How to Apply for Scholarships: Simple Tips, Tricks, and Strategies

There are countless scholarship programs available out there, but finding the right fit for you can tough. Learn some essential strategies for finding and applying for college scholarships.

How to Apply for Scholarships: Simple Tips, Tricks, and Strategies

Paying for college is a massive cost that bears on both the student and their parents. Nowadays, the number of college-bound students who take out student loans to cover tuition costs (or part of them) is enormous. And total outstanding student loan debt, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, now stands at $1.57 trillion. If you’re looking for a way to pay for college without resorting to student loans, then you should investigate how to get a scholarship for college.

Table of Contents

How to Apply for Scholarships for College

Let's just say right off that it is a very bad idea to attempt to find one "perfect" scholarship and subsequently devote all your time and effort to winning it. A wise scholarship hunter finds all of the scholarships he or she is eligible for, and applies for a great number, if not all, of them. This is a smart strategy for several reasons: 

  • It's nearly impossible to secure a free ride for yourself. Most likely, you'll have to cobble together a number of scholarships, loans, and other financial modes to lessen the sting of paying for college or graduate school. 
  • The more lures you have, the better your chance at catching the fish. Not a valedictorian? Don't fret; there are scholarships abound for non-valedictorians, most of which target people with a particular skill, interest, or background.

How to Find Scholarships for College

There are scholarships out there for you too. After digging up what you can, begin looking elsewhere, and appreciate the fact that you are literally surrounded by scholarship opportunities. Indeed, BrokeScholar offers a massive library of:

You can also search scholarships by field of study on BrokeScholar, which is one of the more effective ways for how to find scholarships. But there are plenty of additional ways to search for college scholarships to apply for.

Search for Scholarships by State

Check with your state of residence as well as the state of the institution you're planning on attending for any grants or scholarships offered. For example, a simple internet search of “Georgia college scholarships” brings up an entire page of scholarships related to the state of Georgia.

Some scholarships you’ll find may cover the entire cost of college. But most tend to cover a portion of college costs. Either way, finding and applying for scholarships is worth the time and effort if you can save a few grand on going to college.

Search for Scholarships by Professional Organization

Another strategy of finding where to apply for scholarships is to check with local, state, and national professional organizations. Organizations like the American Bar Association offers its Legal Opportunity Scholarship Fund, which grants 10 to 20 incoming diverse law students with $15,000 of financial assistance over the course of their three years in law school. Below are just a few examples of professional organizations that offer scholarships and grants for college studies:

Search for Scholarships on the Local Level

Another one of the strategies for how to get scholarships is to check for college scholarships offered by local organizations. Local bodies like public school districts may offer scholarships, such as the 16th District PTA Scholarship, open to high school seniors that attend Fayette County Public Schools in Kentucky. Another example is the Community Foundation of the Ozarks (CFO), which provides a multitude of scholarships, mainly for graduating high school seniors, but also for students currently enrolled in college and those interested in post-graduate studies. An additional strategy for how to find scholarships is to check out scholarships offered by church organizations. A notable example of this are scholarships offered by the United Methodist Church, such as the Iowa United Methodist Foundation (IUMF) scholarship programs.

Ask College Admissions and Your Guidance Counselor

Call the admissions office of the schools you're applying to and see what they have up their sleeves. Talk to your guidance counselor if you're in high school, or your faculty advisor, if you're in college. Once you've found a few attractive, winnable scholarships, start requesting those applications and you'll be well on the way. One last thing though: Don't apply for anything you're either unqualified for, or only “sort of" qualified for. As long as there is someone qualified, all your effort will be fruitless. While the old Hail Mary Pass is attractive, it's always wiser to stick to the scholarships you can win.

Filling Out Scholarship Applications

Once you've unearthed the scholarships you'd like to apply for, it's time to request all the necessary information, so you can get the ball rolling towards the final goal of drastically reducing your tuition bill. There are a few acceptable ways of doing this, depending on the scholarship organization: You may be able to email a request, call for one, or write a letter. 

Organize All the Materials Needed for the Scholarship Application

Once you start receiving the blank applications, it's time to organize things. Write up a chart or spreadsheet listing the various application deadlines and the requirements of each scholarship. Scholarship applications take some time to complete, so finding out the application deadline is very important, as you’ll want to give yourself at least a month’s head start before the deadline. 

Most scholarship applications ask for essays, transcripts and/or diplomas, references, a resume, and two to three letters of recommendation. Get all of these secondary materials in order: references, and samples of your work — if required by the scholarship board — transcripts, standardized test scores, and whatever else you need. Take whichever test you need to take (SAT, ACT, GRE, LSAT, etc.) far in advance, so if you need to improve your score, you'll have time to retake the test, and have the scores ready for your applications. Also, if you are applying for need-based scholarships, you'll need to have income and tax forms together to demonstrate a need for financial aid, or a completed FAFSA. Get this done well in advance. 

Basic Tips for Filling Out Scholarship Applications

Nowadays, most scholarship applications can be completed online, unlike in the past when you had to print out physical application forms and fill them out. This might sound obvious but make sure you fill out the entire application. One of the best ways to get disqualified right out of the gate is to neglect to answer every question and check every requisite box. Follow the instructions closely. Make a copy of the whole of the application for your records in case something happens to the original.

Make sure to proofread everything on your scholarship applications, including the formality sections and not just the essay portion. Ask for a peer review from friends, family, and teachers, and record any constructive feedback. Scholarship programs are ultimately contests, so you will have to aim for having the best application in order to win the scholarship award. Once you’ve accomplished all this, it’s time to submit your scholarship applications.

What Is the Difference Between a Scholarship and a Grant?

A college scholarship and a grant are both financial awards given to students to help cover the cost of their education, but they differ in their origins, criteria, and purposes. College scholarships are typically awarded on the basis of merit, talent, or other specific criteria, and they are often funded by private organizations, institutions, or individuals. For example, a student might receive a scholarship for outstanding academic achievement, athletic prowess, or artistic talent. Scholarships can also be targeted towards specific groups of individuals, such as those belonging to a certain ethnicity, region, or field of study. Often, they are competitive in nature, requiring applicants to meet certain eligibility criteria and sometimes necessitating the submission of essays, references, or interviews.

Grants, on the other hand, are typically need-based and aim to provide financial assistance to students who demonstrate economic hardship. While some grants are provided by private organizations, many are funded by governmental bodies. In the US, for instance, the federal government offers Pell Grants to undergraduate students who exhibit exceptional financial need. Unlike scholarships, which often celebrate personal achievements or attributes, grants prioritize the financial need of the applicant. Furthermore, while both scholarships and grants do not need to be repaid like loans, grants might come with specific stipulations, such as service commitments or the requirement to maintain a certain academic standing, though scholarships can also have similar conditions for renewal.

Do You Keep Leftover Grant Money?

When a student receives grant money for college, the funds are first applied to tuition, fees, and other direct educational expenses. Once these costs are covered, any leftover grant money can generally be used for other education-related expenses. Typically, the school's financial aid office disburses the grant money, and any remaining balance after direct costs are paid is refunded to the student.

This leftover money can be used for textbooks, room and board, transportation, and other necessary supplies or living expenses associated with attending college. However, it's crucial for students to use these funds wisely and for their intended purpose, as the primary goal is to support their education. Misusing grant funds or spending them on non-educational expenses can lead to complications or potential penalties, depending on the terms of the grant. So, basically, any money left over is paid to you directly for other education expenses.

What Happens If You Don't Use Your Financial Aid for a Semester?

If a student doesn't use their financial aid for a semester, several things can occur depending on the specific circumstances and the type of aid in question. Firstly, if a student does not enroll in courses for a semester or withdraws early in the term, the school typically will not disburse the financial aid funds, or if they've already been disbursed, the school might return them to the source. This is especially common with federal aid like Pell Grants or federal student loans. When funds are returned, students might find themselves owing money to the school for any unpaid charges. Furthermore, if the student has taken out loans and the funds are returned, it can trigger the start of the loan's grace period, after which repayment begins. This could mean that a student might need to start repaying loans earlier than anticipated if they don't re-enroll quickly.

Another critical aspect to consider is the "Satisfactory Academic Progress" (SAP) requirement that most schools enforce as a condition of receiving financial aid. If a student doesn't attend for a semester or doesn't complete enough college credits, they might not meet the SAP criteria, which could jeopardize their eligibility for financial aid in future semesters. It's essential for students to be proactive and communicate with their school's financial aid office if they plan to skip a semester or if their enrollment status changes. This ensures they're aware of any potential repercussions and can make informed decisions regarding their financial aid and academic journey.

The Bottom Line on How to Apply for Scholarships for College

There are literally thousands of college scholarships to apply for out there. But make no mistake: There are no easy scholarships to apply for. Each one of your scholarship applications should be completed to the best of your abilities, with references and recommendations from people who can write about you in the utmost terms. Your scholarship essay needs to be top-notch, and, of course, you need to make sure you’re eligible for the scholarships you’re applying for. Armed with all the strategies outlined here, you’ll have a great foundation for how to apply to scholarships for college.

Andrew DePietro

Author: Andrew DePietro

Senior Researcher, and Content Strategist

Andrew DePietro is a finance writer covering topics such as entrepreneurship, investing, real estate and college for BrokeScholar, Forbes, CreditKarma, and more.