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Everything You Need to Start a Successful Scholarship Search

As you're looking for your best-fit college or university, don't forget about best-fit scholarships too! Here's how to start your search for free aid.

As you start your college search, you may be focused solely on finding and applying to your best-fit schools. But it’s important to remember that getting accepted to your dream college is just one part of the equation. You also need to devote a significant amount of time to figuring out how to pay for college, including tuition, fees, books, and living expenses. Fortunately, there are a ton of resources available to make your education more affordable, including everyone’s favorite source: scholarships!

When should you start applying for scholarships?

David McFarland, Director of Scholarships at PennWest Clarion (formerly Clarion University), says generally, students should begin applying for scholarships in the summer between their junior and senior year. There are probably a few scholarships that students could apply for earlier, he says, but most are not going to open until you begin your senior year of high school. That said, starting the process earlier, like in the summer, will get you thinking about who you’re going to ask for letters of recommendation. It also gives you time to start crafting those scholarship essays. “I try to get out to high school students and encourage them to start as early as possible,” McFarland says. “Micro-scholarships for good grades, school and sports activities, and college test scores and college visits from sites like RaiseMe are great ways to motivate students to do the kinds of things they should be doing to get more scholarships,” he adds.

Kevin Ladd, Chief Operating Officer at, agrees. “It’s almost never too early to begin the process of searching for scholarships,” he says. In fact, Ladd says that searching for scholarships and researching colleges are intertwined pursuits and can be conducted simultaneously starting early in your high school career. If you’re still an underclassman, this means starting in your freshman year. “During your first year in high school, you can begin to gain some level of comfort and confidence as you research and better understand what scholarship providers are looking for in a winning candidate,” Ladd explains. Utilizing your freshman, sophomore, and junior years of high school to explore allows you to be ready to apply when your senior year rolls around.

And if you think the scholarship process ends at high school graduation, you’re sorely mistaken. As McFarland points out, students need to apply for scholarships throughout their college career too. “They should start identifying scholarships at their university as they’re entering and know the GPA requirements along with the number of credits they need to have before they can apply,” he explains. Students can (and should) create a portfolio of scholarships starting in ninth grade and enter information in it whenever possible. You should start looking early so you know what types of activities, grades, test scores, essays, and recommendations are required for each scholarship.

Related: 3 FAQs About Timing in Your Scholarship Search Process

How to look for scholarships

If scholarship applications are on your to-do list but you’re not sure how to get started, you’re not alone. Each year, millions of students miss out on opportunities because they’re not sure how or where to look for scholarships. Fortunately, the experts we talked to have years of experience helping students navigate this process. According to McFarland, there are three main “physical” places to look for scholarships. The first place to start is within your community. Ask your guidance counselor, employers (your employer and parents’ employers), and businesses in the community. Many of them will offer scholarships for local students, and those are the awards you’ll have the greatest chances of winning because the applicant pools are smaller. The next place to consider is the finical aid or admission office of the university you want to attend. They’ll offer both institutional merit scholarships and endowed scholarships from their foundation. You can also look to other foundations and corporations that award scholarships; this may require a more in-depth search.

Ladd says one of the most efficient ways to search for scholarships is to go online. You can create a free profile on many scholarship search sites like and CollegeXpress! Remember to take your time when filling out these profiles. Ladd says the more accurate and detailed your profile, the better your search results will be. Since no search engine has all the scholarships, McFarland recommends filling out profiles for three or four search engines. He likes to use Appily (formerly Cappex), Fastweb, Unigo, and Scholarship America. He also recommends, which is basically the Common Application for scholarships: rather than filling out the same information about grades and test scores over and over again, Scholar Snapp allows you to fill in the information once and import it into many applications.

Tips for navigating the scholarship process

Let’s face it: senior year is hectic. Not only are you trying to meet college application deadlines, but you’re also managing a full course load, part-time work, sports, and other extracurricular activities. It’s no wonder you feel like you don’t have time for anything else. Unfortunately, if searching and applying for scholarships is one of the items that gets forgotten on your to-do list, you’re making a big mistake. McFarland says one question he always asks students is "How long would it take you to make $500 at your part-time job?” In many cases, the answer is a couple of months. But if you fill out 10 applications over the course of 10 hours and win one $500 scholarship, you just made $50 an hour! With that in mind, here are some tips to help you navigate the scholarship process (and hopefully make it easier).

Related: 5 Simple Ways to Improve Your Scholarship Search Strategy

Create a scholarship spreadsheet

Before you even begin your scholarship search, you should create a scholarship search spreadsheet. That way, when you find a scholarship you’re interested in, you can enter it into your spreadsheet. To set it up, Ladd says to include the name of the scholarship, its web address, and any contact information you may need. He also recommends including a field to note whether you’re interested and intend to apply, are in the process of applying, or you’ve applied, along with the date. Additionally, McFarland likes to include fields for the minimum GPA, test score requirements, transcript requirements, letters of recommendation, essay instructions, and FAFSA requirement (sometimes necessary if the scholarship is need based).

Write an activities résumé

This one- to two-page document houses all your awards, activities, work experience, clubs, and other extracurricular activities. When you sit down to apply for scholarships, you can copy and paste the information from your activities résumé into the application. Some scholarships may even allow you to include it as an attachment instead of transferring it this way. This is also a great tool to have in front of you for the activities and awards section of college applications. 

Read all the eligibility requirements and directions

Before you fill out a scholarship application, make sure you meet all of the requirements. Also, take time to read the instructions at least twice. If they ask for two letters of recommendation, don’t send three. Submitting additional materials that are not required does not make you a better candidate—following the directions does.

Answer the essay question

Sometimes an essay is required as part of a scholarship application. One big flaw in the process, says McFarland, is not answering the question asked by the scholarship committee. “If the scholarship committee wants you to explain how you embody four particular traits, they don’t need you to waste time defining them; they need you to tell them a quick story of what you have done that is evidence you embody those traits,” he explains. It’s the committee’s job to find the person who most closely matches what the donor wants, and it’s only through vivid essays that they can see if you do or do not match those qualities.

Related: Secrets to Writing an Amazing Scholarship Essay

The more time and intention you put into the scholarship search, the more successful you’ll be. By no means do you have to spend all your time on it and overwhelm yourself. But if you set yourself up for success, you can expedite scholarship applications consistently with ease and rake in a bunch of money to help pay for college.

Start looking for scholarships with our Scholarship Search tool, and find more advice on paying for college in our Financial Aid section!

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Anthony Vidal

Anthony Vidal

High School Class of 2023

CollegeXpress has helped me in a series of different ways when it comes to finding scholarships and learning information about different universities. I actually found my dream university through CollegeXpress and am working on getting there.

Makiyah Murray

Makiyah Murray

High School Class of 2021

The college application process has been a stressful one, but CollegeXpress has eased some of that stress with its readily available college resources. At the beginning of the process, I frequently used the college search feature, and now that I’m almost done applying, I’ve started using the scholarship search. Both of these resources have made it easier to find relevant information.



High School Class of 2021

CollegeXpress gave me options of schools with my major and from there I was able to pick what was most important to me in a school. Everything was so organized that I could see all the information I needed.



High School Class of 2023

I’m currently a college freshman attending Towson University. My major is Information Technology, and I plan to minor in Electronic Media & Film to achieve my goal of becoming a production engineer. Upon graduating high school earlier this year, I was awarded a $5,000 scholarship from CollegeXpress, which greatly assisted in paying my tuition. Truthfully, this financial reward was the difference in affording my room and board and tuition, along with other expenses for school. My family and I haven’t stopped celebrating my award since it was bestowed on me. I will never forget this opportunity for allowing me to get my foot into my university financially.

Alexandra Adriano

Alexandra Adriano

$2,000 Community Service Scholarship Winner, 2016

I've used CollegeXpress quite a bit as a senior, particularly for colleges and scholarships, so it's been a very big asset in that respect! I would recommend it to anyone looking to pursue a college education, especially seniors! This scholarship will help me achieve my goals in ways I couldn't have before, and I know that there are opportunities like that for everyone on the website and in the magazines!

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