The Ultimate Guide To College Scholarships

Written by James Mielke
Published on August 6, 2023 · Updated on January 23, 2024

The Ultimate Guide To College Scholarships

Written by James Mielke
Published on August 6, 2023 · Updated on January 23, 2024

If your final high school days are winding down, you know college is rapidly approaching. You've aced your classes, prepared endlessly for standardized tests, and crafted the perfect college applications, all while managing your busy life of extracurricular activities.

So…what's left other than enjoying your final summer before college? Finding and applying for scholarships might still be on your list.

Securing scholarship funding can often feel like you're applying for college again. And with everything else you've got going on in your life, applying for college scholarships isn't necessarily an enjoyable way to pass the time before you shove off to college. However, scholarships for college are often a desirable source of funding that doesn't need to be repaid, so when your future self has fewer student loans to pay back in 4 years, you’ll be grateful that you put in the extra time today.

And guess what? We're here to walk you through the scholarship process while offering the tips and tricks that can make applying for scholarships as painless as possible. From searching for scholarships to crafting a standout scholarship essay, we've got you covered.

Continue reading as we discuss how you can prepare and submit scholarship applications that let you stand out from the competition. This is your ultimate guide on how to get a scholarship for college.

How To Prepare For Scholarships

If you're seeking college financial aid, overlooking scholarships would be a mistake. Almost 2 million college students receive scholarships annually, and we're not talking about insignificant amounts of money. 

The US Department of Education awards nearly $50 billion in scholarships each year, while private sources supply over $7 billion in funding each year.

The result? By forgetting to apply for college scholarships, you’re ignoring a free financial resource that doesn’t usually have to be repaid. But, you need to be prepared. Scholarships can be come from anywhere, like local faith organizations or even your own school alumni. Or, they can come from large organizations or the college themselves. Don’t overlook any scholarship sources.

Here’s how you can find the right scholarships for you and submit a competitive application.

  1. Find Scholarships

Scholarships can vary dramatically, with some offering exorbitant funding while others supplying just a few hundred dollars. Additionally, the requirements and application steps can differ from scholarship to scholarship, so be sure to always read directions. 

  1. Gather Important Documents

Required documents can also vary, like transcripts, tax returns, or AP test results. Additionally, be sure to have a thorough resume handy that includes work and volunteer experience, extracurricular activities, and any awards won. In case any of the college scholarships require an essay, you’ll want these highlights nearby to reference.

  1. Reliable References

Letters of recommendation or reference are often a part of the application process. It's essential that you give your references ample time to write on your behalf, so don’t wait for the last minute! Common letter-writers include teachers, counselors, coaches, and faith leaders.

  1. Calendar of Deadlines

If you're juggling multiple scholarship applications, the deadlines and requirements can become a blur. Organization is key, so be sure to add scholarship deadlines to your calendar or planner. By having those dates on paper, you're less likely to leave applications to the last minute.

  1. Essay Prep

Scholarship applications often require a personal scholarship essay of some kind, asking you to explain why you're the individual that should win the award. And while that can feel like a daunting task, the essay is really just an opportunity to set yourself apart and brag on what makes you unique. What personal experiences have shaped you as a person, or what goals and dreams do you hope to achieve by pursuing your college dream? Keep these in mind when preparing your application.

  1. Make and Keep a Schedule

A rushed application is often a substandard application. By setting aside a consistent time to work on your application, you'll avoid any last-minute mistakes. If you're juggling school, extracurricular activities, and time with friends, it's easy to neglect your applications. Your odds of securing scholarship funding increase if you dedicate enough time to the applications.

Scholarship Timeline

Most scholarship deadlines fall between November and February, but some awards extend this due date into early summer. To avoid missing deadlines, treat all scholarships as time-sensitive—the earlier you submit, the better.

Keep in mind there is no exact timeline. You could apply for one scholarship a month for your entire high school career, and then you’d apply to almost 50 scholarships. Or, you could wait until Junior year and apply to one a day, like this student did who was offered more than $1million in scholarships. But here’s a general timeline you can follow in one year to help guide your scholarship applications.


In addition to jumping back into school and your extracurricular activities, fall is a great time to begin the scholarship process. Be sure to set aside time to actually search for college scholarships, in addition to applying. Once you have a list of prospective awards, create a prioritized list, and highlight application deadlines. 

Additionally, reach out to potential recommendation letter writers—this can include teachers, coaches, counselors, faith leaders, and employers. Ensure that letter writers have all the information they need to craft a standout letter on your behalf.


It's time to get serious. Winter is peak scholarship season, so manage your time and submit your scholarship applications early. Before submitting, have a trustworthy individual review your applications. Sometimes a fresh set of eyes can provide vital edits and suggestions. 


This is the season for college acceptance verification. When a school accepts you, they will also include detailed financial aid information. At this point, you'll have a pretty good idea about how much each academic year costs. 

But just because you've gotten into some choice college and universities, it doesn't mean that it's time to coast. While many scholarship deadlines have passed, many awards and their accompanying cash are still available for application. Additionally, it's a classy move to send some hand-written thank you notes to folks who've helped you secure scholarships and or get into college.


At this point, the vast majority of college scholarships are closed. And while you should enjoy your final summer before college, it's wise to look forward to scholarship opportunities for year two of college. You might want to reapply for scholarships you failed to secure or find more awards that are earmarked for enrolled college students.

Adult Learners: Do I Qualify For Scholarships As An Adult Learner?

Scholarships for college are not just for students graduating from high school. Whether you're attending college for the first time or re-enrolling after some time away, countless scholarships are available to you. Keep reading as we answer some common questions adult students have about scholarships.

Do I still qualify for scholarships as an adult college student?

There is a seemingly endless list of college scholarships available to adult learners. Additionally, there are awards available specifically for adult students. That said, some awards can be earmarked for individuals finishing up their final year of high school. So, when researching potential scholarships, be sure to closely review the requirements to ensure that you're eligible. 

Am I still eligible to take on student loans as an adult learner?

Absolutely! The eligibility criteria for student loans depend on factors like enrollment at an accredited college or university, financial need, and citizenship status. Adult students can typically apply for federal student loans, including Direct Loans or Perkins Loans, by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Additionally, private student loans are available from various lenders, but their terms and eligibility requirements can vary.

Do online programs offer financial aid?

Yes, online programs often provide financial aid options. Many accredited online colleges and universities participate in federal financial aid programs, including grants, scholarships, and student loans. Additionally, many online programs offer their own institution scholarships and financial aid packages specifically for online learners. When searching for the best program for you, be sure to research the financial aid each school offers.

Can I get college credit for life experience?

While not especially widespread, some colleges and universities do offer the chance to earn college credit for life experience through a process called "prior learning assessment" or "credit for prior learning." More common for online adult students, this allows them to demonstrate the knowledge and skills they've acquired outside traditional classroom settings. Because specific policies for life experience credit vary between programs, it's advisable to check with prospective schools to learn about their requirements.

5 Tips For College Scholarship Success

By this point, you've locked in some potential scholarships for college and marked them on your calendar. You're ready to apply. So what's next, and how do you stand out from the crowd? We've got you covered. Keep reading as we spotlight five ways to ensure a quality scholarship application.

#1 Be Thorough

The first step scholarship committees typically take is to weed out applications with glaring flaws. Applicants who forget to include the required information and those who don't follow instructions are candidates for immediate rejection. When preparing your application, ensure you have ALL of the required information and CAREFULLY follow the instructions. Also, leave yourself enough time to complete the application. Rushed applications are prime candidates for mistakes.

#2 Apply Early and Often

College scholarship decisions can be made on a first-come-first-served basis, while other awards compile all applications before making any decisions. Still, it's worth it to give yourself as much time as possible to complete applications. It's also worthwhile to consider awards of all sizes. Bigger awards are inevitably more competitive, so accumulating a number of smaller scholarships can result in significant financial assistance.

#3 Devise a Strategy

There are countless scholarships for college students, and there's no way you can apply to all of them. So, it's worth taking an inventory of what you bring to the table and comparing that to what scholarships are looking for in their applicants. It's also worth prioritizing local scholarships because they're less competitive than big-money national awards. Still, if some large national awards feel like a perfect fit, be sure to apply!

#4 The Scholarship Essay

Seemingly objective metrics like GPAs and standardized test scores can impact your chances of securing funding, but don't sleep on your scholarship essay. A well-crafted scholarship essay can often make or break your application, and it's also your chance to set yourself apart and tell your story. What experiences have made an impact on your life? Have there been hardships you've had to overcome? Consider your talents and what makes you and your story unique. Of course, also be sure to answer the scholarship essay questions or prompts thoroughly and get it in on time!

#5 Confidence

The scholarship application process can feel intimidating. You are competing against students who have equally solid grades and test scores. But if you address the application with confidence and feel as though you're a worthy candidate, that positivity can shine through the application. Give yourself ample time to complete the applications, work hard, and hope for the best.

Final Thoughts on College Scholarships

The college scholarship process can feel like a tall order, but not just because you have to craft essays and lean on important people in your life for letters of recommendation. The reality is that these awards are competitive, with often hundreds of students vying for cash rewards. As a result, don't get down on yourself once the rejections start rolling in—often, the odds are not in your favor. 

Thankfully, a long list of financial aid opportunities can cover the cost of your college experience. Federal loans, grants, and work-study programs are designed to ensure that high school graduates can secure the funding they need, regardless of their economic background.