The best way to avoid borrowing money for school is to get as much free money as possible.
Free money, like what’s awarded through grants and scholarships, doesn’t have to be repaid like student loans do. Grants are usually based on financial need, while scholarships are awarded based on merit, like academics or athletics.
Finding college scholarships might seem overwhelming, but once you know where to look, you could earn enough free money that you could graduate from college debt-free.
What is a college scholarship?
A college scholarship is an amount of money you are awarded to help you pay for school. Merit-based scholarships can come from many different places, including:
- Private businesses
- For-profit institutions
- Professional organizations
- Celebrities and philanthropists
- Individuals on a local, state, or federal level
Some scholarships are available to apply for while you’re in high school or even when you’re in college. Depending on your scholarship, you may get a one-time award or one that renews annually until you graduate.
Many scholarships require you to have (or keep) a certain grade point average to qualify. Not all scholarships will individually cover the total cost of college. In that case, you may need to apply for many different student scholarships to pay for school without taking out loans.
Where can you find college scholarships?
There are so many college scholarships available that the list can feel endless and overwhelming. The best place to start is in your local area.
Search for college scholarships in your city, county, or even state before hitting the federal level. Local scholarships are less in-demand, which means you might have better chances of qualifying for them.
When browsing through local options that offer college scholarships in your area, review the requirements, including:
- What you need to apply, like GPA, a possible essay, or transcripts
- How much you’ll be awarded
- If it’s a one-time scholarship or ongoing
- If you need to reapply each year
- The deadline for your application
- If you need references
- Any restrictions, like if you’re limited to an in-state university, for example
- Whether you’ll receive the money personally or it will go directly to your college of choice
Applying to many different scholarships for college can be a huge undertaking. It’s best to keep track in an organized way to make sure you aren’t missing out on something important. Use a spreadsheet that includes the information above along with the name of the scholarship and who is presenting it. You’ll avoid duplicate applications and can easily tell how much you’re awarded if you win.
After you’ve exhausted local scholarships, it’s time to search for federal scholarships or those available in other areas. Rather than sifting through thousands of scholarships available, narrow your search by a variety of different options, like:
- Where you attend school
- Your potential major
- Race, ethnicity, gender, age, or religion
- Standardized test scores (SAT, ACT)
- Grade point average
- Student or honors organizations
- Military affiliation
- Award amount
Make sure you’re applying to real scholarships and not scams or sweepstakes posing as scholarships. Most real scholarships require proof of GPA, transcripts, and an essay or answers to questions in some form. If your potential scholarship doesn’t require any sort of proof of your merits, asks for responses in 100 characters or less, and admits that selection is random, you might be looking at a sweepstakes or scam.
Scholarships are awarded once or twice a year and usually require some work to complete the application process, while frauds send out awards more often, like weekly or monthly. While daunting, remember that a person or a group is giving out money and nothing comes free.
Many different sites offer scholarship searches, so make sure you vet your results as much as possible before applying. Popular scholarship websites include Big Future, CareerOneStop, and Student Scholarships.
What do you need to apply?
The requirements for college scholarships vary quite a bit based on who is offering it. There is no minimum standard and what you need can shift and change with every application you complete.
Before you start applying, get your documents in order. You might need copies of your transcripts, which means you’ll need to head to your school’s administration offices to see how those are handled.
You may also need to provide verification of your current grade point average, affiliations with specific organizations, or your religion, depending on the scholarship you’re applying for. Be prepared to have those documents ready when the time for your application is due.
Also, keep in mind that you may have to complete an essay or provide references for your application. Both of these might be more difficult than you may be initially prepared for. While it’s important not to rush the essay part, reach out to your resources for help. Do you have a friend or family member that can help you sort through your thoughts to put on paper? Is there someone who can read over your draft before you submit? Find out who’s available to help make sure your application is in the best possible shape.
As you’re making a list of references, ask each person if they are willing to serve as one before submitting your application. If they don’t have an idea they are your reference, it’s difficult for them to be prepared to answer questions on your behalf. Prepare them as much as possible beforehand so they’re ready just in case.
Make sure the information you provide for references is accurate and up-to-date, including emails, phone numbers, and personal addresses, if necessary. If someone is reviewing your application and can’t contact your references, you might be disqualified.
Are you ready to apply for college scholarships?
It’s never too soon to start looking for ways to pay for school, including college scholarships. Even if you’re early on in your high school career, like a freshman or sophomore, you can still browse through what’s available. Or, at the very least, see what you may qualify for given what you’d like to major in when you eventually get to college.
Get your paperwork in order, keep track of what you need to apply, mark deadlines on your calendar and find out when you can expect to hear back about approval. The earlier you get started, the more opportunities you’ll be able to find.
But don’t stop once you get into college. You may need to keep up your applications on a rolling basis. Or if your application was a one-time award, you might need to apply for different scholarships for later years. Do your best to stay organized and keep a backup plan in case you fall short on scholarship funds. You may need to explore grants, federal loans, or private student loans, depending on how much money you need to pay for school.