No Financial Aid Package Yet? Look to Last-Minute Scholarships

You can’t control FAFSA delays, but you can control whether you research and apply for scholarship awards to lower your college costs.
Eliza Haverstock
By Eliza Haverstock 
Updated
Edited by Cecilia Clark

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Major FAFSA issues have left millions of students waiting on financial aid packages, unsure if they’ll be able to afford college next year. There’s not much you can do to speed up aid offers, but you can increase your odds of affording college by applying to scholarships.

It’s not too late to start your scholarship hunt. With this year’s FAFSA errors and delays, many scholarship providers have extended application deadlines.

“Families can’t control the government side and what's happening within institutions … but they do have control of researching for scholarships that would help them offset higher ed costs,” says James Lewis, president of the National Society of High School Scholars.

Students win roughly $7.4 billion in private scholarships and fellowships each year, according to the National Scholarship Providers Association. However, 39% of students don’t use any scholarships, according to a 2023 report by the private student loan lender Sallie Mae, potentially leaving free money on the table that could lower their college costs.

Here are some expert-approved tips to win last-minute scholarship money and lower your college costs, even if your financial aid offers remain in limbo.

Cast a wide net

Cover the most ground in your scholarship hunt by:

  • Searching the Labor Department’s Scholarship Finder, which allows you to sort through more than 9,500 scholarships, fellowships, grants and other aid opportunities. 

  • Asking your target schools about scholarships available to their students. 

  • Looking for scholarships offered in your community, in addition to the bigger, well-known scholarships. 

  • Asking your high school guidance counselor to point you in the right direction. 

Ideally, you should apply to enough scholarships to get in the running for three times the total amount of aid you’ll need for school, suggests Christopher Gray, founder of the free Sallie Mae-owned scholarship search tool Scholly. Gray says he won more than $1 million in scholarships to pay for his own undergraduate degree. So, if you need $50,000 to pay for school, apply to $150,000 worth of scholarships, and you may win enough of them to get close to your $50,000 goal.

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Look for niche scholarships

Some scholarships are extremely specific and can be easier to win if you fit the qualifying criteria. Consider what makes you unique: volunteer work, athletics, jobs, academic interests, religion, family military status and more.

“If there's individual merit that a student has, or passions or things that distinguish them, if they use Google and put ‘scholarships’ plus that term that describes their uniqueness, they'd be surprised how many scholarships are available, and that they can be applied to right now,” Lewis says.

Scholarships that require a lot of work — like a long list of required essays — can also be easier to win, Gray says, because fewer students want to do labor-intensive applications.

Get organized

Staying organized can help you maximize your scholarship award potential. You can use a scholarship tracker or build your own spreadsheet to keep track of deadlines and application requirements.

Treat scholarship applications like college applications, Lewis suggests. Ask someone to proofread your essays, and reach out to teachers or other adults in your life for recommendation letters.

Create an application work schedule. Maybe that involves dedicating a weekend or two to scholarship applications or setting aside a few hours each night to work on them. Start submitting applications as soon as possible because it may take weeks or months before you get a final award decision.

Tell a story

In the era of artificial intelligence, it’s more important than ever to be authentic when you’re writing your scholarship application essays.

And don’t just rehash your resume — focus on one impactful moment and tell that story, Gray says.

Lewis adds: “We all have stories to share about some of the things that we've struggled with and things that we want to overcome and accomplish.”

Write efficiently

Many scholarships include the same or similar essay prompts like asking about your community service or where you see yourself in five years. When possible, tailor your existing essays slightly for each application, rather than starting from scratch each time, Gray advises. This can help you save time and submit the most applications possible.

As a guideline, keep your essays at around 500 words or less, even if the maximum word count is higher, Gray says: “These essay readers are reading a lot of essays, so you really have to make sure that you can get a point across and be able to tell a story and convey your message in a way that's concise.”

Wait to report scholarship awards

Many schools have a “packaging policy,” which outlines how external scholarship awards will impact other financial aid you may receive. In some cases, schools may replace each dollar that it has given you with every scholarship dollar you bring in. This can negate your hard work applying to and winning scholarships.

Contact your college’s financial aid office to understand how exactly the school treats external scholarship awards.

Gray advises students to wait to report external scholarship awards to their college until after they've committed to the school and finalized their financial aid offer. That can minimize the odds that the school will reduce their original financial aid package as a result of scholarship money, he says.

Don’t forget the FAFSA

No matter how much scholarship money you bring in, it’s still essential to submit the FAFSA if you haven’t already. The form unlocks federal financial aid, including federal student loans, grants and work-study programs. Some external scholarship applications require you to submit the FAFSA, too.

The FAFSA will also put you in the running for the need-based Pell Grant, an award of up to $7,395 per year that you don’t repay. Eligibility isn’t tied to income alone, so you could qualify even if you don’t think you will.

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