Scholarships 101: Getting Free Money for College

You know you need scholarships for college, but you may not know where to start. 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.

Starting your scholarship search

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 counselor.)

Related: Scholarship Search Best Practices You Need to Follow

Where to find scholarships

So, after you’ve made you scholarship search hit list, where can you find good scholarships? It often helps to ask your school 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.

State scholarships

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.

Websites, apps, and books

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 or the Scholly app where you can register and be matched up with available awards. The College Board offers the BigFuture Scholarship Search or check,, or to find possible matches. Plenty of books offer scholarship information too. Order online or head to your library to check out Scholarships, Grants & Prizes 2021 by Peterson's or The Ultimate Scholarship Book 2021. (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.)

Watch out for scams

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 school counselor for their opinion on the matter too.

Related: 5 Common Tricks Fraudsters Are Using to Target Students

Ready to apply? 

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 on Twitter @CollegeXpress. (And if you’re a scholarship pro, tweet your tips for the beginners!)

Like what you’re reading?

Join the CollegeXpress community! Create a free account and we’ll notify you about new articles, scholarship deadlines, and more.

Join Now

Join our community of
over 5 million students!

CollegeXpress has everything you need to simplify your college search, get connected to schools, and find your perfect fit.

Join CollegeXpress
Amari Toussaint

Amari Toussaint

High School Class of 2022

CollegeXpress helped me narrow my school choices down from 10 schools to four and then two. It also gave me information on a school I had never heard about or thought about attending until now, which is the school I will be attending in the fall. I am thankful for CollegeXpress and its helpful tools.

Kory Gilbertson

Kory Gilbertson

High School Class of 2022

CollegeXpress has helped me explore my views on college in that "why do I wanna go to a certain school" way. It’s helped me explore the best fits in all of these outstanding choices. All these college admission counselors can access my accolades showing them how I could help their college. This source of information helps me show these admission directors who I am and what I'm interested in. Thanks to this platform, my experience for education will be better than most, and I'm so grateful for all that it has provided for me.

Jeannie Borin, M.Ed.

Jeannie Borin, M.Ed.

President and Founder, College Connections

I frequently visit CollegeXpress to answer questions from students and parents. There are countless hot topics in admissions that need to be addressed. I enjoy reading what my colleagues post and gain additional insight from different perspectives.

Wendy Thompson

Wendy Thompson

Owner, Westport Educational Consulting

I just discovered your site and LOVE it—fun, interesting, full of incredible information you can’t find anywhere else, and a godsend for those of us in the college counseling business. I am a fan!

Joseph Johnsly

Joseph Johnsly

High School Class of 2021

It's an honor for me to be writing to share a little about my experience with CollegeXpress. I've been using CollegeXpress for about a year now, and the reason why I chose it is because it provides astonishing scholarships for every student around the globe. Besides that, this organization dispenses all the information necessary to help students get to college. CollegeXpress has helped me have an easier experience with applying to colleges and choosing the best fit for myself.

College Matches

Colleges You May Be Interested In

Centre College

Danville, KY

Ashland University

Ashland, OH

University of Vermont

Burlington, VT

Bucknell University

Lewisburg, PA