Scholarships 101: Your Introduction to Getting Free Money for College

by
Freelance Writer

Think free money for college is just a crazy, faraway dream? Think again. There are literally billions of dollars in scholarships available nationwide each year. And you can make winning them a reality. This introduction to the scholarship search will set you up for success.

Welcome to the weird, wonderful world of scholarships!

Scholarships can bring your overall college costs down and help fill any gaps left after you get your merit- and need-based aid. They take a little effort to find and apply to, but millions of dollars in aid often goes unawarded every year because students didn’t know it was out there even apply.

Luckily, with some work, you can get your fair share of scholarship dollars, which can save you hundreds if not thousands of dollars over your college years. For something as simple as a quick scholarship search followed up by an application or a short essay (and sometimes easier than that!), you can find plenty of free money to put toward your education. A couple of scholarships might mean you don't have to take out a loan—and all the interest that comes with it.

Start your scholarship search by making a list of everything that makes you you: your academic interests, after-school clubs you’re in, sports and instruments you play, your cultural heritage, your hobbies—everything. There are scholarships out there for just about any quality and trait you can imagine, so it helps to make a master list of things you might search for.

For example, you'll find scholarships based on your heritage or on your foreign language proficiency. You might find a match based on your community service activity or your athletic ability. Are you the child of an active armed services member or a veteran? There are scholarships reserved for students who fall into those categories too. (Try to jog your memory too by going over your student résumé or portfolio, asking your parents, and checking in with your high school guidance counselor.)

Related: Scholarship Search Best Practices

So, after you’ve made you scholarship search hit list, where can you find good scholarships? It often helps to ask your high school guidance counselor and/or the financial aid office at your (intended) college for their help in getting your search started. You should also look for scholarships offered directly from your (intended) college or university; your school might even have their own scholarship search page or board. Many community organizations like your faith community, the Lions or Rotary Club, or local businesses award scholarships too.

Your future major and career plans are also a big factor. Do you aspire to be a vet? Are you on the pre-med track? Or is environmental science your thing? Look for related professional and academic organizations to see if they offer any scholarships; they’ll often encourage students who are on specific paths by giving them money to help.

You should also investigate state scholarships. For example, the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education's Office of Student Financial Assistance offers the John and Abigail Adams Scholarship, which pays for up to eight semesters of tuition at a Massachusetts state school. Then there’s the Illinois Student Assistance Commission, which offers scholarships like the Golden Apple Scholars Scholarship for future teachers. So make sure you find out what your state has to offer!

You should keep the big-time national scholarships, like the National Merit Scholarship (partially based on exceptional PSAT scores) on your radar too. Yes, they're going to get lots and lots of applicants. Competition will be stiff. But if you're eligible, there's no reason why you shouldn't apply! Winning scholarships is also a numbers game, and the more you apply to, the better your chances of winning.

Where else can you find scholarships? There are plenty of websites that encourage you to look for scholarships. Of course, CollegeXpress offers scholarships and can help you find others! But there are also sites like ScholarshipOwl.com or the Scholly app where you can register and be matched up with available awards. The College Board offers a Scholarship Search or check ScholarshipsForStudents.org, ScholarshipExperts.com, or FastWeb.com to find possible matches. Plenty of books offer scholarship information too. Order online or head to your library to check out Scholarships, Grants & Prizes 2017 by Peterson's or the College Board's Scholarship Handbook. (Editor's note: Even though we hope you use—and love—the CollegeXpress scholarship search tool, you really should check out these other options too! Scholarship databases can vary a lot, and a thorough scholarship search should include at least three scholarship search engine sites.)

Now, even though you'll find scholarships just about everywhere, that doesn't mean they're all reputable. What are some red flags? Run far, far away from any scholarship that is “guaranteed.” (If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.) And skip scholarships that want you to pay any kind of fee. You also shouldn't have to provide your Social Security number on a scholarship application (although you might need to provide it if you win) or sit through any kind of promotional seminar or video. A quick Internet search should help you figure out if a scholarship and its awarding organization are legit or not. Feel free to ask your parents or guidance counselor for their opinion on the matter too.

Related: Watch Out for These College Financial Aid Scams

So, that’s your basic introduction to starting your scholarship search. Next, you have to apply for them—but that’s a whole other story! In short, you need to treat your scholarship applications with the same weight you give your college applications: take the time to follow all instructions exactly, write a quality essay, and check your grammar and spelling carefully. But that’s really just the tip of the iceberg. If you want to send in winning scholarship applications, you should learn how to make them shine and how to stand out!

What are you waiting for? Let’s go get some free money for college!

Are you a scholarship newbie? Let us know if you have any questions in the comments. (And if you’re a scholarship pro, leave your tips for the beginners!)

Note: Did you know you could win a $10,000 scholarship for college or grad school just by registering on CollegeXpress? This is one of the quickest, easiest scholarships you’ll ever apply for. Register Now »

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