How to Find—and Win—Scholarships: Your Complete Guide

Tyson Schritter / Explore Our List of Scholarships You Should Apply For »

Everyone knows that college is expensive. But did you know that scholarships are a great way to reduce your overall cost? You need scholarships to pay for college. We know where to find them and how to win them. Here’s how to find- and win- scholarships.

Tips For Finding Scholarships

Start ASAP

Believe it or not, you can find scholarships as early as middle school—so it never hurts to start searching early! But if you’re past middle school (which many of you are), you should kick your scholarship search into high gear no later than the end of junior year of high school. Then keep searching all senior year, and even when you’re in college. Basically—search for scholarships until you graduate or all your college costs are paid—whichever comes first.

Make a List of Your Criteria

Having a cheat sheet of your strengths, interests, and other unique qualities make searching for scholarships a lot easier. Here are some basic scholarship search criteria to consider:

    • Your academic interests/majors
    • Your extracurricular activities
    • Your hobbies
    • Your volunteer experience
    • Sports you play
    • Performing and/or visual art experience
    • Your family’s racial/ethnic heritage
    • Your college/university
    • Your hometown and state
    • Anything you’re truly passionate about

And that’s just the beginning. There are tons of niche awards out there too. So keep your eyes open—you never know what you might win a scholarship for.

Know Where to Look

You’ll probably do most of your research online. These scholarship search engine sites are great places to start:

However – don’t use just one scholarship search engine. Their databases can vary a lot, so compare what they offer. You should also sign up for notifications from these sites and others, so you get alerts when deadlines are coming up or they add awards matching your criteria.

Besides scholarship search sites, check out all the other places you might find scholarships:

  • Your college or university. They might have their own scholarship database.
  • Your school counselor. Ask for their scholarship recommendations.
  • Google, Bing, etc. A simple online search can do the trick, especially if you’re looking for something super specific, like “scholarships for Irish step dancers.”
  • Your family. See if anyone’s employer offers an award.
  • Local organizations. Groups in your hometown, like a Rotary Club or even places of worship, might offer scholarships to kids from your high school.
  • Library. Ask if they have a list of local scholarships.
  • Professional organizations. Find groups related to your interests (for example, the Society of Professional Journalists), and see what scholarships they offer.

Search relentlessly. Cast a wide net, but also remember that the more specific you can get with your scholarship search, the better. For example, you are going to face a lot more competition for a general music scholarship than for an award just for students who play the oboe.

Be Organized

Since you’re searching far and wide, you’re bound to come up with a pretty big list of scholarships—each one with a unique deadline and application requirements. That’s why it’s important to stay organized.

A good way to do this is to keep a running scholarship search spreadsheet. It’s handy for keeping track of awards and all their details. Include fields like deadline, amount, if it’s renewable, application requirements (essay, recommendation letter, interview, etc.), and more.

Apply to Every Scholarship You’re Eligible for—Seriously

When we say apply to all of the awards you’re eligible for, we mean it. All of them. From big, prestigious national awards to teeny-tiny local scholarships, there are literally billions of dollars in awards out there. And every year a lot of them go unclaimed just because no one applied! So do your best to improve your odds.

This means conducting a super thorough scholarship search, finding time to write thoughtful essays, and not giving up as you trudge through one…more…application. It also means applying to all those easy “sweepstakes”-style scholarships, because, hey, what have you got to lose? Just keep in mind that your chances of winning those awards are small, since they attract tons of applicants.

Scholarship Guidebooks: The Good, the Bad, and the Best of the 21st Century

Tips for Winning Scholarships

Make Sure You’re Actually Eligible

Even though you should apply for lots of scholarships, make sure you truly qualify for the awards before you start your applications. Try to get eligibility requirements directly from the awarding organization if you can, just in case your scholarship search engine results are outdated.

Write Kick-Butt Essays

We’re not going to sugarcoat it: applying for scholarships can mean a lot of writing. But remember: this is your chance to convince the scholarship organization why you deserve this money. Take advantage of the opportunity. Carefully read the essay prompt, and make sure you understand what’s being asked. Then tell a unique, thoughtful, specific story. Your story.

Think About Your Story in Advance

You’ll probably be asked to write scholarship essays about who you are and what matters to you. It helps to sit down and think about those heavy topics in advance. Ask yourself: What do you care about most and why? How have you made the world a better place? Where do you see yourself in the future? Jotting down your thoughts can help you formulate essay ideas, and may help you come up with additional scholarship search criteria.

Get to Know the Awarding Organization

Who’s awarding the scholarship, and what do they care about? Spend some time on their website to get a sense of their goals, mission, and values. Then make sure your scholarship application speaks to those things. Put yourself in the scholarship reader’s shoes: Are you the kind of student they’re looking for?

Do NOT Miss the Deadline

Missing a scholarship’s deadline will ruin your chances. In fact, you should send your applications in a week or two early if you can. This gives you enough time to submit your best work—and you really need to give it your all to be a competitive scholarship applicant. Plus, beating the deadline gives you a buffer in case something goes wrong with your application (not that it will…).

Proofread Your Applications

Be sure to edit your scholarship applications for spelling, grammar, and tone. Also, make sure you answered all the questions and essay prompts correctly. The competition for free money is fierce, and a sloppy application can easily throw you out of the running.

Don’t Forget the Little Things

Put effort into small things – like making sure your online presence is respectable, you’re polite and mature if/when you interact with scholarship administrators, etc. In short, give your scholarship search your all. It will be worth it in the end.

There you have it—your guide to finding scholarships and crafting winning applications. You can do this! And if you have any questions, leave a comment or get in touch on Twitter: @CoDSchoolSearch.

More Helpful Resources:

The Top 6 College Search Websites

5 Strategies for Finding the Right College for You

Why You Should Visit Your School Counselor (Early College Prep)