How to Apply for Scholarships: A Breakdown of the College Grants and Scholarships Process

The process might be a pain, but getting a college scholarship could mean a lot in the financial department. Find out the scholarship application process and scholarship pitfalls to avoid.

How to Apply for Scholarships: A Breakdown of the College Grants and Scholarships Process

Finding college scholarships to apply for has gotten much easier with the maturation of the internet. Where in the past, you may have had to call up individual grant and scholarship programs or buy physical books compiling available programs, nowadays, so much of the search can be accomplished easily online.

However, once you find the academic scholarships you want to apply for, the really key process is the scholarship application. Here, we offer a breakdown of all the key steps that go into applying for college scholarships and grants, as well as tips and common questions about the college scholarship process.

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How to Apply to Scholarships for College

Applying for academic scholarships is a fairly straightforward process, but you’ll need to put some time in to do your homework on the scholarship process for whichever one(s) you’re applying for. Below is a basic breakdown of the steps involved for how to apply for scholarships for college:

Check Eligibility Requirements for College Scholarships

When searching for college scholarships to apply for, it’s important to bear in mind that each scholarship possesses its own set of requirements to be eligible. These qualifications can include factors such as grades, athletics, partaking in community and volunteer organizations, income, and sometimes ethnicity, if the scholarship is specifically for traditionally under-represented communities. Another key factor to keep in mind is that many scholarships contain requirements you’ll need to continue to meet after it’s been awarded. It’s not uncommon, for example, for college scholarships to require you to maintain a GPA above a defined minimum in order to continue being eligible for the scholarship’s benefits. Thus, it’s essential before you apply for scholarships, to research the eligibility requirements to ensure you it is the right program for you.

Find Out the Deadline for College Scholarships

Since there are multiple steps and documents to get together, when you’re researching scholarships and grants for college, make sure you give yourself enough time to complete the scholarship application process. This means you need to find out the scholarship application deadline. Whatever page or source you’ve found that hosts the scholarship program and application will usually make the deadline very clear. It’s a good idea to begin the process at least a month before the scholarship application deadline.

To help with managing college scholarship application deadlines, make a calendar containing all the deadlines for all the scholarships you’re applying for. As with most processes in life, it is best to get your applications completed and submit them earlier rather than later. It doesn’t necessarily mean by getting your application in early, the board will somehow tip in your favor for timeliness. It’s mainly best to send scholarship applications on the earlier side because of delays that could come up or clerical-type errors in your application that you need to correct. Once you calendar in all the scholarship deadlines, it’s also good to block out time in your calendar to compete all the tasks necessary for each application. 

Compile the Documents You Need for the Application

Most scholarship applications for college require a number of documents for you to send in. Some of the most common documents that applications for academic scholarships require include:

  • Scholarship application form

  • Scholarship essay (written by you)

  • Two or three letters of recommendation

  • High school transcripts and diplomas

  • Resume/CV

  • Financial aid information, such as an FAFSA form or your parents’ tax receipts (mainly for need-based scholarships)

Write a Stellar College Scholarship Essay

Of all the parts of college scholarship applications, the scholarship essay portion is the most critical (besides, obviously, minimum GPA requirements). The college scholarship essay allows the scholarship awards board to get a clearer image and understanding of who you are as a candidate, beyond just your grades. The scholarship essay is definitely one of the steps in the application process you want to block a good amount of time for. Compiling the various formality documents takes time, but you really want to give yourself the most time for writing and perfecting your college scholarship essay. The best foundation for a good essay is a good outline, so don’t approach the writing of this willy-nilly. And of course, remember to proofread it yourself and by your peers.

Submit Your Scholarship Application

Once you have all your required documents, including the scholarship essay, lined up and ready to go, it’s time to submit your college scholarship application. Depending on the scholarship program, the ways used to submit your scholarship application may differ, whether it’s by physical mail, email, or through a special portal on the scholarship program’s website. 

When Should You Apply for Scholarships for College?

Academic scholarships tend to be available at different points throughout the year. This means you do not need to wait for summer or other breaks from high school to work on and send out scholarship applications. Scholarship deadlines, on the other hand, do tend to cluster around certain times of year, mainly between September and May. Again, this is where creating a calendar, filled with all the relevant scholarship deadlines, is key to organization. 

How to Find College Scholarships

There are countless places to find academic scholarships for college. In the pre-internet days, it could be a bit tougher to track down various scholarships, but nowadays, the problem with searching for college grants and scholarships isn’t scarcity of resources — it’s the overload of resources available. For instance, you can go directly to a specific company’s webpage dedicated to scholarships to apply for; or, you can go to a governmental site like the Department of Education. And this isn’t even mentioning the fact that there are so many third-party scholarship websites that compile hundreds of academic scholarships for you. Here’s a short list of the best places to find college scholarships to apply for:

How Do You Receive College Scholarship or Grant Money?

A very good question that many students applying for college scholarships wonder, and even ones who’ve been awarded scholarships too is: How do I receive the scholarship money? Typically the way it works, the money from government grants or private scholarships will be sent directly to your college account. From this account, the scholarship money is applied to any tuition, fees, or other education-related outstanding balances. Sometimes, college scholarship and grant money is sent by direct deposit or check to your bank account. Another important variable is how the scholarship money is disbursed. Some scholarships and grants could disburse the money in one whole amount or separated into several disbursements that sum up to the total scholarship amount awarded.

Does a College Scholarship or Grant Impact Financial Aid?

This is a very significant question that’s too often overlooked. When you apply for college scholarships and grants, you should research if there are any consequences of being awarded a scholarship if you’re applying or are receiving financial aid. Winning a scholarship can impact your financial aid because the way need-based financial aid is calculated is based on your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). Your EFC is an index number based on your FAFSA information, which contains your family’s financial status such as income and assets. If you are awarded an academic scholarship or grant external to any financial aid you’ve applied for or have acquired, the money from a scholarship could be seen as an asset and can increase your EFC. This could consequently reduce your need-based financial aid since winning the scholarship has altered the calculation of your EFC.

College Scholarship Process FAQs

There are many frequently asked questions (FAQs) surrounding college grants and scholarships. There are also many bad-actors out there posing as scholarship organizations who intend to con applicants out of money. Here’s a look at some common FAQs about college scholarships and scholarship applications:

1. Is there such a thing as a guaranteed scholarship?

No there isn’t. If someone offers you a guaranteed scholarship, that person is most likely a con artist. There are, quite simply, no guarantees in the scholarship game. Moreover, if you receive word that you won a scholarship you never applied for — which oftentimes requires payment of a claim, redemption, or disbursement fee — watch out. If it seems too good to be true, it is probably a scam.

2. Should I have to pay an application fee for a scholarship?

No, be very wary of a scholarship foundation that requires an application fee, investment, processing fee, and similar charges. Many who fall for this graft send along an application and a check, and never hear back. The con works because the victims just assume they didn’t win the scholarship.

3. Are scholarships only awarded to those at the top of their class?

While there are a great many academic scholarships out there, there are many others that are awarded for non-academic factors and accomplishments. For instance, there are scholarships abound that focus more on future plans, extracurricular activities, background, under-represented ethnic groups, disabilities, memberships, religion and distinctive interests, than an applicant’s GPA. These require more research, but are certainly worth the effort.

4. If I’m at the top of my class, will I have to look very hard for a scholarship? 

Though there is the possibility that a college, in an effort to attract you, may offer you a scholarship you did not apply for, you’ll likely still have to apply for others. Think of it this way: There are far more number one students in the world’s schools than there are scholarships in the world, which means you’re going to have to dig like everyone else. And for the rest of you, bear in mind that grades aren’t everything. There are a number of factors considered by scholarship judges, like future plans, personality, background, and community involvement.

5. Are there billions of dollars worth of unclaimed scholarships every year or is this a myth?

It’s another cruel myth propagated by two likely factors: 1) Con artists looking to attract rubes spread this myth to make it easier to trick applicants into believing they have valuable, insider, for-pay information. 2) And 85% of the total sum of “scholarship funds” is constituted by employee-tuition benefits — which is when companies set aside a certain amount of money to pay for their workers’ higher education. Some misinterpret these monies as unclaimed academic scholarships.

6. Can I lose my scholarship, after it is awarded?

Just like your acceptance into a school can be retracted, your scholarship can be retracted if you fail to live up to the conditions specified at the start of the application process. Among the factors: minimum GPA, completion of education requirements in a specified period of time, a requirement that the recipient attend classes “full time,” restrictions on vacations/time off, field of study, choice of college, community service, sports and so forth. Be sure to carefully read over the requirements to gain a better understanding of what the scholarship requires of you.

7. Should I apply for more than one scholarship?

Let it be known, you will want to apply for as many scholarships as possible. That said, you absolutely do not want to waste time applying for scholarships for which you are either unqualified or “sorta” qualified. Remember, as long as there is one qualified applicant, the hordes of unqualified ones won’t make it an inch beyond the first cut. While the old Hail Mary is enticing, it is in the interest of your time, effort and chances to limit yourself to scholarships you’re qualified for. Once you find them, apply to as many as you like. You may have to cobble together a few to put a good dent in your tuition anyhow.

8. Will I have to pay taxes on my scholarship?

You may. If a scholarship counts as income, you’ll need to pay taxes. For example, if the award is to be put towards travel, room and board and/or equipment, you’ll be taxed. If your award pays for your full-time tuition, books and supplies needed to fulfill your academic requirements, you will not be taxed. Any questions? Call the IRS 1-800-829-1040, or check out their website at

The Bottom Line on How to Apply for Scholarships for College

When it comes to finding college grants and scholarships, the internet has made the process immeasurably easier than in the past. Not only are there college scholarship websites that aggregate available academic scholarships for you, you can visit individual company websites and check out if they offer scholarships (many major companies, and some smaller ones, do).

You can also search for college scholarships online by the state you live in, often leading you to a designated webpage for academic grants offered on the state level. However, the process of putting together a great college scholarship application has many timeless qualities. Always give yourself plenty of time to gather up all the formality-type documents and even more time for writing the scholarship essay. And always be sure to highlight your unique characteristics, because high grades and extracurriculars are something that many scholarship applicants are able to pull out of their arsenal.

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.