Scholarship typed on ripped notebook paper pinned to dartboard with red dart

Scholarship Search Tips for High School Underclassmen

Don't wait until senior year of high school to search and apply for scholarships. Get started as early as possible with this helpful advice from a real student!

In a time when college admission is becoming more expensive and competitive, prospective college students have to rely on scholarships to make higher education affordable. Being well equipped with scholarship application knowledge, search tips, and research strategies is crucial for students in all stages of their high school journey—not just senior year. The process can be confusing and difficult to navigate, so here are some scholarship facts and tips for high school underclassmen.

Start early, collect early

Most students don’t begin their scholarship search journey until their junior—sometimes even senior—year of high school. With the worries of AP exams, the college application process, the ACT or SAT, and more, hoping to find scholarships that support four years of college in just the second half of high school is, really, quite unrealistic. There are thousands of scholarships and grants available for freshmen and sophomores, even home schoolers. For instance, Duck Tape offers prom attire–making scholarships that all high school students can apply for, with grants up to $10,000. Honestly, the logic is simple; the earlier you start looking for scholarships, the more you’ll be able to gather and put toward your college education throughout high school. 

Related: 5 Reasons to Start Your Scholarship Search Early 

Make college more attainable and affordable

The most obvious and important reason to vouch for scholarships is affordability. An article by Forbes revealed that the Common App saw an 11% increase in applicants between the 2019 and 2020 application groups. Although an indicator for a brighter, more educated future generation, this increase in post-secondary students is the biggest catalyst in college competition and stress. The more people who apply, the smaller the chance of you being accepted to your dream school. A surge in competition then allows private institutions to significantly hike up the cost of attendance. This reality makes scholarships more important than ever before, as they often become the only way students can hope to chase (and pay for) their dreams besides taking out loans.

Scholarship engines and scouts

As the need and number of scholarships gets larger and larger, there are several websites and organizations dedicated to expanding students’ access to grants, contests, and more. The College Board does so much more than make SAT and AP exams; it also provides access to hundreds of big grants. For example, the College Board offers an entry for a $40,000 scholarship simply for working through the college application process. Websites such as Unigo allow you to create a free profile and apply for essay and prompt-based contests for grants ranging anywhere from $100–$10,000. Some of these prizes may seem small, but remember, the money adds up very quickly. Similar to Unigo, allows students to create incredibly detailed, specific profiles and open themselves to the interest of colleges as early as ninth grade. Now, it might be confusing to navigate the droves of scholarships you find on the internet. It’s helpful to look at more specific types of scholarships and see which ones are the best fit for you—and it’s even more important to watch out for scholarship scams.

Related: Scholarship FAQ: The Biggest Myths and Facts 

Types of scholarships

You’ll encounter many types of scholarships in your search, from easy no-essay contests to awards that require papers, projects, or recommendation letters. Here are a few of the most common types of scholarships and when you can apply for them.

Need-based scholarships

Need-based scholarships are offered by universities to students whose families simply don’t have the funds to send their children to college. This type of aid is usually awarded after you fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) during your senior year. The FAFSA will analyze your family’s income and assets to see what type of scholarships, grants, and loans you may qualify for to make college more affordable for the admitted student. According to a report by the Department of Education, $130 billion was requested in 2021 for national financial aid, student loans, and public grants by public post-secondary institutions. Though high school underclassmen can’t exactly apply for need-based scholarships until they begin the college and financial aid application process, it’s important to know about this option and how to apply.

Academic scholarships

Academic scholarships are exactly what they sound like: they’re awarded based on a student’s scholarly merits, such as high grades, GPA, test scores, and overall course-based diligence throughout high school. They’re great for people who don’t necessarily have any outstanding extracurricular awards or athletic accomplishments. One of the most well-known academic scholarships is the National Merit Scholarship Program, or the NMSQT test program. This scholarship is based on a student’s scores on the junior year PSAT and offers $2,500 for the first year of college. Though this may not seem like much, NMSQT recognition is considered highly prestigious by colleges around the country who may offer thousands of more scholarship dollars to admitted qualifiers. However, this scholarship opportunity is only for juniors. Many other opportunities are open to high school underclassmen, though they may not be based on academics, such as ScholarshipPoints’ $10,000 lottery-based grant.

Related: How to Win Scholarships With Your SAT Scores 

Service scholarships

Service scholarships thank and reward high school students for their contributions to their community. In a time when the world needs people helping fix more problems than ever, a significant commitment to local and national volunteering is very impressive to colleges as well as grant organizations and donors. For example, the Barron's Prize for Young Heroes awards up to $25,000 to children ages eight to 18 who make memorable impacts on the local environment. Similarly, the Prudential Spirit Organization grants 25 people between grades five and 12 $10,000 dollars for outstanding national service. Scholarships such as these are available to students of all ages, including underclassmen. It just goes to show that the fruit of service and community help is without a doubt very sweet.

Athletic scholarships

Athletic scholarships are offered to remarkable school and recreational athletes who excel at their respective sports. Between the 2018 and 2019 application cycles, $4.1 billion was awarded across the country in the form of athletic scholarships. Students can apply to broad athletic grants such as the Foot Locker Scholar Athletes Program, which awards $20,000 to 20 high school students. Most commonly, high school sports coaches will contact university coaches to recruit outstanding athletes for a college’s specific team. In fact, high school students can start talking to their coaches about recruitment as early as 10th grade. Recruited athletes received the biggest portion of the previously mentioned $4.1 billion and are given partial- or sometimes even full-tuition coverage to an institution—though a full athletics scholarship is rare. Still, sports-merit scholarships are an amazing way for talented student-athletes to not only afford a post-secondary education but also pursue their athletic dreams.

Related: How to Get and Stay Motivated in the Scholarship Search 

Scholarships are a big part of going to college. It’s imperative that students start the scholarship search process as early as ninth grade—don’t wait until you’re deep in your college research to jump into this complex process. There are thousands of scholarships in categories like athletics, academics, service, hobbies, and need that make it easier for incoming college students to make their dreams possible and decrease the burden that comes with covering the ever-expanding costs of higher education. Start looking for scholarships now to plan your financial path and reach your ultimate academic destination, wherever and whatever that may be. 

You don’t have to go anywhere to start your scholarship search! Check out over $7 billion (yes, billion!) worth of awards right here in our scholarship database.

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