely or in part on community service will require that your service be documented formally, and this will likely require a form or letter from the adult responsible for your supervision of that service.  Total hours required vary widely, but based on those I’ve seen, 50-60 hours of service would suffice for the majority of scholarships.  Obviously if you have a particular scholarship in mind, check out the requirements as early as you possibly can.
The last broad category of scholarship I’ll mention in Part I is the essay contest.  Please note that many of the scholarships previously mentioned may include essays.  What sets true essay scholarships apart is that they are awarded based solely on the essays involved.  What this means in practical terms is that the student who barely graduates, and ranks absolutely last in his/her class can compete for this scholarship on an equal footing with the class valedictorian.
For any student who is not in the top 10% of his/her class, or exceptional in some other way that is well matched to the particular scholarship, the essay scholarship often offers the most chance of success.  
Probably the single most important step you can take to find scholarships that are a good match for you is to register at  There you can search a huge database of scholarships (over 1.5 million worth $3.4 billion!)  Once you’re registered, they’ll even send you notifications via email for newly posted scholarships that seem appropriate for you ( is another great site with information on 3.7 million scholarships worth around $19 billion!).  As there is no charge for this, it seems like a great way to go to identify the national scholarships.  Do it now and put that part of your scholarship search on autopilot!  I'll wait.
Keep in mind though, that for some of these scholarships you’ll be competing with tens of thousands of students across the country.  That’s some stiff competition.  My students often got a greater reward for their efforts when they applied for local or regional scholarships that are a bit less high profile.
To find these types of scholarships is to simply turn on your “scholarship radar.”
  • Listen to the announcements in your school.  
  • Study bulletin boards in school and newsletters sent home.  
  • Check your school’s web site weekly.  
Most high schools receive information on locally offered scholarships throughout the year.  These are promoted in a variety of ways.  Make sure you know how your school handles that so that you don’t miss out.  Often these local scholarships have only a few applicants; as opposed to the national scholarships with may have thousands or tens of thousands of applicants.  Which odds would you rather face?
Finally, spend some time searching actively for scholarships.  Check with your parents’ employers, unions, or professional organizations.  Check with state and local organizations for the profession you hope to enter after college.  Sometimes local athletic associations or religious groups will offer scholarships.  If the dollar amounts aren't as large as some of the national scholarships offered, remember that your odds of winning may be much greater.
Let me close this section by discussing the emphasizing the idea of odds.  I don’t want anyone to approach the scholarship search with a pessimistic outlook, but some realism could be very useful.  At my school we usually have 6-12 students apply for one of the well-known national scholarships each year.  This scholarship is awarded after two rounds of screening and selection.  The first round is simply “by the numbers.”  Students selected for the final round then supply additional info, and the national winners are then selected.
To put it simply, no one here remembers when one of our students made it through the first round, let alone the second.  Do I tell my students not to bother with it?  Not unless they ask for my advice.  Do I encourage them to focus their efforts on the more regional or local scholarships?  Absolutely!
One other point about the local and regional scholarships worth mentioning is this.  Many awards are strictly “one time only” awards for college freshman.  The funny thing is though, that I’ve seen some of these funded beyond the first year.  This tends to happen when the scholarship winner makes an appropriate effort to thank the donors for the award, and then gets back to them later in the school year to report how much the award has meant.  I DO NOT mean to say that this is in any way standard practice.  It is not.  Doesn't it seem like plain good manners to express your appreciation though—even twice?
I think it does, and I've seen individuals and groups so pleased with that that they have broken their own rules or located additional funds to help an appreciative student out again.
Parents often ask me how much time their child should be spending working to get scholarships.  I never give them a straight answer.  I used to, but too often it was a case of them using my opinion—and it’s only my opinion—as some type of weapon in a battle of wills with their child.
This is a very personal matter.  If you’re the valedictorian of your class and involved in a lot of activities, I’d suggest you try and spend two or three hours a week at this, as the payoff seems likely to be worthwhile.  If you were in the bottom half of your class, I’d suggest you do the major searches I've recommended and be alert for local scholarships--especially essay contests.  Maybe complete one every week or two.  Whatever amount of time you decide on, spend it carefully on those scholarships where you have a decent shot.
The Scholarship Hunt: Part II
In Part II we’ll take a look at scholarships that are awarded to you from a particular institution for use only at that institution.  I’m not recommending you make these the only criteria in choosing colleges to apply to, but it’s certainly one worthwhile consideration.  There are two broad categories worth noting.
The first category is one in which the institution, or some part of it, has decided to encourage a particular type of applicant.  One of the best examples I can think of is Washington College, which is located in Maryland.  Washington offers a scholarship of $15,000 per year to every National Honor Society (NHS) member they admit.  There is no special application, and no interview committee to satisfy.  Clearly Washington College wants the type of student found in the NHS, and they are willing to cough up some serious cash to get them.
Many colleges and universities offer merit scholarships based on published criteria.  For instance, the Rider University publishes information showing that many students will likely qualify for significant aid.  You can read more about their scholarships by looking at their web page.
Many other colleges of a wide range of scholarships that you may qualify for.  Be sure to research the sites of colleges you're considering.
The second category is where someone in the institution wants a particular student because of something that particular student has to offer.  It could be a star athlete, an exceptionally talented musician, or a writer with great promise.  In any case, someone at the institution will have to convince someone in financial aid that the particular student in question is worth some special consideration.
If you have some skill or talent that might be sought to this degree, that “someone” who pulls the strings may recruit you.  If not, you may want to seek them out and ask for their help with financial aid.
Students who want athletic scholarships will want to pay close attention to their grades, especially in their core courses.  Failure to take the right classes (as early as grade 9!) and get the right grades, in combination with SAT scores, can make a student absolutely ineligible for athletic scholarships.  For more information, visit the NCAA Eligibility Center here.  (If that last link doesn't work, just google "NCAA Eligibility Center."   Their pages are a little unusual.)  You can pick up a copy of their Guide for Student Athletes while you’re there.
Scholarship Resources
Be creative and be alert.  Listen for announcements and look for posters that may be in your own high school.  Look online for scholarships for a particular type of person (your type).
Once again, below are links for some of the major scholarship search sites.  Remember that a scholarship is sort of a “needle-in-a-haystack,” so perseverance counts.  Even more important is that you get started!  Do it now!
Final Thoughts
A few final notes about scholarships may be worth your consideration.  First, I don’t recommend that students apply for any scholarship for which there is any type of fee at all.  You may decide to do so anyway, but please be aware that these may be geared less towards providing scholarships and more towards making money for the sponsors.
Second, remember that students who are already in college can apply for many scholarships.  If this information happens to reach you in your freshman, sophomore, or junior year of college, you may want to look for some of the scholarships you were too busy to apply for in high school.
Finally, please be sure not to give away any personal information you don’t want others to have while you’re searching for  or even applying for scholarships online.


Searching for scholarships can be a smart use of your time, as long as you do it strategically.  Equally, or perhaps even more important for many students, is driving down the cost of college.  If you haven’t considered that yet, please take a look at Choose Community (or at least least state-funded) College (or university).