How to Get a Scholarship

Finding free money like scholarships to pay for college can help you limit the amount of debt you take on.
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Written by Anna Helhoski
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Edited by Des Toups
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How to Get a Scholarship

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There’s a bounty of free money for college that’s up for grabs if you know how to get it.

Scholarships don't have to be paid back, which means they’re completely free. By winning scholarships, you may be able to reduce how much loan debt you’ll carry to pay for college.

Each scholarship will have requirements to apply. You’ll often need letters of recommendation, a resume of scholarly or volunteer accomplishments and an essay tailored to the scholarship.

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5 rules of thumb to find a scholarship

Since there are so many scholarships available, it can be a challenge to pick which ones to apply for. Knowing where to look and what to prioritize can help you find the right one for you. Here are five tried-and-true tactics to finding a scholarship.

Need-based scholarships are awarded based on financial need, as determined by your school’s cost of attendance and your expected family contribution. There tend to be more need-based grants than scholarships, but it’s still worth applying for the awards.

To be eligible for most federal, state or institutional scholarships and grants, complete a Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as FAFSA.

Find scholarships that may fit you by considering your participation in volunteer work, club memberships, athletics, jobs, and classes, along with any awards you’ve already received. You may want to also consider other ways to distinguish yourself including:

• Race or ethnicity • LGBT identity • Religion • Location or community • Hobbies and interests • Civic involvement • An immediate family member’s military status • Immigration status

Also, factor in special circumstances, such as being a parent, an older or returning student, a GED recipient or a home-schooled student.

You may look for scholarships for students entering certain majors. If you get such a scholarship, you’ll usually need to continue in that course of study to keep the funds.

Applying for several scholarships increases your chances of getting more free money for college. Here are some ways to expand your reach:

• Use the U.S. Department of Labor’s Scholarships Search Tool • Talk to your school’s financial aid office • Check with your high school’s guidance office • Look for industry organizations related to your field of study • Search locally at community organizations, local businesses, religious organizations or civic groups • Inquire about scholarships sponsored by a family member’s employer or your own employer • Search scholarship websites such as, Scholly, The College Board, or “The Ultimate Scholarship Book”

Be careful where you apply for scholarships and the information you provide. There are plenty of genuine scholarship sources, but there are also scams. The Federal Trade Commission has more details on avoiding scholarship scams. Some ways to avoid getting scammed include:

• Not giving into obvious pressure tactics that push for money or personal information quickly • Never giving out bank account or credit card numbers to companies that you cannot verify are legitimate with your college or another reputable source • Never paying a fee, especially to a scholarship organization that guarantees you’ll win a scholarship by handing over money. There are many free scholarship search services available.

Once you have a list of scholarships you want to apply for, keep track of deadlines. Some scholarships may have deadlines more than a year in advance. With this in mind, make your list of potential scholarships as early as the summer before your senior year of high school. If you’re in college, look ahead to scholarships that will be disbursed in the next school year.

If you have too many scholarships on your list, narrow it down to those with smaller niche applicant pools, or ones you can renew each year.

How you’ll receive scholarship funds

The way your scholarship is disbursed will vary. The money may be paid directly to your school and applied like other financial aid — first tuition and fees are covered, then room and board. If there are leftover funds, your school will typically return the money to you to use for other costs, like living expenses.

Alternately, you may receive a check. How you can use the money will usually depend on the strings attached to the scholarship. For example, you may only be able to use the money for tuition. Contact the source of your scholarship for the details.

How scholarships impact other financial aid

Scholarships can be used to supplement other financial aid, such as grants and work-study, before taking on student loans. But you can receive only as much aid as your school’s cost of attendance. You must let your school’s financial aid office know the total scholarship amount you're awarded so it is factored into your aid package.

If there’s a gap to fill after scholarships or other free financial aid, you may need to get a loan. Start with federal direct loans before getting a private loan, which offers fewer repayment options or loan forgiveness. If you need a private loan, compare all offerings and rates.

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