It’s a fact: Scholarships are hugely important if you’re planning to go to college. Unlike a student loan, a scholarship is free money you don’t have to pay back later. After you search, apply, and win, scholarships can be applied to your tuition or other academic expenses, and voilà—college becomes more affordable for you and your family! Well, it’s not that simple. There are still a lot of rules surrounding scholarships, caveats to look out for, and other things you need to know to make your scholarship search easier and more successful. Let’s go over 10 of those right now.
1. You don’t have to be a high school senior to receive a scholarship
There are scholarships available for almost everyone: elementary students, middle schoolers, underclassmen, high school juniors, college-bound seniors, undergrads, transfer students, grad students, and beyond! Each scholarship will lay out who is eligible in its requirements, including whether it’s defined by age, grade level, or another category. It literally pays to start your scholarship search early: you can find awards to apply for now and continually contribute to your college savings throughout your entire high school career.
2. You don’t have to be an A+ student or star athlete either
Scholarships aren’t just for students with perfect grades or pro sports dreams. While many awards are based on academics and test scores, there are a ton of scholarships that have nothing to do with GPA. Merit-based awards are available for talent and interest in art, music, theater, community service, leadership, extracurricular groups, athletics (not just the NCAA level), and much more. Almost any special interest, ability, or personal trait will have a scholarship opportunity attached to it—you just have to look for them.
3. Not all scholarships are advertised well
Scholarships aren’t going to come knocking on your door—you need to hunt for them! And a lot of awards won’t be heavily advertised, especially local ones. To find these hidden gems, ask your high school counselor for a list of local scholarship opportunities—businesses, places of worship, and service groups love giving back to the community this way. Your parents’ or guardians’ workplace might have a scholarship program for children of employees, or maybe they belong to an organization that distributes funds to students every year. Your college(s) of interest may also have scholarships that aren’t listed online, so be sure to ask if there are more available. Leave no stone unturned during your scholarship search, and apply for every opportunity you’re eligible for, big or small. Speaking of which…
4. Smaller local awards are easier to win than big national scholarships
Those local scholarships may be worth just a few hundred dollars (or less), but you have a better chance to win them compared to national contests held by huge companies with large applicant pools. There’s less competition for local scholarships because fewer students are eligible to win, and a lot of students don’t think these awards are worth their time, so they don’t even bother to apply. Don’t make this mistake—these little scholarships add up nicely, and winning some money for college is better than none!
5. A full-ride scholarship is not that common
You hear about this a lot, but getting a “free ride” to college doesn’t happen as much as you think it does. Sometimes students receive full-tuition scholarships, but there are a lot more expenses they still need to cover themselves, including room, board, fees, textbooks, etc. You also shouldn’t rely on a full athletic scholarship; NCAA and NAIA schools have a limited amount of awards for student-athletes in certain Division I and II sports, while scholarships aren’t offered at the Division III level at all. You can always search for other sports-based scholarships—just don’t expect a free ride and to go pro because of your skills.
6. Merit-based scholarships aren’t available at every college
Private colleges and universities are known for awarding students more scholarship money, but these are often need based (awarded through the FAFSA for demonstrated financial need), not merit based. And as previously noted, Division III colleges do not offer athletic scholarships, nor do Ivy League schools. According to The College Solution, “The lower the admission rate, the less likely the school is to offer merit scholarships.”
7. Scholarships can affect other aid
You need to report all the scholarships you win to your college’s financial aid office. If you receive a substantial award, that may affect your overall financial aid package, because your aid can’t exceed the college’s cost of attendance by more than $300. Receiving a big outside scholarship means you won’t have as much demonstrated financial need, and if your school offered you need-based institutional scholarships or loans, they could reduce the amount of your offer. If you have questions about outside scholarships, it’s best to contact your college(s) of interest to inquire about their policies.
8. You need to follow the directions when you apply
If a scholarship requires you to submit a 500-word essay, don’t write 1,000. If an award is meant for high school seniors but you’re currently a junior, don’t waste your time applying. And perhaps most important is the deadline: If you have until April 1 to submit your application, don’t send it in after that date. Your application will not be considered, and you’ll have wasted your time as well as that of the scholarship committee. It’s better to submit or mail your scholarship applications well before the deadline, just to be safe.
9. You should never have to pay for a scholarship
There aren’t many reasons you should pass up a chance at a scholarship, but this is probably the biggest one. You need to watch out for scams—scholarship applications should always be free to fill out (and while we’re at it, so is the FAFSA), so you shouldn’t have to pay to apply for or receive one. If you see one of these red flags, move on and find something more legitimate.
10. You can lose scholarships after they’ve been awarded
If you receive a scholarship that’s contingent on having a certain GPA, you need to work toward that number or higher throughout the semester. If you don’t, your scholarship could be revoked. You may also lose a scholarship if you switch majors, break the law, change from full-time to part-time study, or transfer colleges. Rules are rules, and just like when you applied for the scholarship, you need to follow them to keep it.
One more bonus fact: The scholarship search doesn’t end when you get to college! You should be searching and applying for scholarships throughout your entire academic career. It might sound like a lot of work,but a couple hours working on scholarship applications every week could result in substantial monetary rewards. Who could really complain about that?
Ready to start your quest for college funding? Use our Scholarship Search tool to scour our database of over $7 billion—you’re bound to find awards you’re eligible for!