Updated: Apr 26
College is expensive. Even middle-class Americans (a definition that varies widely depending on who you ask) are feeling the financial pressure of climbing college costs. Federal aid can be valuable in the college financial aid process (read our FAFSA blog post here), but loans should be taken sparingly and few families have access to Pell Grants. If a family lacks significant financial resources and doesn't have access to need-based aid, then their best opportunity for an affordable education is through scholarships.
But what are scholarships? How can you find them? How many should you apply for? All valid questions that we hear frequently from students and families. For that reason, we're going to go over five ways to find scholarship opportunities:
Institutional Aid is a term for merit or need-based aid offered through an academic institution (i.e. a college or university). Scholarships and other award opportunities can vary greatly from school to school. Some things you should consider as you begin applying to colleges and exploring scholarship opportunities:
How do you apply for an institution's scholarships? Some colleges automatically consider students for merit aid when they apply for admission. Other colleges require a completely separate application for scholarships, maybe even a separate application for each scholarship of interest. Spend time on each institution's website and research what opportunities they offer, eligibility criteria, and how to apply.
Deadlines for scholarships and admission might be different. Be sure you're completing the admission and scholarship applications by their respective deadlines because missing specified deadlines for scholarship opportunities can result in the school no longer being affordable! Make sure that you're aware of ALL the deadlines for a college, including admission and financial aid.
File the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) for each school to which you apply. But also note that many colleges offer need-based aid through their institution that can be more generous than the grants/loans you might receive from the federal government. Additionally, some colleges will require the FAFSA before they distribute financial aid (including merit scholarships) to an applicant.
Full-ride scholarships are exceptionally rare and can be extremely difficult to earn. Some larger schools with more funding will likely have more standardized requirements to receive a full-tuition or full-ride scholarship. Smaller schools with less funding will likely have a rigorous selection process that offers only a handful of students significant scholarships. It's important to remember that many students work hard in high school, get good grades and scores, and hold leadership positions, but only a handful will actually have their higher education completely paid for through scholarships and institutional aid. Never hang all of your hopes on a full-ride, unless it is well documented and very clear how you might receive such a significant scholarship (and the stipulations that must be maintained to avoid losing the award part-way through college).
Local scholarships, often called third-party or independent scholarships, are scholarships that exist outside of an institution. These scholarships are often designed with local-level knowledge in mind. These opportunities can be awarded based on the high school you attend, the city or state you call home, where you're planning to attend college, or where you want to live after college (amongst many others). Local scholarships often aren't advertised, so they can be harder to find. If you find one though, the applicant pool is likely much smaller and the selection process can be more personal. Some thoughts on how to discover local scholarships:
Reach out to your guidance counselor or other teachers and staff at your high school. Chances are they might know of some scholarship opportunities, or at least be able to point you in the right direction.
Use any community ties you might have to see if they know of any local scholarships. Youth groups, community service groups, club sports, rotary clubs, even part-time jobs you've worked might all be good leads to start with.
Do some internet research. Small local scholarships might not have the SEO or advertising budget to show up on a Google search, but it won't hurt to give it a shot. You might also find a blog post or online article that has assembled some leads in your local community.
Scholarship Search Engines
The most widespread and commonly known way for students to research scholarships is by using online scholarship search engines. Students and parents can create filters to shrink the search results to opportunities specifically relevant to their situation. Some common filters are location, area of study, academic profile (GPA, test scores, etc.), your family's financial situation, and your demographic background (ethnicity, gender, sex, citizenship, religion, etc.). You can find a list of scholarships and scholarship search engines on our free scholarships resource page. Here's a list for quick reference:
High School Counselors
College Counselors. College Advisors. Guidance Counselors. They go by many names, but ideally they act as guides in planning your post-high school journey. These professionals often have extensive knowledge of local scholarships and funding programs that you might not easily find on the internet. Guidance counselors can also provide insight on how past students from your school faired with scholarships and acceptances, to help you set realistic goals. Things to keep in mind when working with your guidance counselor:
Much like every high school, every guidance office is different. Some schools have specific college counselors that act separately from the school's social-emotional counselors. Other schools have combined the offices. Knowing how your school functions will help you navigate through this process and work with your guidance counselor. Know who you need to talk with to get the ball rolling.
Once you figure out who to talk to, figure out how and when to talk to them. The better a counselor knows a student, the more they can advocate for them throughout the process. Many guidance counselors are also working with significant caseloads. It's not uncommon for a single counselor to have a caseload of over 500 students. Every guidance counselor will have a process, so learn that process and follow it. Students who show initiative and follow a counselor's process will receive more help than those who don't.
Talk to your counselor about scholarship opportunities they know about, especially if the opportunity is local or if someone from your school has received the same scholarship in the past. For example, I recruited in the Greater Memphis area for several years and learned of many scholarships specifically for that region.
Independent Educational Consultants
Last, but certainly not least, students and families can always find resources and help through an independent educational consultant (IEC). IECs can vary greatly in their pricing, services, and specialties. Many IECs also produce free and readily available content/resources that students and families can access, even if they don't have the finances to work one-on-one with the consultant. For example, Virtual College Counselors offers one-on-one services in both hourly and packaged form, but a core part of our philosophy is providing as much free and useful content to as many students as possible. Our free resources include blogs, scholarship resources, infographics, recommended reading, and other various online resources. There are also IECs that specialize in financial aid guidance and scholarship applications.
Whether you're just starting the college search or searching for last minute scholarships, I hope you found this blog post helpful. As a first-generation college student, I remember too well the anxiety and stress caused by worrying about how to fund my education. My last piece of advice to students going through the process is to keep working hard and persevering. Scholarship rarely appear overnight and schools will rarely give you enough financial aid to cover your entire education. Put in a reasonable amount of effort, explore all of your options, and don't give up.
With all my support,
Independent College Counselor
Co-Founder of Virtual College Counselors