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Last update: May 29, 2024

College Scholarships: The Complete Guide

This is your guide to finding the perfect college scholarship, providing you with eligibility tips, application strategies, and more.


So, you're eyeing that diploma but dreading the dollar signs? You're not alone; pretty much every student out there is looking for ways to make college a bit more wallet-friendly. Whether you're an aspiring high school student or already in college, this guide will help you make a solid scholarship choice and get your finances sorted.

    What is a scholarship?

    A scholarship is basically free money you can use to pay for college. Unlike student loans, you don't have to pay it back. The money comes from different places like schools, companies, non-profits, or even the government.

    While everyone loves “free money,” make sure to read the fine print of any scholarships you get. In certain cases, you might have to repay a scholarship if you drop out of school or use the money for something other than education expenses.

    You'll usually need to fill out an application to get a scholarship. Sometimes you may need to submit extra materials, like essays or recommendation letters. There are two main types of scholarships:

    • Merit-Based Scholarships: These are for if you're really good at something, like getting good grades or playing a sport well.
    • Need-Based Scholarships: These are for if you don't have enough money to go to college.

    How do scholarships work?

    Most scholarships have rules. Some scholarships are a one-time deal, but others last for several years if you stay eligible. To keep receiving money from the kinds that last several years, you may need to:

    • Maintain a certain GPA: Some scholarships require you to sustain a minimum grade point average.
    • Participate in specific activities: You may also need to engage in certain extracurricular or community activities.
    • Periodically renew or apply: While some scholarships are one-time awards, others may be renewed for multiple years, provided you continue to meet the eligibility criteria.

    What can scholarships be used for?

    Scholarships can cover a wide variety of education-related expenses. Here's the breakdown of what you should and shouldn't spend your scholarship money on:

    Scholarships can be used for

    • Tuition

    • On-campus housing

    • Required textbooks and materials

    • Computers or tech required for courses

    Scholarships can't be used for

    • Extravagant lifestyle choices

    • Trips or vacations

    • Personal entertainment

    • Non-academic personal expenses

    Scholarships Vs. Grants?

    Both scholarships and grants are types of financial aid that don't require repayment, making them attractive options for students seeking to minimize the cost of education. While there’s a lot of overlap between scholarships and grants, they do have their differences.

    Scholarships

    Scholarships are financial aid that's often funded by private organizations. They're usually based on skills, qualities, and achievements rather than financial need.

    Great for students who:

    • Excel in academics, art, or athletics
    • Are involved in extracurricular activities
    • Show leadership qualities or community involvement

    Grants

    Grants are financial awards that help cover educational costs, based on financial need. Grants are usually funded by either universities or the government.

    Great for students who:

    • Show financial need
    • Seek government aid for education costs
    • Want financial help without repayment concerns

    TuitionHero tip

    Refinancing federal student loans with a private lender may help you get a lower rate. However, keep in mind that it will turn your federal loans into a private loan and lead to the loss of federal benefits, including income-based repayment plans and loan forgiveness programs.

    Different types of scholarships

    Scholarships come in all shapes and sizes. Check out the list below to see the different types of scholarships available - you might be surprised at what you can qualify for.

    Merit-based scholarships are awarded based on individual achievements. These achievements could be academic, artistic, or otherwise exceptional accomplishments. Grades, standardized test scores, and extracurricular activities are often considered.

    Need-based scholarships are financial aid awards designed to support students who demonstrate a significant financial need. These scholarships are granted based on the student's and their family's financial circumstances, as assessed through documents like tax returns and the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) in the United States.

    Athletic Scholarships are awarded to high-performing athletes by colleges and universities to support their education while they compete in sports at the collegiate level. The continuation of these scholarships often hinges on maintaining a certain level of athletic and academic performance and can be revoked if this standard is not met. Beyond financial support, being an athlete may also enhance eligibility for other scholarships, as it demonstrates qualities like discipline, leadership, and teamwork.

    Talent-based scholarships are awarded based on a student's specific talents, often in areas like the arts, music, or theater. These scholarships are given to students who demonstrate exceptional skill or potential in their chosen field. These scholarships aim to support and nurture students with special talents, helping them to develop their skills further, often in programs that emphasize those talents.

    Industry-specific scholarships are financial awards provided to students pursuing studies in particular fields or industries. These scholarships are often funded by companies, professional associations, or foundations within an industry and are intended to support students who show promise or interest in that specific field. The aim is to foster talent and provide financial assistance to those who are likely to contribute to the industry in the future.

    These are designed to support students who belong to specific minority or identity groups, such as those based on ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or other identity-based characteristics. These scholarships are often sponsored by organizations or foundations that aim to promote diversity and inclusion in higher education.

    Military Scholarships are offered to students who are either enrolled in military training programs like the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) or have family members who served in the military. These scholarships can significantly reduce or cover the cost of education. They may be available not only to those who enlist but also to students whose parents or guardians have served, were injured, or lost their lives in military service.

    What is a full-ride scholarship?

    A "full-ride scholarship" is a type of scholarship that covers the entire cost of college tuition, as well as other expenses like room and board, books, and sometimes even living expenses. In other words, a full-ride scholarship essentially allows you to go to college for free.

    These scholarships are highly competitive and are often awarded to students with outstanding academic records, exceptional athletic skills, or significant contributions to their community. However, the criteria for a full-ride scholarship can vary depending on the institution or organization offering it.

    With a full-ride scholarship, you usually have to meet certain requirements to continue receiving the scholarship throughout college. This might include maintaining a specific grade point average (GPA) or participating in certain activities or programs.

    To land a full-ride scholarship, we recommend that you prioritize academic excellence, including high grades and strong SAT or ACT scores. Engage in extracurricular and community service, and build relationships for quality recommendation letters. Search for scholarships that are tailored to something unique about your identity. Be sure to follow application guidelines and deadlines, and prepare compelling essays and interviews.

    TuitionHero Tip

    Apply early! While many students begin their scholarship search in their senior year, starting earlier could give you an advantage. Once your application is complete and polished, submit it ahead of the deadline to ensure your place in the competition.

    How to find scholarships?

    Here are some tips for finding and winning scholarships:

    • Use online scholarship search engines: Websites like TuitionHero.org have scholarship tools that you can use to filter options based on your academic interests, extracurricular activities, identity, and much more.
    • Ask academic departments: If you already know your major, the department may offer scholarships for students in that field of study.
    • Try searching locally: Your hometown may offer scholarships for residents who are attending college. Check with your high school guidance counselor, local clubs/organizations, community foundations, and local businesses about scholarship opportunities.
    • Military affiliation: If you or a family member is associated with the military, there may be specific scholarships you can apply for.

    Start your scholarship search early. Begin looking for scholarships at least 6 months to a year before you plan to attend college. This gives you plenty of time to find and apply to many different scholarships.

    TuitionHero Tip

    Don’t put all your eggs in one scholarship basket. Apply to multiple scholarships. It's like diversifying your investment portfolio, but for college funding! Stack enough of these scholarships together, and you could cover all your college expenses.

    How to avoid scholarship scams?

    While searching for scholarships, you may come across offers that seem too good to be true. Unfortunately, many of these are scholarship scams designed to take advantage of students and families seeking financial aid. Here are some tips to avoid scholarship scams:

    • Don’t pay to apply: Never pay for scholarship searches or applications. Legitimate scholarships do not charge fees to apply or find their opportunities. Avoid any scholarship service that requires you to pay.
    • Verify the scholarship sponsor: Make sure the organization, business, or nonprofit providing the scholarship opportunity is real and legitimate.
    • Don't fall for "guaranteed wins": No one can guarantee you'll win a scholarship. These types of offers are always scams.
    • Beware of unclaimed aid offers: Scholarships with messages like "unclaimed awards" or "guaranteed unused funds" do not really exist.

    The bottom line — legitimate scholarships will not ask for money or make unrealistic guarantees. If a scholarship opportunity seems like a scam, it probably is. Stick to well-known scholarship websites to avoid falling victim to scholarship scams.


    TuitionHero’s best scholarships
for May 2024

    TuitionHero has put together a list of the best scholarship opportunities this month. Here are our top 3 picks.


    How to write a winning scholarship essay

    Writing a scholarship essay can be intimidating, but with careful planning and a few tips, you can put your best foot forward. Let's break it down into three key stages: Preparing for the essay, creating the first draft, and finalizing your essay.

    1. Prepare and brainstorm

    Before you start typing away, preparation is crucial for a well-structured and persuasive essay. Here's how you can lay a strong foundation:

    • Read the prompt: Go over the essay prompt multiple times to make sure you understand exactly what is being asked.
    • Research the scholarship provider: Understanding the mission or the purpose behind the scholarship can help you make sure your essay matches what the provider is looking for.
    • Identify common themes: Keep an eye out for recurring themes or questions across different scholarship applications.
    • Decide your angle: Think about how you can approach the prompt in a unique way.
    • Create an outline: Map out what the different paragraphs in your essay will be about. This will serve as a roadmap for your essay.

    2. Create a first draft

    Once you're prepared, the next step is to start drafting your essay. This doesn't need to be perfect; the aim is to get your ideas down on paper. When writing that first draft, you’ll want to:

    • Gather supporting materials: Examples, anecdotes, or quotes that will support your main points.
    • Start with a hook: A captivating first sentence can grab the reader's attention and compel them to read on.
    • Follow your outline: Keep your essay outline next to you as a guide, and start filling it in.
    • Be descriptive but concise: Use the 'Show, Don't Tell' technique by providing evidence to make your points. Be sure to make your point clear and concise.
    • Conclude strongly: Your conclusion should neatly wrap up your essay, summarize your main points, and relate back to the essay prompt.

    3. Finalizing your scholarship essay

    You've laid the groundwork and drafted your ideas. Now, it's time to turn this into a polished, compelling essay.

    • Refine your language: Go through your draft and replace generic terms and phrases with more specific or impactful ones. Make sure your paragraphs transition smoothly and your points are well-organized.
    • Grammar and syntax: Use online tools or have someone review your essay to correct any grammatical errors.
    • Seek feedback: Share your essay with teachers, mentors, or family to get a different perspective.
    • Revise, revise, revise: Your first draft likely won't be your last. Keep refining it until you're completely satisfied.
    • Proofread out loud: Read the essay out loud to catch any mistakes and to ensure that it flows well.
    • Submission: Once you're satisfied, carefully read and follow the submission guidelines to ensure your hard work gets the recognition it deserves.

    How to apply for a scholarship

    Here's a step-by-step guide to help you apply for the perfect scholarship.

    1. 1

      Search for scholarships

      Start by looking for scholarships that fit your interests and skills. Talk to your school guidance counselors, check out the offerings from local nonprofits and businesses, or use Tuition Hero to find scholarships tailored to you. Make a list of scholarships you find interesting and note their requirements and deadlines. Keep everything organized to make the application process smoother. Each scholarship has its own set of guidelines. It's crucial to read these instructions carefully. They tell you how to send in your application, what the deadlines are, and who to send it to.

    2. 2

      Preparing your documents

      Gather your documents. Generally, these include your driver’s license or another form of photo ID, proof of income (either yours or your parents'), proof of college acceptance or enrollment, and your latest report card and test scores, like the ACT or SAT. Keep digital copies of all these documents so you can easily access them.

    3. 3

      Fill out the application entirly

      Make sure to complete all sections. Leaving out required information or giving incomplete answers could get your application thrown out. Pay special attention to short-answer questions and essays. Make your answers detailed and thoughtful. This is your chance to stand out.

    4. 4

      Write an engaging, inspiring essay

      If your scholarship application requires an essay, write a compelling narrative. An essay allows you to showcase who you are beyond just grades and achievements. Avoid a boring essay; instead, engage the reader right from the start. Maybe you've overcome challenges, made a difference in your community, or there’s something unique about your personal identity. Highlight these instances to provide a picture of who you are and why you deserve the Scholarship. Scholarship committees are often looking for candidates who are inspirational, so make sure your essay portrays you as such.

    5. 5

      Review and submit

      Before sending off your application, review it carefully to look for any errors in spelling or grammar. Even small mistakes can show that you're not paying close attention and could cost you the scholarship. Have 
a mentor or teacher provide feedback to ensure your essay is as effective as it can be. Finally, make sure to submit your complete application package before the deadline to ensure your hard work gets the consideration it deserves.

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    Frequently Asked Questions

    We've got answers to just about any question you can think of.

    You can find scholarships by using scholarship search engines, checking with your school's financial aid office, and researching organizations related to your field of interest. Don’t forget to ask your guidance counselor as well!

    Yes, scholarships can affect your financial aid package. Scholarships are considered a form of financial resource and must be reported to your college's financial aid office.

    Most scholarships require you to maintain a certain GPA, enroll in a specific number of credit hours per semester, and remain in good standing with your college or university. Some may also have additional requirements, like participating in community service or being involved in certain activities.

    Yes, it is possible to refinance your student loans while you're still in school with specific lenders such as RISLA, Discover, and Earnest. However, eligibility typically requires a good credit score and income. Keep in mind that refinancing, especially federal loans, could lead to the loss of certain benefits and may require immediate repayment. Therefore, it's essential to carefully consider your financial situation and long-term implications before making this decision.

    It's never too early to start looking for scholarships. Some are available to students to apply for as early as their freshman year of high school. Generally, you should start your search at least a year before you need the funds, as many scholarships have deadlines early in the academic year.

    Yes, there are scholarships available specifically for international students. However, they may be more competitive and limited in number. Additionally, check with the universities you are interested in attending, as some offer scholarships directly to international students.

    This may vary from lender to lender. Still, a general rule of thumb is that you'll need the following key documents: a copy of your credit report, proofs of stable income and employment (like recent pay stubs or tax returns), a government-issued ID, and current loan documents detailing your account information and payoff amounts. If required by the lender, provide proof of your degree and proof of residency. If a co-signer is involved, they'll need to submit similar documents. Before applying, ensure to pay down existing debts, compare lenders, and consider other repayment options if needed. Be sure to check with the specific lender.

    Yes, most lenders allow you to set up automatic payments for your refinanced student loans. This is a convenient option as it ensures your payments are made on time each month, helping you avoid late fees and potential negative impacts on your credit score.

    In addition to the convenience, some lenders offer a slight reduction in your interest rate if you set up automatic payments. This discount can typically range from 0.25% to 0.50%, but it varies from lender to lender. This could result in substantial savings over the life of your loan.

    Conclusion

    As you journey down the road to refinancing your student loans, the path might seem confusing at times. But with the right info, you'll conquer those loans like a champ! We hope this guide has enlightened you on student loan refinancing, so you can make educated decisions and confidently invest in your financial future.

    TuitionHero is your one-stop shop for comparing and choosing the perfect refinancing option. We're by your side, every step of the way. And remember, when it comes to controlling your finances and future, you're the ultimate hero!

    Key takeaways

    • Scholarships are essentially “free money” for college, but make sure to spend the money wisely
    • There are plenty of different types of scholarships, including academic, need-based, and athletic. You might be surprised at the scholarships you can qualify for
    • Grants and scholarships are very similar, but grants are usually need-based and scholarships are usually merit-based
    • There’s no limit to the number of scholarships you can get, so make sure to apply for plenty
    • Scholarships can save you a lot of money in the long run since they reduce your dependence on loans, so do your best to take advantage of scholarship opportunities
    • Writing a winning scholarship essay requires time and attention. Don’t rush the process, and make sure you get feedback from people that you trust
    • Valuable resources for finding scholarships include your college’s financial aid office, your guidance counselor, local businesses, non-profit organizations - and, of course, TuitionHero!

    Author

    Brian Flaherty avatar

    Brian is a graduate of the University of Virginia where he earned a B.A. in Economics. After graduation, Brian spent four years working working at a wealth management firm advising high-net-worth investors and institutions. During his time there, he passed the rigorous Series 65 exam and rose to a high-level strategy position.

    Editor

    Yerain Abreu avatar

    Yerain Abreu is a Content Strategist with over 7 years of experience. He earned a Master's degree in digital marketing from Zicklin School of Business. He focuses on college finance, a niche carved out of his journey through the complexities of academic finance. These firsthand experiences provide him with a unique perspective, enabling him to create content that's informative and relatable to students and their families grappling with the intricacies of college financing.

    At TuitionHero, we're not just passionate about our work - we take immense pride in it. Our dedicated team of writers diligently follows strict editorial standards, ensuring that every piece of content we publish is accurate, current, and highly valuable. We don't just strive for quality; we aim for excellence.


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