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How to Get the Scholarships You Need to Avoid Debt

College is expensive.

The average tuition at a public university for 2018-2019 was $10,230. And if you attend a school out of state, it’s more than double that. Plus, that doesn’t include the cost of housing, food, or books.

So what can you do about it? You could freak out, light your hair on fire, and go live in a hole in the ground.

Or, you could take a proactive approach and get some scholarships. But winning scholarships is hard, right? You have to be a genius astrophysicist with a 4.0 who does 40 hours a week of community service while also serving as student body president…right?

Not even close. As you’ll see in this guide, the key to winning scholarships is to apply for them (and apply for the right ones). Here are our top tips for getting scholarships, no matter your resume or GPA.

I’ve broken this guide down into two main sections:

  1. How to Find Scholarships — This section will show you where and how to find the best scholarships for you.
  2. How to Apply for Scholarships — This section will help you increase your chances of getting a scholarship.

Scholarships are just one piece of the financial aid puzzle. To learn about the full process of applying for financial aid, read this guide.

How to Find Scholarships

The main reason that people don’t get all the scholarships they want is that they don’t know where to look. So in this section, I’ll cover my top tips for finding for scholarships (including a few you may not have considered).

Start Your Scholarship Search Early

Many students don’t start looking for scholarships until they’ve already been admitted to college. This is a big mistake.

If you wait that long, you might already have missed some prime scholarship application deadlines. Or, you might find yourself cramming a bunch of applications into one week, which will increase your stress levels and decrease the quality of your scholarship applications.

Instead, you should start looking into scholarships at the same time you apply to college. This way, you can get a sense of your options and make a note of any important deadlines. You don’t even have to apply yet, but you can begin to formulate some ideas.

Know the Scholarships Your College Offers

Once you have a list of colleges you want to apply for, look at each school’s website to see all the scholarships they offer. Again, it’s best to do this during the application process. This will ensure two things:

  1. You don’t miss any application deadlines.
  2. You’ll know if you need to take any extra steps to get a scholarship.

You’ll be eligible for some scholarships based on your transcript and other “stats” you submit when you apply (such as your SAT or ACT scores).

Other scholarships that your college offers, however, may require you to write additional essays or even complete an interview or audition. If this is the case, it’s best to know far in advance so you can arrange your travel plans and get time off of school (if necessary).

Look for Local Scholarships

A lot of students just look for scholarships available to students nationwide (or even worldwide). While you should totally apply to these scholarships, don’t forget about all the local scholarships that are out there.

“Local” could be anything from a scholarship only available to students in your state to one only available to students at your high school. Because these scholarships are available to fewer people, your odds of getting them are better.

To find local scholarships, here are a few places and people to ask:

  • Your high school guidance counselor.
  • Your principal, teachers, and coaches.
  • Your family.
  • Family friends.
  • Local businesses and organizations.

How would you like to get paid for something you already do anyway? This is the essence of scholarships related to your talents and hobbies.

For instance, I got a music scholarship that paid $1,000 each year, plus free lessons. I had to prepare a piece and travel to the college for an audition. But the pay-off was definitely worth it, especially considering that I would have taken lessons and played music in college regardless.

The classic example, of course, is sports scholarships. If you’re good enough at a sport to get paid to play it in college, you probably have recruiters contacting you already.

But I will include one lesser-known piece of advice: your odds of getting a sports scholarship are better if you play a more “obscure” sport.

For instance, my dad has a friend whose son has gotten letters from colleges based on his skeet shooting abilities. So if you play a less common sport, be sure to check if any colleges offer scholarships for it.

Also, know that the definition of “sports” is constantly changing to incorporate new activities. Tony, our video editor, got an eSports scholarship — one of the first in the country. At the college he attended, it was possible to get thousands of dollars (or even a full ride) for being a certain rank in eSports such as Dota and League of Legends.

Investigate Community Service Scholarships

Do you spend a decent amount of time volunteering with a local charity or nonprofit? If so, you should consider applying for community service scholarships.

It’s possible that the organization you work with offers scholarships for high school (or even college) students. And it’s also possible that your high school or college offers a more general scholarship for community service activities. The only way to find out is to ask.

Check for Religious Scholarships

If you’re part of a religious organization, they may offer scholarships. This could range from something as specific as a scholarship available to members of your local congregation/parish/community, or a national scholarship available to any member of a certain faith.

To find these scholarships, ask your religious leader. You can also check the website for your particular religious organization.

Ask People to Nominate You for Scholarships

There are many scholarships that you can’t get unless someone nominates you. Usually this will be a teacher, coach, or extracurricular advisor, though it could also be another adult you know.

However, no one can nominate you for a scholarship if they don’t know about it. For this reason, if there’s a scholarship you want that requires a nomination, ask someone to nominate you.

I know this can feel kind of weird, but it actually shows that you’re taking the initiative. Remember: if you don’t ask, the answer is always “no.”

For tips on asking for scholarship nominations, check out this guide (it’s about letters of recommendation, but most of the same tips apply).

Use Networking to Find “Hidden” Scholarships

In an ideal world, all scholarships would have clear, easy-to-find web pages. In reality, however, much scholarship info is buried within outdated websites (or not online at all).

Because of this, you shouldn’t rely just on the internet for finding scholarships. You should also leverage your personal connections. And to do that, you need to make friends with the right people (aka, networking).

I won’t go too much into networking here, as we cover it in much greater depth in these articles and podcast episodes:

However, I will give you these specific networking tips for finding scholarships:

  • Get to know your professors by going to office hours and joining any organizations they moderate.
  • Ask your career planning office if they can connect you with alumni or local people who work in fields that interest you.
  • Once you’ve gotten to know these people, ask if they know about any scholarships that you’d be a good candidate for.
  • Remember to be genuine. You want to make real connections, not just schmooze so you can get something for yourself (people can tell the difference).

While a big part of finding scholarships involves looking at all the things you do, you should also look at scholarships related to your identity. You’re eligible for these scholarships if you meet certain demographic or other related requirements.

Here are a few examples:

  • Scholarships for being a member of a particular race or ethnic group.
  • Scholarships related to ancestry or cultural heritage.
  • Scholarships for being from a certain city, state, or country.
  • Scholarships for going to a certain high school.
  • Scholarships for being a first-generation college student.
  • Scholarships for being a veteran.

And there are many more examples beyond these. In addition to searching for scholarships like these online, be sure to also ask your family, teachers, guidance counselor, and community leaders if they know of any scholarships relevant to your background.

Note: While you may be eligible for certain scholarships based on your background, you’ll usually still have to go through an application process that could involve an essay, interview, or nomination.

Consider Corporate Scholarships

There are all kinds of companies out there that offer scholarships. Sometimes, you have to be in a particular major or field. Other times, you simply have to be “interested” in a particular career path.

Regardless, these scholarships are worth finding and applying for, especially because many students don’t know they exist.

Thomas, for instance, got a scholarship from Principal Financial Group when he was in college. He was eligible because he was majoring in business and had at least a 3.0 GPA.

To find these scholarships, I recommend inquiring at the places your family members and friends’ family members work. You can also reach out to local businesses on your own, as well as ask your college’s career planning department (once you’re in college).

There are some scholarships you can get just for having a certain major. Some of these will be corporate scholarships aimed to encourage students to pursue particular careers. Others will be scholarships offered by your major’s department (often funded by donations from alumni).

This is another category of scholarship that many students don’t think about, so be sure to look for them. I recommend asking your advisor and the chair of your department, as well as searching your university’s website.

Visit the Financial Aid Office

Your college’s financial aid office exists to help you pay for college. Yet many students never even visit the office of financial aid, let alone go there for help finding scholarships.

Since the people who work in financial aid are (theoretically) experts on the subject, they’ll likely know about some scholarships you’ve never heard of.

In particular, I recommend asking financial aid these questions:

  • What are some scholarships that go unused?
  • What are some scholarships that few students know about?
  • What are some scholarships that I’d be qualified for based on [fact about you]?

Note: Don’t feel like you’re “bugging” the financial aid office when you ask these questions. It’s literally their job to help you with this stuff.

Use These Scholarship Databases and Resources

My final tip for finding scholarships is to use the wide variety of databases and other scholarship resources available to you. Some of these resources will overlap, but it’s still worth consulting each of them regularly to see if new scholarships are available.

Here are the scholarship resources we recommend:

How to Apply for Scholarships

Now that I’ve gone over how to find scholarships, let’s move on to how to apply for them. The tips below will help you get more of the scholarships you apply for, earn more scholarship money overall, and make the scholarship application process less stressful.

Treat Applying for Scholarships Like a Job

What if I told you there was a way for you to (effectively) make hundreds of dollars an hour, even without a degree or job experience?

In fact, there is: applying for a few scholarships each day.

Let’s say that it takes you a total of 5 hours to apply for a $1,000 scholarship. This includes the time it takes you to research the scholarship, write the essay, and submit any supplemental materials such as your transcript.

You then win the scholarship. Effectively, you just got paid $200 an hour. Try finding a part-time job that pays even close to that.

Because of this high pay-off potential, you should apply for scholarships like it’s your job. Schedule 1-2 hours per day to do it, and put that block of time on your calendar.

Even if you just spend the time researching a scholarship, or you spend a few days working on a scholarship application that requires more time, it’s time well-spent.

Note: I realize that you won’t get every scholarship you apply for. But building the habit of applying every day will massively increase your chances of getting scholarship money overall.

Keep Applying for Scholarships in College

Most students think that once they’ve started college, it’s too late to apply for scholarships. This is just flat wrong. Not only can you still apply for scholarships while you’re in college, but there are also many scholarships only available to current college students.

For instance, FastWeb has an entire page called “Scholarships for College Freshman.” And there are many scholarships available even beyond your freshman year, such as those for students with a particular major or membership in a particular organization. Some just require you to be in college (and nothing else).

Plus, applying for scholarships while you’re in college puts you at an advantage. Since most students don’t think about this option, you’ll be competing against fewer people. This boosts your chances of getting the scholarships you apply for.

Never Pay to Find or Apply for Scholarships

In the course of your scholarship search, you may come across companies who claim they can help you find “secret” or “exclusive” scholarships…in exchange for a fee.

Don’t fall for these scams. Not only are these companies lying to you, but there’s also no reason to pay for scholarship help when there are already so many free resources for finding them.

Similarly, never pay to apply for a scholarship. If someone is charging you to apply for a scholarship, then they’ll almost certainly take your money and disappear. You’d be better off just using that money to pay for college.

Don’t Rule Out “Small” Scholarships

It’s tempting to only apply for scholarships in the tens of thousands of dollars. After all, the potential pay-off is higher, so why should you waste your time on “small” scholarships worth only $1,000 or $500?

There are some cases where this can be true. For instance, spending 25 hours on a $100 scholarship is a waste of time (even if you get the scholarship, you just valued your time at $4/hour).

Most of the time, however, even a $100 scholarship might take only a few hours to apply for. And if you make a habit of applying for scholarships every day, those $100 or $500 scholarships can start to add up.

Before you know it, you may have paid your tuition with a bunch of scholarships that seemed “small” on their own.

Unless you have a job that pays hundreds of dollars an hour, few scholarships are too “small” to spend time applying for.

Brush Up on Your Essay Writing Skills

Many scholarships require you to write an essay or personal statement. Therefore, it’s worth spending some time to get better at writing essays. You don’t have to be a brilliant writer; you just have to write essays that follow the instructions and are free of errors.

To get better at writing essays, check out these articles:

If you’re already in college, you can also use your school’s writing center to get help with your scholarship application essays. If you’re still in high school, ask your favorite English teacher if they can give you some feedback (they’ll likely find your initiative impressive).

Know Your Scholarship Deadlines

When I was applying to college, I came across a large (~$10,000) scholarship that required a 1,500-word essay. There was just one problem: the scholarship application was due by midnight of that day.

I frantically banged out an essay and submitted it at the very last minute (and then stayed up until 2 am finishing the rest of my homework for the next day). Unsurprisingly, I didn’t get the scholarship.

Learn from my mistake. Don’t miss out on a scholarship just because you’re unaware of the application deadline.

Whenever you find a scholarship you want to apply for, put the application deadline on your calendar. This way, you’ll never miss out just because you forgot when the application was due.

Ready Yourself for Rejection

I hate to break it to you, but you’re not going to get every scholarship you apply for.

Don’t let this discourage you from applying. If you’re applying for scholarships every day as we suggest, you’re going to get rejected. Just accept it and move on to the next application.

Indeed, learning to deal with rejection now will make it much easier when you’re doing things such as applying for a job, asking for a raise, or even searching for a romantic partner. It’s an essential skill to have in life.

Applying for Scholarships Is Worth Your Time

Scholarships remain one of the best ways to pay for college without taking on debt, working a full-time job while in school, or begging your parents for money.

You now have all the information you need to find and apply for scholarships like it’s your job, so start applying today!

For more information on how to pay for college, check out these resources:

Image Credits: featured, typing on laptop