How to Find and Apply for College Scholarships

Updated: April 23, 2024

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College represents a significant investment in the future for many students, yet it comes with considerable initial costs. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics for academic year 2021-22 shows that, for the most recent year reported, the average total cost for first-time, full-time undergraduates living on campus was highest at private nonprofit institutions ($55,800), followed by private for-profit institutions ($32,900) and public institutions ($26,000).

According to the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS), undergraduate students received an average of $14,100 in aid from various sources (loans, grants or scholarships) during the 2019-20 academic year.

With the cost of college increasing every year, it’s more important than ever to start looking for college scholarships early. There are many scholarships, aid opportunities and budgeting resources available to help lower the overall costs of higher education.

What Are Scholarships?

Scholarships are funds awarded to students for education, not requiring repayment. They are available from various sources, such as schools, employers, nonprofits and professional groups, and their amounts range widely. Scholarships may be one-time, annual, or cover the full education cost, based on criteria like academic achievement, talents, or specific backgrounds.

Similar to scholarships, grants do not need repayment but focus on financial need, sometimes targeting particular groups or studies. Student loans, in contrast, must be repaid with interest, as they are borrowed funds for educational expenses.

Scholarships vs. Grants vs. Student Loans

The following table illustrates the key differences between scholarships, grants and student loans.

Student Loans


Various (institutions, organizations, individuals).

Federal or state governments, institutions.

Federal government, private lenders.


Merit-based, need-based, specific criteria.

Financial need, specific criteria.

Financial need, enrollment status.


Not required.

Not required.

Required, with interest.


To reward merit or meet specific criteria.

To provide aid based on financial need.

To borrow money for education expenses.

Types of Scholarships and How to Qualify

Qualifying for a scholarship involves understanding the categories available and aligning your application to meet their specific criteria. Scholarships can be categorized mainly into three types: merit-based, need-based and those aimed at specific demographics such as women, graduate students and more, each with its own set of qualifications:


Scholarships can be merit-based, which students earn by meeting or exceeding specific standards set by the scholarship-giver and can be awarded based on academic achievement or on a combination of academics and a special talent, trait, interest or background. To qualify, focus on maintaining excellent grades, participating in extracurricular activities and showcasing your talents or achievements through portfolios or competitions.


Need-based scholarships require applicants to demonstrate financial need. Qualification often involves submitting financial documents, such as tax returns or the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), to provide a clear picture of your financial situation.

Specific Demographic

Many scholarships target students from certain backgrounds, identities or life experiences. This category includes scholarships for women, minorities, students with disabilities and more. There are also scholarships for students who are veterans, future or active military personnel or family members of active or future military personnel, such as Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) and Veterans Service Organization scholarships.

Other college scholarships are based on affiliation, such as:

  • Association or fraternal organization membership
  • Ethnic or minority group
  • Disability status
  • Employer affiliation
  • Religious affiliation
  • Military or veteran status
  • Accredited university
  • Union affiliation

How to Find College Scholarships

A well-organized search taps into various resources, from government databases to local community organizations and can help uncover numerous funding opportunities tailored to your academic and personal background.

Be careful to avoid scams when researching scholarships online. Legitimate scholarships should never require payment to apply. Be wary of offers that seem too good to be true and never provide personal financial information during your search.

The following are tips for an efficient and effective scholarship search:

Utilize Search Tools

Begin your search with the U.S. Department of Labor's free scholarship search tool, which offers access to over 8,000 college scholarships, fellowships, grants and other financial aid opportunities. This database can be a starting point for finding financial aid that matches your educational and career goals. Make sure to expand your search beyond one resource. Utilize multiple scholarship databases and resources to uncover a wider range of opportunities.

Consult High School Counselor

High school guidance counselors often have a wealth of information about scholarship opportunities. They can provide personalized suggestions based on your academic record, extracurricular activities and intended college major.

Contact College Financial Aid Offices

Contact the financial aid offices of the colleges you are interested in attending. They can inform you about institution-specific scholarships and grants for which you might be eligible.

Explore Employer-Sponsored Scholarships

Many employers offer scholarships to the children of employees. Ask your parents to inquire about any available scholarship programs at their workplaces.

Ask Community and Religious Organizations

Local community groups, religious organizations and civic clubs often sponsor scholarships for area students. These scholarships may be less competitive but can increase your chances of receiving an award.

Explore Local Business Opportunities

Small local businesses and large corporations may offer scholarships to students in their communities. These scholarships are sometimes less well-known, making them valuable targets in your scholarship search.

Scholarship Search Tools

Consider using dedicated scholarship search tools and general web searches to streamline your search and maximize your chances of finding suitable scholarships. The table below lists some search tools you can use to start your search.

Search Tool

Provides a list of over 25,000 scholarships with search options based on educational level and achievements.

Offers detailed financial aid information from a survey of over 6,000 programs, personalized for students.

Features a personalized scholarship matching system and contests, drawing from a database of $1.5 million in scholarships and billions of scholarship funds.

Includes a user-friendly scholarship search within a broader site offering college rankings and reviews.

Provides 6 million scholarships worth $30 billion and filters to match your profile.

College Scholarships for Specific Groups

Whether you're pursuing engineering, business, technology or the arts, there's likely a scholarship suited to your academic journey and personal background. Here's a closer look at some of the scholarship types available for different groups of students.

Scholarships for Minorities

If you need help paying for college, you'll want to source funding from loans, grants, work-study programs and scholarships. Many organizations help support minority students with scholarships tailored to individuals from different backgrounds.

Scholarships for Asian Students

College scholarships for Asian-American students include general scholarships and those focused on law, business, communications, STEM and other programs. Some notable scholarships include the APIA Scholarship Program, the Gates Millennium Scholars Program and the CCAPW Scholarships.

Scholarships for Black Students

College scholarships for Black students include general scholarships and awards focused on engineering, business, technology, nursing, education and more. Key scholarships to consider are the Agnes Jones Jackson Scholarship, the Department of Defense SMART Scholarship and the APPLE HBCU Scholars Program.

Scholarships for Hispanic Students

College scholarships for Hispanic students include general scholarships and those focused on engineering, business, technology, nursing, education and other programs. Some scholarships available are the Hispanic Heritage Youth Awards and the La Unidad Latina Scholarship.

Scholarships for Native American Students

College scholarships for Native American students include general scholarships and programs for STEM, health, business, media education or other fields. Each state offers scholarships for Native American residents.

Scholarships for Students With Disabilities

College scholarships are available for students with disabilities and chronic illnesses, ADHD, autism, hearing impairment, learning disabilities, physical disabilities, speech and language disorders, visual disabilities, chronic illness and disabled veterans.

Scholarships for Women

College scholarships for women include general scholarships and those focused on engineering, science, math, aviation, nursing, technology, legal, medical and graduate programs.

Health Care Scholarships

Students looking to major in health care will likely pursue a bachelor's and graduate degree, so it's especially important to try to pay for college without loans. There are plenty of college scholarships for students going into the health care field, for undergrads and beyond.

Public Health Scholarships

Scholarships are available for graduate students in public health, environmental health, health care management, health education and more.

Graduate School Scholarships

Similar to the process for securing funding for an undergraduate degree, graduate degrees are likely to be financed by a combination of student loans, grants, scholarships and work-study programs. Teaching assistantships, resident assistantships and fellowships are other options for graduate students.

Law School Scholarships

Just like applying for aid as an undergraduate, start the law-school financing process by filling out the FAFSA. When applying for law school scholarships, develop strong applications, increasing the chances of earning merit-based scholarships.

Medical School Scholarships

Medical school is the most expensive of all graduate degree programs. It can take a dozen years and cost almost $200,000. Similar to law school, medical school students should fill out the FAFSA, submit scholarship applications and consider work-study programs.

Prestigious Graduate Scholarships

The most prestigious graduate scholarships in the U.S. are the Rhodes, Fulbright, Churchill, Marshall and Harry S. Truman scholarships. These programs are highly competitive and have stringent requirements and application processes. Program alums include notable people like U.S. President Bill Clinton, author Thomas Friedman, opera singer Renée Fleming and presidential adviser and ABC news anchor George Stephanopoulos.

Common Scholarship Application Requirements

The process of applying for college scholarships may differ based on each scholarship's specific requirements. After researching which scholarships you wish to apply for, list the relevant information, including application deadlines, qualification, essay and criteria requirements. Each scholarship can require different combinations of the following common requirements:

Letters of Recommendation

Letters of recommendation are personalized endorsements highlighting your academic and personal achievements, providing scholarship committees with a deeper insight into your character and potential. A strong letter should offer insight into your capabilities and provide specific examples of your leadership, character and dedication.

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Choose recommenders who know you well and can speak to your achievements, impacts and character, such as teachers, coaches or mentors. Give them a resume or summary of your accomplishments to help them write a detailed letter.


A resume for scholarship applications distills your academic background, extracurricular activities, leadership experiences and any work or volunteer experience into a concise document. Effective resumes are well-organized and highlight achievements that align with the scholarship's criteria, such as leadership roles in clubs or community service efforts. Avoid listing activities irrelevant to the application and unable to set you apart from other candidates.

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Keep your resume concise and focused on your most relevant achievements. Use clear, action-oriented language and quantify achievements when possible. Many online resources and templates are specifically designed for high school students applying for scholarships, such as ScholarshipOwl or

High School or College Transcripts

Your high school or college transcripts serve as a comprehensive record of your academic journey, cataloging the courses and grades you've earned. They provide scholarship committees with a window into your academic rigor and achievements over time. A strong academic record naturally stands out, showcasing your dedication and ability to excel in your studies.

However, if you're concerned that your grades might not fully reflect your potential, remember that transcripts are just one part of your application. Engaging in extracurricular activities, pursuing leadership roles and demonstrating a commitment to community service can significantly enhance your application.

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Request your transcripts well in advance of scholarship deadlines. Some institutions may require an official transcript, which means it must be sent directly from your school or sealed if given to you.

FAFSA Information

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) provides information about students' financial needs. It provides a comprehensive view of your financial situation, enabling scholarship committees to assess your financial need accurately. Some scholarships use this information to determine financial eligibility.

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Complete the FAFSA form as early as possible. The information you provide can be crucial for need-based scholarships, so ensure accuracy in all financial details. Inaccuracies or omissions in your FAFSA application can misrepresent your financial need, potentially affecting your eligibility for need-based scholarships.

GPA Information

Your grade point average (GPA) is a key indicator of your academic performance and is often used as a benchmark for scholarship eligibility. However, many scholarship committees also consider the context of your GPA, such as improvements over time or achievements in particularly challenging courses, recognizing that a single number doesn't tell the whole story.

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Maintain a strong GPA throughout high school or college. If your GPA is close to the scholarship requirement, emphasize other strengths in your application, such as leadership roles or community service.

Personal Essay

Personal essays allow you to share your story, goals and values with the scholarship committee. A compelling essay is authentic and reflective, offering insights into your personal growth, the challenges you've overcome and your aspirations. It should be well-written, clear and engaging, drawing the reader into your narrative.

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Tailor each essay to the prompt and make sure it reflects your individuality. Be authentic and proofread carefully. Resources like the Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL) offer guidance on writing scholarship essays.

How to Prepare for a Scholarship Application

Getting ready for scholarship applications means starting early and knowing what you need. Here's how to get organized and make your applications strong.

Start Early

Begin your search for scholarships during your junior year of high school. This early start is important because some scholarships have deadlines up to a year before college begins. Starting early also gives you ample time to tailor your applications to meet specific scholarship criteria, enhancing your chances of success.

Compile and Organize Your Scholarship List

With the wide variety of scholarships available, compiling a comprehensive list of those you are eligible for will help you stay organized. Utilize scholarship search engines, school resources and community organizations to build your list.

Prioritize Your Applications

Organize your list of scholarships by deadline and priority, focusing first on those that closely match your profile and have earlier deadlines. This approach helps you manage your time effectively and increases your chances of submitting successful applications.

Gather Application Materials

Common scholarship application materials include transcripts, letters of recommendation, personal essays and proof of eligibility (such as financial need documentation or community service records). Gather these materials in advance to streamline the application process.

Customize Your Applications

Tailor your application materials to reflect how you meet each scholarship's specific criteria. Highlighting your unique strengths and achievements can make your application stand out.

Cost-Saving Tips for College Students

While scholarships and grants cut considerable costs from your overall college tuition, these tips can highlight additional ways for students to save money:

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    Buy Used or Rent Textbooks

    New textbooks can be expensive. Look for used options online, rent them for the semester or explore digital versions.

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    Take Advantage of Student Discounts:

    Many businesses offer discounts to students on software, transportation and entertainment. Always carry your student ID and don't hesitate to ask.

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    Utilize Campus Resources

    Instead of spending money on gym memberships or printing services, use what your campus provides for free or at a lower cost.

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    Plan Your Meals

    Dining out frequently can quickly eat up your budget. Cook at home, plan your meals and take advantage of meal plans if living on campus.

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    Use Public Transportation

    If possible, use public transportation or bike to campus to save on parking and gas.

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    Re-Apply for Scholarships and Grants

    After your first year, keep looking for financial aid opportunities to reduce tuition costs.

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    Shop Smart

    For essentials, look for sales, use coupons and buy in bulk when it makes sense.

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    Manage Credit Cards Wisely

    Ensure you use a student credit card only for purchases within your budget. Pay off balances monthly to avoid interest and maintain a good credit score.

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    Understand Auto Loans

    If you're considering purchasing a vehicle with an auto loan or already have one, learn more about financing and the best payment options for your budget.

Additional Resources

Here are some valuable resources and websites that can assist students in navigating the journey of finding and applying for scholarships:

  • Department of Veterans Affairs Education and Training: Offers education benefits to veterans, service members and their families for college, graduate school, training and certification programs.
  • EducationUSA: A U.S. Department of State network that provides current information about approved postsecondary education in the United States to students globally.
  • Federal Student Aid: A comprehensive resource for learning about different types of scholarships and how to apply for them, offered by the U.S. Department of Education.
  • FinAid: Provides information on scholarships, loans, savings and military aid, making it a valuable tool for financial aid planning.
  • National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC): Offers resources and advocacy for students, parents and education professionals in the college admission process.
  • Scholarship America: A nonprofit organization that helps students access postsecondary education scholarships and support services.
  • USA Study Abroad: Offers information on the Boren Awards and The Language Flagship, funding U.S. undergraduate students to study less commonly taught languages in world regions critical to U.S. interests.

About Nathan Paulus

Nathan Paulus headshot

Nathan Paulus is the Head of Content Marketing at MoneyGeek, with nearly 10 years of experience researching and creating content related to personal finance and financial literacy.

Paulus has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of St. Thomas, Houston. He enjoys helping people from all walks of life build stronger financial foundations.