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Free money for school? Yes, please.
With the cost of attendance at many private colleges nearing $70,000 a year, applying for as much financial aid as possible is key. Start by looking into scholarships first, since they provide free money you don’t have to pay back. While competition can be tough — especially for those that award the most money — applying to as many as possible can help increase your chances of receiving free aid.
Find scholarships tailored to you
Where can I find scholarships?
From your high school guidance counselor to online databases, there are a slew of places to search for scholarships. Don’t restrict yourself to only those big-dollar, national programs, either. Scholarships through your local community may come with easier selection.
Here are some resources you can use to kick-start your scholarship search.
Your guidance counselor
If you’re still in high school, sit down with your guidance counselor to learn about scholarships you might qualify for. They likely have a lexicon of resources to help you find options based on your background and interests. And don’t stop there: they can also help proofread your essays and other parts of your scholarship applications.
Your college website
Although not all schools award scholarships, those that do may allow you to renew your scholarship over your full four years of attendance. Another benefit of applying for scholarships specific to your school is that the application pool is likely smaller, since it’s restricted to your fellow peers.
If you’re already enrolled, check your school’s financial aid website to see what scholarships you might be eligible for. And if you’re in high school and haven’t yet committed to one school, use the scholarships available at each to guide your decision.
Sporting a database of more than 2.7 million scholarships and grants, Scholarships.com is a popular website to find free aid. After making a free account and providing your grades, SAT scores and academic, athletic and artistic interests, the site provides a list of scholarships you’re a match for. You can also search its directory yourself based on factors like race, gender, religion, GPA, state and financial need.
Fastweb lists more than 1.5 million scholarships on its website — and it’s completely free to use. You simply make an account by providing your personal and academic details, along with any artistic and career interests you have. Then the site generates a list of scholarships you may be eligible for based on your profile.
You can filter your options based on deadlines and award amounts, and then move those you’re interested in onto a separate list. You can also set up email notifications for any new scholarships that match your profile, as well as deadline notifications so you don’t miss an opportunity.
And bonus: Fastweb offers a mobile app for iOS and Android users, allowing you to search and apply for scholarships on the go.
While best known for SAT registration, the College Board features its own database of scholarships that you can filter based on your background, academics and interests.
It recently launched a new program called Opportunity Scholarships, which rewards rising high school seniors for taking steps to prepare for college. Completing tasks like building your college list, practicing for the SATs and filling out the FAFSA allow you to be entered into monthly drawings to win anywhere from $500 to $40,000. A total of 4,000 scholarships are awarded to students each year.
The US Department of Labor’s free scholarship search tool, CareerOneStop hosts more than 8,000 scholarships, fellowships and grants for students at various education levels. You can filter scholarships based on location, gender, race, religion and disability, as well as by name, award amount and deadline.
With access to more than 5 million college scholarships through its Scholarship Search tool, Sallie Mae’s purview expands beyond student loans. After creating an account, it matches you with scholarships based on your background, academics and activities. You can also set up alerts to notify you when a new scholarship pops up that fits your interests and needs. Plus, creating an account makes you eligible to enter Sallie Mae’s $1,000 monthly sweepstakes.
You might be surprised to find many businesses and nonprofit organizations in your community offer small-dollar scholarships based on academics, community service or interests. Reach out to your local place of worship, community center or business bureau to learn what’s available.
When should I apply for scholarships?
While deadlines vary, start applying for scholarships as soon as possible — preferably during your junior year of high school. This gives you plenty of time to write essays, gather letters of recommendation and complete the applications.
But that doesn’t mean you’re out of luck if you’re already in college. Many organizations offer scholarships to students already pursuing their undergraduate degree.
5 tips for applying for scholarships
With millions of opportunities literally at your fingertips, searching for scholarships can be overwhelming. Here are a few pointers to help guide you through the process and keep a steady head.
1. Get strong letters of recommendation.
Many scholarships require you to include a letter of recommendation from a teacher, supervisor or other mentor that showcases your best qualities. Cultivating strong academic and professional relationships can go a long way toward strengthening your scholarship application.
2. Apply to local and small scholarships.
While the most attractive scholarships are the ones with five-figure awards, you’re competing with thousands of applicants from around the US for them. Don’t discount small-dollar scholarships from local businesses, clubs and organizations that likely have a smaller applicant pool. While they might not offer as much money, winning a few could quickly add up.
3. Proofread your essays.
Many scholarships require you to submit an essay as part of your application. If you’re applying to dozens of scholarships, it can be easy to overlook typos and other flaws in your personal statement.
Before you send out an application, ask a teacher, guidance counselor or parent to proofread it first. Having a killer essay that’s both substantive and free of spelling and grammatical mistakes can help your application stand out.
4. Think outside the box.
Are you left-handed? Over six feet tall? Enjoy duck calling? There might be a scholarship designed specifically for you. Don’t just look for options based on academics. Many organizations offer scholarships geared toward students with different traits and interests that define you as a person. If your head’s already buzzing with weird ideas, check out our page on the most unusual scholarships to see if any apply to you.
5. Keep up your GPA.
Most merit-based scholarships offered by universities require high GPAs. And many outside organizations have strict grade requirements as well. Keeping your grades up can position you for both qualifying for scholarships and renewing any you do end up receiving.
Scholarships are a great way to offset the rising cost of earning a four-year degree. Devoting time to research options you’re most qualified for and prepare applications strengthen your chances of being selected. And don’t forget to look locally — receiving a few small-dollar scholarships can quickly add up.
Considering borrowing for college as well? Check out our guide to student loans to learn more about how they work.