How to Pay for College With Scholarships

The Complete Guide to Getting Free Money for School

College costs are rising. Students at four-year colleges and universities spend $9,000-$32,000 per year in tuition and fees, plus several thousand more on room and board, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.


Many students turn to loans to pay for college. Graduates in the class of 2018 owed, on average, $29,200 in student loan debt. However, you do not need to take out costly student loans to pay for tuition. Instead, you can pay for college with scholarships and grants.


Scholarships fund students at all levels and every major, yet many students pass up on free money. In 2018, college students missed out on $2.6 billion in free money simply by not completing the FAFSA.


Our scholarship guide explains common financial aid terms, how to find scholarships, and how to organize your scholarship list. This guide also offers tips for standing out on scholarship applications, essays, and interviews.


Financial Aid Terms and Definitions


Financial aid comes in many different forms. This section covers the most common financial aid terms so you can decide the best form of financial aid for your situation.




Students who borrow loans to pay for school must pay back the loans — with interest — after graduation. Loans come in several different forms. The federal financial aid program, for example, awards subsidized Stafford loans, unsubsidized Stafford loans, and PLUS loans. Students can also take out private loans.


Federal loans offer several benefits over private loans, including lower interest rates, income-based repayment plans, and interest deferments. However, most students should prioritize looking for scholarships and grants before taking out loans.




Grants provide free money for students, typically with no repayment requirement. The federal government, colleges, state governments, and private organizations offer grants. For example, the federal Pell Grant program supports undergraduates with exceptional financial need.


Unlike most scholarships, many grants require proof of financial need. Some grants may carry stipulations, such as meeting work requirements after graduation. If recipients do not meet those terms, they must repay the grant as a loan.




Many students pay for college with scholarships, which gift money to students with no repayment obligations. Scholarships may be merit-based or need-based and sponsored by a school or external organization. Some scholarships let recipients renew the award for multiple years.


Many organizations offer scholarships, including colleges, private foundations, employers, professional organizations, and religious groups. Unlike loans, recipients never have to pay back scholarships, making them the best form of financial aid for college.


External Scholarships


External scholarships, also called outside scholarships, come from private organizations, including foundations, private donors, professional organizations, and businesses. External scholarships fund students at all kinds of institutions, including online programs, and they carry a variety of eligibility requirements.


Recipients must report external scholarships to their school. These scholarships can affect financial aid eligibility because they decrease the total cost of attending college.


School-Sponsored Scholarships


Many colleges offer scholarships based on merit, need, and athletic ability to recruit students. When students apply to a college, schools determine which applicants should receive scholarships. Private universities typically offer more scholarships than public universities. Scholarship funds come out of the school’s endowment.


Fellowships and assistantships are another form of school-sponsored financial aid. More common at the graduate level, fellowships and assistantships may include work requirements.


Need-Based Scholarships


Need-based scholarships consider an applicant’s financial need. The eligibility requirements vary depending on the scholarship, which may include a maximum household income or evidence of qualifying for need-based assistance programs. Dependent students may need to include financial information about their parents to receive need-based scholarships.


Private scholarships may ask for a student’s FAFSA form to determine financial need. Schools also grant need-based scholarships that consider the student’s expected family contribution.


Merit-Based Scholarship


Merit-based scholarships consider factors like a student’s academic record, extracurricular activities, and leadership abilities. Some merit-based scholarships set a minimum GPA, and scholarships may also award money to students based on their field of study, future career plans, or prior experience.


Private organizations and schools offer merit-based scholarships to students with records of academic excellence. Merit-based scholarships also require students to submit an essay to qualify for the scholarship.


Renewable Scholarships


A renewable scholarship grants recipients award money multiple times. Instead of a single award, students may receive scholarship money every semester or every year while earning their degree.


The requirements to renew a scholarship vary. In general, recipients must show progress toward their degree and continue to meet the scholarship requirements to renew their award. Some renewable scholarships require recipients to reapply every year, while others automatically award multiple years of funding.

Non-Renewable Scholarships


Non-renewable scholarships provide a one-time financial award to recipients. These scholarships cover the current year or semester but not future years of school. Most external scholarships operate as non-renewable scholarships.


In many cases, scholarship recipients cannot reapply for the same scholarship in future years. As a result, renewable scholarships offer a more reliable funding source for students with multiple years left in school. These students must apply to new non-renewable scholarships every year to replace their current scholarships.


The percentage of undergraduate students who receive some form of financial aid.

$30.2 billion

Amount the federal government spent on higher education grants in 2014-2015.


How to Find the Right Scholarships

Students can spend hours looking for scholarships without finding any that fit their situation. Some scholarships might set extremely narrow eligibility requirements while others might be so competitive that applicants face tough odds to win the award. So, how can students find the best scholarships quickly?

First, students should check with their school or program. Some provide a scholarship guide for students. Scholarships limited to one department or school offer better odds of winning. The financial aid office can often point students toward scholarship opportunities that fit their needs.

Second, strategic internet searching can help students find scholarships. Consider searching based on several criteria, including field of study, future career plans, and geographical location. For example, many external scholarships award money to graduates from certain high schools or cities.

Social organizations, clubs, and professional organizations often award scholarships to students interested in their field, even if students plan to major in a different area. Volunteer experience or work history can also help students find potential scholarships.

Finally, learners can apply for scholarships slightly outside their range of qualifications. Less-competitive scholarships may receive only a few applicants each year, increasing the chances of winning the award.

How Much Time Do Students Spend on Scholarship Applications?

Applying for scholarships takes time, especially with new scholarship deadlines every month. Unlike college application deadlines, which typically fall in January, different scholarships award funds throughout the year.

Students should invest time in their scholarship search. High school seniors should start researching and applying for scholarships by the fall of their senior year. Students currently enrolled in college should check for scholarship opportunities all year.

In addition, applicants should not wait until the night before the deadline to submit their application. Some scholarships require recommendation letters, cover letters, and essays. Applicants who customize their application for each scholarship increase their chances of receiving awards.

Time management plays a major role in successfully winning scholarships. Tracking deadlines and scholarship requirements can help students stay on top of the process. The next section provides tips to increase your odds of winning scholarships.

Organizing Your Scholarship List

Students may feel overwhelmed by the scholarship application process. Some scholarships require official transcripts, FAFSA forms, essays, recommendation letters, and more. It can easily feel like applying for college all over again. How can students stay organized when applying for scholarships?

Some students create a spreadsheet to track scholarship applications, deadlines, and requirements. Others make lists of each scholarship and the requirements. A bullet journal can help applicants keep track of scholarships and make progress toward completing their applications. Some students sit down and submit all the required materials as soon as they find the scholarship.

The best way to organize a scholarship list depends on what works best for applicants. However, applicants should carefully track deadlines to make sure they do not miss a scholarship opportunity simply because they lost track of time.

Scholarship Application Tips

1. Manage your time

Time management can make or break a scholarship application. Students who miss a deadline or run out of time to write an essay could cost themselves thousands in scholarship money. Time management is about more than meeting deadlines — applicants also need time to create a polished, persuasive application.

As soon as students identify a scholarship opportunity, they should determine how much time the application will take and when they will complete the work.

2. Make sure your application is clean and neat

Presentation matters on a scholarship application. A sloppy application can turn off scholarship committees.

Check for typos, grammatical errors, and any other mistakes in every part of the application, including the application form, essay, and cover letter. Correcting these mistakes requires time, but it can pay off.

Since nearly all scholarships require an online submission, applicants do not have to worry about their handwriting anymore. Still, students should carefully double check their work before submitting the application.

3. Fill out all application fields completely

Applicants who follow the submission directions exactly show the scholarship committee that they invested time in their application. Leaving a field blank on the application or missing a requirement can mean losing out on a scholarship.

Students should carefully review each field on the application. If the directions are unclear, applicants should contact the scholarship committee for clarification. Many committees only review complete applications.

4. Make sure you send your application to the correct address

Imagine spending hours perfecting a scholarship application, writing the perfect essay, and requesting official transcripts only to submit the application to the wrong address. Applicants should always ensure they submit the application to the correct place.

Many scholarship committees send confirmation messages when they receive an application. Students can always send a quick email to the scholarship committee to confirm receipt of the application.

5. Save a copy in case your application gets lost

Sometimes applications get lost, even when applicants do everything right. Students should always save a copy of their complete application just in case they must resubmit it.

Many scholarship applications let students download a complete copy of their application before submitting. Applicants can also keep copies of their scholarship essays and other documents.

Scholarship Essay Tips

1. Stick to the prompt

Scholarship essays ask applicants to write on a specific topic, like their career goals or challenges. While it might seem tempting to write a generic essay to submit to multiple scholarships, this strategy usually backfires.

Applicants should stick closely to the prompt and ensure they fully address the question. Scholarship committees can easily identify essays that do not answer the question, and those applications typically end up discarded.

2. Start with an outline

Before writing, start with an outline. Through the essay, applicants can show their academic skills, personality, and qualifications for the scholarship. A rambling essay that does not get to the point can only hurt an application.

By planning out what to include in the essay, applicants ensure they hit their main points and fully answer the prompt. An outline can also help students meet the minimum length requirements.

3. Be clear and concise

Throwing together a 750-word essay with paragraphs of filler almost always guarantees a bad outcome. Clarity and brevity show the scholarship committee the applicant’s academic skills. In the scholarship essay, applicants should be clear and concise, without trying to pad their word count.

Revising the essay can help applicants focus their ideas and avoid padding. Applicants should also ask a parent, teacher, or friend to review the essay and identify any parts that lack clarity or concision.

4. Proofread

Students should always leave time for revisions and proofreading. Better yet, complete multiple rounds of revisions. Typos or grammatical errors can make an essay stand out for the wrong reasons. Scholarship committees look for evidence of an applicant’s academic strengths in an essay, and letting errors slip by gives the wrong impression.

Applicants can ask a friend to proofread. Students can also spot more errors in their own writing if they read each sentence in reverse order from the last sentence backward.

5. Be unique and be yourself

The scholarship essay lets applicants show committees something about who they are as a person and as a student. Dry, impersonal essays do not stand out. Applicants should make sure the essay represents them as a person, particularly for prompts that ask about their background, goals, or challenges.

A unique opener or a personal story can help essay writers connect with their readers. Students can draw on experiences from their lives to make their essay more personal.

Scholarship Interview Tips

1. Prepare

Unlike a scholarship essay, a scholarship interview does not leave room for revisions. Applicants must prepare for the interview to make a good impression on the scholarship committee.

Students can prepare for a scholarship interview by learning as much as possible about the interview format and questions beforehand. Applicants can also contact former scholarship recipients for tips. Directly before the interview, candidates should review their application materials. Preparation helps applicants stand out during the interview.

2. Dress professionally

Like a job interview, candidates should dress professionally for a scholarship interview. Presentation makes up an important part of the scholarship committee’s impression of a candidate.

However, applicants do not need to rush out and buy a suit. Professional dress can mean slacks and a collared shirt, a dress, or an outfit with a sports jacket. Even a school uniform can look professional enough for a scholarship interview.

3. Be honest

During a scholarship interview, the committee typically asks about the candidate’s background, qualifications for the scholarship, and future plans. Students should answer the questions honestly. Misleading the committee can easily backfire, especially if applicants contradict their application.

Honesty goes a long way with a scholarship committee, so applicants should always avoid exaggerating their qualifications.

4. Be yourself

Scholarships that require an interview want to get to know the candidates beyond their written submissions. As a result, applicants should feel comfortable being themselves during the interview.

Typically, only scholarship finalists make it to the interview stage. The scholarship committee already knows something about each candidate based on their application. The interview offers an additional opportunity for applicants to stand out and connect with the committee by being themselves.

5. Be enthusiastic

Candidates should let the scholarship committee know they are excited about the scholarship opportunity. In fact, enthusiasm can be a big factor in choosing a scholarship winner. Thanking the committee and showing enthusiasm during the interview helps candidates stand out.

During an interview, applicants can explain how the scholarship would help their studies. For scholarships specific to an area of study or career path, candidates can also show enthusiasm for the field.

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