There are literally billions of dollars in scholarships out there. You are likely well suited for several of them. And winning some free money for college would be pretty sweet… But how do you find scholarships? When should you apply? And how can you improve your chances of winning? We’re going to get to all of that in this series. In the first installment, we talked about how scholarships work. Next up: scholarship search tips.
When to search and apply for scholarships
If you’re a high school junior, you need to dive into your scholarship search ASAP! A lot of deadlines fall in the, umm, fall of senior year, and many have already passed by spring. But even if you’re well past that point (or way before), you should still look for scholarships that fit you. You can search and apply for scholarships throughout high school and college! Basically, there isn’t a bad time to look for scholarships (unless you’re, like, about to walk across the stage for your college graduation. Then you’re probably too late).
Most scholarship deadlines are between February and April, but you’ll see scholarship deadlines basically all year long. So it’s important to keep an eye on deadlines as you research and find scholarships that you’re eligible for. Search for scholarships on an ongoing basis too, because there may be new awards that fit you. From a practical standpoint, you should begin your scholarship search in earnest during the fall of your junior year of high school. This will give you plenty of time to get to know the process, find awards that fit you, and craft great applications—because they’re definitely not something you want to rush through. But more tips on that in a sec…
Related: 4 Steps to Designing a Path to Scholarship Success
How to search for scholarships
You want those awards? You need to find them by searching online, in books, and in your community (there’s a long list of scholarship sources below). Treat your scholarship search like a part-time job. Devote time—say, two hours each week—to finding and applying for scholarships. You should keep all of your scholarship application materials in the same spot, including recommendation letters, essay drafts, and follow-up emails. As you do scholarship research, keep track of all the awards you’re eligible for. (No, really, all of them.) It helps to create a list or spreadsheet, including the following information:
- Name of award
- Prize amount
- Website/application URL
- Application requirements (essay, interview, recommendation letter, etc.)
- Date you applied
- Date you followed up
- Date winners should be announced
What to search for (aka your unique criteria)
So, you’re ready to start your scholarship search. First, you gotta figure out what you’re looking for—aka your scholarship search criteria. A good first step is to think about all the things that make you, well, you! It can be helpful to sit down and brainstorm your activities, accomplishments, interests, or other unique aspects of your life. Here are just some of the scholarship search criteria you should consider:
- Athletics: Sports you play, even if it’s not varsity—perhaps especially if it’s not varsity
- Artistic abilities: Visual art, film, dance, music, etc. If it’s in the arts, there’s a scholarship for it.
- Racial/ethnic background: Where your family is from, what you identify as
- Geographic background: Your city or town, state, or home country
- Gender/sexual orientation: Gender expression, sexuality, what you identify as
- Academic achievement: GPA, test scores, National Merit, or other demonstrated achievement; it doesn’t have to be 5.0 academic achievement either—you’ll find academic scholarships for 2.0 and up.
- Hobbies: If it’s important to you and you’ve demonstrated real commitment to the hobby, it counts (for example, playing video games on the weekends may not win you any scholarships, but loving video games so much that you organized a city-wide tournament just might).
- Community service: Giving back to your school or local community, particularly on an ongoing basis
- Religion: There are scholarships for every organized religion.
- Major/academic interest: For interest in a particular major or career, if you know what you want to study; the more niche your major/academic interest, the better your chances of winning a scholarship for it may be.
- Disabilities or medical conditions: You may need to present proof from your doctor.
- Trade union or member of particular profession: If a parent is a member
- Military affiliation: Family of veterans or veterans themselves; see the Veterans Administration and the Department of Defense for more information.
- The weird stuff: There are some weird scholarships, like ones for having red hair, being left-handed, having the last name Zolp, speaking Klingon, and more; keep your eyes open!
Then there are athletic scholarships, which are…complicated. They’re typically regulated by organizations like the National College Athletic Association (NCAA), and a college’s division (I, II, or III) makes a big difference (NCAA Division III schools can’t even award athletic scholarships). Also keep in mind that there are a multitude of student-athletes competing for 140,000 scholarships at NCAA D-I and D-II schools each year—and a huge part of that is solely men’s football and basketball scholarships. It’s a super elite crowd, so don’t put all your scholarship eggs in that basket. If you’re interested in one of those awards, review the NCAA scholarship guidelines for your school(s) and check in with your coach and/or admission office if you have questions.
As you search for scholarships, remember that high-profile awards with a national applicant pool (like Coca-Cola Scholars and Doodle for Google) attract a lot of attention—and a lot of applicants. Certainly apply if you’re eligible, but know that winning will be a long shot. Your best bet will always be applying for scholarships that are more niche and specific to your unique interests. Finally, there are lots of “easy” scholarships that literally anyone can win. Go ahead and apply (since you really have nothing to lose), but again, know that your chances of winning are slim. These awards shouldn’t be your whole scholarship search strategy—more like a cherry on top.
Related: Scholarship Search Best Practices You Need to Follow
Where to look for college scholarships
It’s tempting to just stick to online scholarship search engines. But don’t! A lot of scholarships never make it into these databases, especially the smaller and/or local ones, and those are exactly the types of awards you’re most likely to win. So use the lists of places and people below to find scholarships that fit you—you never know what you might find.
Scholarship search sites worth checking out:
- College Board
- US Department of Labor
- State grant agencies
- The federal government
- Professional organizations related to your major
In your community
- Your high school counselor (or perhaps a TRIO or similar counselor)
- Local banks
- Small businesses
- Awards for graduating seniors from your high school
- Places of worship (church, mosque, synagogue, spiritual center)
- Local sports leagues
- Service organizations (like Lions Club/Leos)
- Religious organizations (like The Knights of Columbus)
- A parent or guardian’s employer
From your college
- Scholarships for students in your major
- Alumni-sponsored awards
- Fraternities and sororities
Other scholarship resources
- Naviance (through your high school)
- Scholarship books
- Apps such as Scholly
- And don’t underestimate the power of Googling “scholarship for _________”!
Related: The Best Scholarship Search Sites, Books, and More
Finally, as you’re searching through all these potential scholarship resources, beware of scams: You should never have to pay to apply for or receive a scholarship. No scholarship is ever “guaranteed.” And you will never be randomly picked to win an award you didn’t opt into in some way. Basically, if a scholarship sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Do a little online research and/or talk to your guidance counselor and parents if you’re unsure.
The final part of this series explains how to apply for and win scholarships, with advice on everything from essays to interviews. Still on the hunt for scholarship opportunities? Find awards you're eligible for using our Scholarship Search tool!