The Ultimate Guide to Dominating Scholarships

If you’re in your senior year of high school, chances are you are the busiest you’ve ever been. Navigating through the process of choosing a college in the midst of all of the activities and obligations of high school can seem like more than enough on your plate. Adding the search for scholarships and all that’s required for the application process may seem like more work than you can take on.

Bring Your A Game: Getting Prepared

Let’s take a quick break from your busy schedule for a moment and look at the facts, shall we? Most students (82.3%) are eligible to receive some form of financial aid. In 2010, first-time students received $49 billion in the form of scholarships. That’s a lot of billions of free money, being awarded to students just like you. Believe it or not, many individuals and organizations want to support the further education of your generation. While 48% of this scholarship money is coming from the federal government as need-based, another 36% of the aid is coming from private sources. The point is, there are several ways to earn a slice of the free pie, no matter your background!

Okay, so “free” may be a bit misleading. It’s going to take some effort on your part. You need to make yourself known and put some thought into convincing others to invest in you and your future. It’s going to require some organization and preparation to maximize your efforts and get the best results for your work.

Luckily, is here to help you stay on top of things. Armed with some knowledge and a plan of attack, the world of scholarships can go from a daunting task on your to-do list to a rewarding way to prepare for your next stage of life.

Think of the scholarship application process like a part time job. It’s a job with flexible hours and one that you can do “remotely” from the comfort of your own pajamas. The job description involves you sharing how awesome you are to people who want to support you. While you may not get paid (receive a scholarship) for every single application you fill out, you’ll get a higher return on investment by being persistent and staying organized.

Here are some practical ways to prepare for the scholarships you’ll be applying for.

  • Gather Important Documents: It’s likely that a lot of scholarship applications will require the same information. Gathering this information and having it in one location can help speed up the process. Keep a record of items like report cards, a transcript (if/when you have it), achievement awards, etc. In addition to these official documents, you might want to include some stamps for applications you send in and blank thank you notes to use after interviews or a way to express gratitude for receiving a scholarship!
  • Find Some Reliable References: Many scholarships will require letters of recommendation. Get a head start on asking people to speak on your behalf before there’s a deadline stressing both of you out. Brainstorm a list of people who can speak to your work ethic, your involvement in community and school activities, and character references. Reach out to them and ask if they would be willing to be a reference and possibly write a letter for you. Keep their contact information in your file so you don’t have to look it up with every application.
  • Create a Calendar of Deadlines: Perhaps the most challenging part of scholarships is keeping track of the various timelines. Avoid the stress of being down to the wire on deadlines or the frustration of missing opportunities for scholarships. Create a calendar to keep track of all the important dates to remember. Build out a plan for when you’ll research scholarships, when you’ll work on the applications and essays, and when you need to submit the applications. Be realistic about what you can accomplish and be sure to build in a margin for error.
  • Make a Personal Profile: Each scholarship committee is going to be asking you basically the same question: Why should we give you our money? Avoid feeling put on the spot with scholarship questionnaires or essay prompts by brainstorming a list of qualities, achievements, and experiences that have helped shape you into the incredible person that you are! Create a database of personal stories and a list of achievements that might help you stand apart from the crowd. When it comes to filling out the application, you’ve already done the hard work of brainstorming ideas, so you can focus on tailoring your unique talents to that specific scholarship.
  • Schedule a Consistent Time to Work: You need to be intentional about consistently setting time aside time to work on this. Think through your commitments and weekly schedule to find a time that works for you to work on writing essays and filling out applications. You’d be amazed at what just 30 minutes a day can do. If that doesn’t work, maybe you and your friends will commit to spending Saturday mornings at your favorite coffee shop, sipping lattes while you help each other on your applications. Find what works for you, and then stick to the plan!

Roadmap to Success: A Scholarship Timeline

Most scholarship deadlines fall in November-February, although there are others that happen throughout the year. You don’t want to wait to start the application process until early December. Most scholarships are time-sensitive, and the earlier you get your application in, the better.

You’ll likely be able to apply to more scholarships in a quicker amount of time by preparing some generic answers and preparing commonly requested information. Fight off that Senioritis as long as possible and be proactive!

This is a general timeline for getting the most out of scholarship opportunities. The starting point is the beginning of your senior year of high school, or a year before you head to college. Keep in mind that a lot of these recommendations apply to anyone hoping to get scholarship money. If you’re late to the game and are thinking about scholarship money in the spring, don’t despair! Do what you can and be persistent.

  • Fall: As the school year starts, plan which extra-curricular activities, volunteer opportunities, and organizations you want to invest in. Where it’s possible, seek leadership positions in the activities you do. These experiences will not only provide life-enriching memories but will also boost your resume and help your scholarship applications!

    Spend some time looking for scholarships that you want to apply for. Create a prioritized list and put their deadlines on the calendar.

    Reach out to five to seven people that might be willing to serve as a reference for you. Have a variety of people from different areas of your life, including mentors, teachers, coaches, spiritual leaders, employers, and family friends. Gather their contact information, and ask if they’d be willing to write you a letter of recommendation.

    Typically, the scholarships with the largest awards have earlier deadlines. Spend a larger amount of time and effort on these awards, knowing that the competition for such scholarships will be more intense.

  • Winter: Prime scholarship season starts now! Continue researching for scholarships that may apply to you and add them to your calendar. Try your best to turn applications in a week or two before the deadline.

    Meet up with a college student while they’re home for break. Ask them about their college experience, and get their insight into what scholarships they applied for and tips for success.

    Leverage your extra free time during winter break to work on getting several scholarship essays written!

    Meet with your guidance counselor and ask if he/she has any connections for scholarships you don’t know about.

  • Spring: For any schools you’ve been accepted, you’ll receive an award letter, spelling out the financial aid package that they’re offering. Determine the net cost by subtracting the total amount by the aid you’ll receive. This number is further motivation to get more scholarships and lower the number of loans you’ll have to take out!

    Continue applying for scholarships with later deadlines. If you’ve narrowly missed a deadline, don’t panic just yet. Many scholarship organizations may have a grace period.

    There may be award ceremonies or programs for recipients of scholarship awards. Be sure to attend and express your gratitude for the support you’re receiving!

    As your school year winds down, start looking for a summer job to get further ahead with paying for that first tuition bill. A job can also provide more opportunities that may lend itself to a scholarship down the road.

    Send thank-you notes to anyone who has helped you along the way.

  • Summer: While the window for most scholarship deadlines has closed, there still may be some available. Apply to ones that you may qualify for.

    Research scholarships that you can apply to in the coming year. There’s lots of financial aid for college students, not just seniors!

    Before the semester starts, take some time to prepare and organize for any scholarships you’ll apply to in the coming months. Take our word for it, you’ll be grateful for the prep you did when midterms come!

Finding Your Match: Where to Look for Your Best Scholarships

There are an almost overwhelming amount of scholarships to apply for. Ultimately, this is a good problem for those looking for some help covering the cost of college. While other financial aid may be reserved for those with specific needs, there are no restrictions on how many scholarships you can apply for!

The challenge is to find the right ones for you - the organizations that are wanting to support someone with your unique situation. Finding the right match isn’t as easy as finding someone on a dating site, but there are lots of resources for you to use.

  • Online Databases

    The internet is a wonderful thing. Probably the easiest way to find up-to-date and relevant scholarship programs that cater to you is to look at a number of scholarship databases. Some sites simply list scholarships and provide a description and a link to the application site. Others help you create a personal profile and help you match up to scholarships that would work for you. At this time, does not have such a feature, but - stay tuned - it's coming soon.
  • Your Guidance Counselor

    Your high school’s guidance counselor should be an expert in helping you transition from high school to college. Part of that role is having an inside scoop on scholarships you can apply for. Find a time to sit down and talk with them about how you can get the most out of scholarships you are eligible for and when they are due. They might even have essay writing tips or ideas to help you stand out from other applicants. After all, they have probably worked with thousands of students and can tell you what makes certain students stand out.
  • Big Businesses

    Many major corporations have foundations for scholarships and higher education. From Microsoft to Coca-Cola, these companies want to do more than just sell their products. Some may be catered to specific majors, but many of them might be open to a wide variety of students. This could also be a great way to get your foot in the door for a summer internship or a full-time position after graduation.
  • Professional Associations

    Do you know what you’ll be studying in college yet? It’s possible that the field you’re interested in might be offering scholarships to you. Most professional associations have a variety of scholarships to help invest in bringing the best and brightest into their field of study.
  • Local Community Organizations

    The competition in national and state-wide scholarship programs can be fierce. You might have better odds of receiving some financial help from local sources. Often, local organizations like the YMCA, Chamber of Commerce, Kiwanis, or a place of worship might be offering scholarships to local students. It never hurts to ask. After all, they say it’s all about who you know, right?
  • Places of Employment

    Many businesses have scholarship opportunities offered to their employees or their children. If you are an adult considering a second degree or going on to get an MBA or other graduate degree, ask your supervisor if the company offers tuition reimbursement or scholarships of any form. If your future degree would benefit their company, they might see it as a wise investment! And students, ask your parents to check and see if they have any scholarships available to the children of employees. Companies often like to spread their name with positive news, and scholarships are a great way to do just that.

What’s Your Type: An Overview of Scholarship Varieties

There are as many different types of scholarships as there are people! Similarly, the qualifications and the dollar amount vary widely as well. No matter who you are, what your interests are, what background you come from, or what talents you possess, chances are that you are the perfect candidate for more than one scholarship.

Take a look below at some of the different categories of scholarships. After each scholarship type is an excellent example of a national scholarship that fits this category. Use this as a jumping-off point to start your own search for scholarships. (And know that this is not an exhaustive list!)

Academic Scholarships

Also known as merit scholarships, these are given to students who have maintained a high GPA throughout high school. Typical candidates for these scholarships have excelled in more than just the classroom. Participants in a variety of extracurricular activities and community involvement, these gifted students show that they are well-rounded. Academic scholarships tend to be larger amounts, even sometimes offering a “full ride” to the university of the recipient’s choice.

National Merit Scholarship Program

Due: Varies, March-Early May

Award: $500-10,000

Description: If you took the PSAT/NMSQT standardized test as a junior, you may qualify for this prestigious scholarship. If you score within the top one percent of your peers, you qualify as a semifinalist, eligible to complete the National Merit Scholarship Application and be considered for one of thousands of scholarships, with a combined value of $44 million.

Athletic Scholarships

If you are a gifted athlete, you might be recruited by a college or university to participate in your sport for them. This might include a scholarship component as an incentive to go to that school. We often hear about the full ride scholarships that bigger sports programs offer to major athletes in football or basketball. However, scholarships are often offered for just about any athletic activity and can come in varied amounts. So don’t worry if you don’t feel you’re at the “full ride” level. The average athletic scholarship is about $10,400.

NCAA Division I and II Athletic Programs

Due: Varies

Award: Varies

Description: There are roughly 138,000 athletic scholarships offered annually for Division I and Division II sports. (Division III schools do not give athletic scholarships.) Unlike typical scholarships that have a standard application process, coaches need to know about your talents to be discovered. Be bold! Email a coach, introducing yourself and sharing some stats or awards during your athletic career. You can also include a YouTube video highlighting some of your best moves.

Average Scholarships

Having read the first two categories of more common scholarships, you may be feeling daunted. What if you don’t have exceptional physical talents and you aren’t a “genius” in the classroom? Don’t worry. There are lots of scholarships that don’t have academic requirements and are geared towards people that stand out in ordinary ways.

Dell Scholars Program

Due: January 15

Award: $20,000

Description: This nationwide program offers scholarships to students who have overcome hardships. Their “GPA” requirement has less to do with academic achievement and more to do with grit, potential, and ambition. Besides financial support, this program also provides resources and mentoring to help you pursue a degree.

Community Involvement Scholarships

Many scholarships are offered to individuals that are involved in their communities. Whether you’re passionate about volunteering, served in a leadership capacity at your place of worship, or were a part of an organization such as Boy Scouts or FFA, you might qualify for a number of scholarships. Volunteering and community involvement are requirements for lots of applications, while other scholarships might be offered from specific organizations you are connected with.

Youth Service America

Due: Varies

Award: Varies

Description: Youth Service America supports several awards and grants for students that make community service a priority in their lives. YSA teams up with various organizations to help support people who are making a difference in their world.

Creative Scholarships

Your passion for creativity could just earn you some extra money. Many scholarships have a competition that highlights a variety of artistic talents. Depending on your medium of choice, you might be asked to audition, create a piece of art or music, write an essay or short story, or come up with a creative solution to a problem using technology. Out-of-the-box thinking and cultivating excellence are skill sets that our world needs, and many scholarships aim to highlight that in the next generation.

Create-a-Greeting-Card Scholarship (Gallery Collection Scholarship)

Due: March 2, 2017

Award: $10,000

Description: Participants design a greeting card, submitting a photo, a piece of artwork, or graphic design. The cards can be for any occasion or theme, and finalists are judged by a panel of employees from The Gallery Collection. This is open to high school students as well as college students.

Gender Specific Scholarships

It is relatively recent in our history that women have had equal access to higher education. We are also living in a time that recognizes the challenges that the LGBTQ community face. Many activist groups want to support individuals who are trailblazers and defying set societal norms. Some scholarships may have gender-specific qualifications and could be even more specific in the field you’re pursuing.

The Future is Female Scholarship

Due: March 31

Award: $3,000

Description: The women who founded the company True&Co want women to follow their passion, just like they did. This scholarship helps empower applicants to pursue careers they love through higher education. You must have a GPA of 3.0 or higher, be an American Citizen, and be female, of course.

WOMEN IN STEM Scholarship

Due: November 1

Award: $2,000

Description: As a technology company, sees firsthand the shortage of female engineering talent and the shortage of women in technology. We want to do our part in supporting women who are pursuing a science, technology, engineering, math (STEM) degree by establishing the Women in STEM scholarship, an annual $2,000.00 scholarship that will be awarded to a woman who best conveys the reason why pursuing a degree in science, technology, engineering or math is important to them.

Military Scholarships

If you a veteran or currently serving in the military in any way, you might have access to a number of scholarships. There are also a lot of aid for family members of veterans. This is one way that organizations, individuals, and companies give back to those who have served our country.

Army Scholarship Foundation

Due: Varies

Award: $500-$2,000

Description: This foundation offers a variety of one-year scholarships to anyone who members the armed forces. Many of the scholarships honor the memory of members of the army that showed tremendous bravery in the line of duty. Their legacy is left through these scholarships.

Minorities Scholarships

Statistically and historically, people of color have faced many roadblocks and challenges to seeking higher education. The intention of many scholarship foundations is to help provide the help necessary to have greater access to the same privileges that others have. Some scholarships are open to anyone considered to be a minority, while others are specific to a certain ethnic group.

Gates Millennium Scholars

Due: January 15th

Award: Varies

Description: Funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, this awards a variety of scholarships to minority students who have achieved academic excellence in high school. These scholarships help with college costs not covered by other grants or federal financial aid. Applicants must be nominated by an educator.

Technology Scholarships

With our growing reliance on technology in everyday life, there are an increasing amount of scholarships to support the growth of technology. If you are intrigued by the technical sciences or have a desire to pursue a degree in technology, you might be able to get some help along the way! Many tech companies and large organizations have scholarships aimed at helping innovative thinkers like you.

Siemens Math, Science and Technology Award

Due: September 30th

Award: $1,000-$100,000

Description: Your original thinking in a research project is the key to success for this competition. You can submit projects on your own or as a team effort, and they’re looking for problem-solving that works to help make the world a better place.

Unusual Scholarships

As we mentioned before, the categories of scholarships are wide and varied. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box when it comes to seeking scholarship opportunities! If you have an odd talent or niche passion, there’s probably a scholarship for it! There really is something out there for everyone!

Chick and Sophie Major Memorial Duck Calling Contest

Due: Varies

Award: 4 Awards from $500-$2,000

Description: It is what it sounds like. You could get money for sounding like a duck. Head to Struttgart, Arkansas and participate in the annual duck calling contest for your chance at some moola! The date of the contest varies but is typically in November.

Can’t Fool Me: Avoiding Scholarship Scams

At some point, “free money” can sound too good to be true. Sometimes, it is. Scam operations pose as legitimate government agencies, scholarship foundations, and official-sounding organizations, luring people in with the promise of scholarships. It’s estimated that 350,000 students become victim to these scams annually, so it’s important to be on alert.

While the College Scholarship Fraud Prevention Act was put in place in 2000, making it harder for these scams to happen, families still lose out on thousands of dollars every year. Here are some red flags to be aware of to keep you from being a victim.

The Scam: Scholarships with Application Fees

While there are some legitimate scholarships that do require a small fee, this is one of the main ways that scammers get you. If they have thousands of applicants, each paying $5-$10 bucks, they cash in big. You may assume that you just didn’t get the scholarship, but the reality is, no one did. They just collected the money and then disappeared.

The Defense: Do some research about the organizations that are offering scholarships. Do they have accreditation, evidence of previous winners, and a legitimate presence in the community? If you haven’t heard of them, or they aren’t clear about where your application money is going, be suspicious.

The Scam: The Bait and Switch

You receive a letter, saying that you’ve won a large scholarship for thousands of dollars! In order to receive the money, you have to pay a “disbursement” or “redemption” fee before you can receive your prize. You send the check, and then nothing happens. Or the scholarship check you receive bounces and you’re left with nothing. It’s not common for there to be a fee associated with the scholarship money. If they’re asking you for money, start investigating!

The Defense: If you are suspicious, you can check The Federal Trade Commission's website. They have a list of reported and alleged scholarship scams. If you’re getting scammed, it’s possible you aren’t the first.

The Scam: Identity Theft

It’s common to have to provide some pretty personal information when filling out scholarship applications. Identity thieves see this as a perfect front to collect your information and steal your identity! They may ask for your social security number in the application or request your bank account number in order to direct deposit the scholarship money. If the questions are getting too personal, it’s time to pump the breaks!

The Defense: Never give out your social security number or bank account numbers, and don’t give out any other personal information until you’ve done your homework. Before providing any information information, do some checking into the organization that’s requesting it. What authority do they have to be requesting this information? What will they be doing with it and how can you be sure the information remains private? Have those answers ready before moving forward. And unlike iTunes or Facebook updates, you really should read the terms and conditions when it comes to free money.

Trust your gut. If you’re feeling uneasy, do some digging or ask around to other trusted people, like a financial aid office or guidance counselor to verify the source of the scholarship. Protect yourself by keeping a thorough record of communication and getting everything in writing, in case things go bad.

It’s very likely that this won’t even be a concern in your hunt for scholarships, but being aware is the best defense. If you do come across something that feels fishy, please report it to the FTC, so that the people responsible can be stopped.

Stand Out from the Crowd: Tips for Success

The reality is that you aren’t going to win every scholarship that you apply for. It can feel intimidating to put in so much effort when you don’t know what returns you’ll get on your investments. Let’s say that you apply for 20 scholarships, and each one takes you 1 hour, on average, to apply. Even if you only win one scholarship for $1,000, you’re still getting “paid” $50 an hour. Probably more than you’re making at your after-school job, right?

The idea of the scholarship application process is that fortune favors the bold. The more you apply for, the more likely you are to receive aid, increasing your earnings per hour. Here are some tips to help you maximize your efforts and stand out from the crowd.

#1. Be Thorough.

When judges are going through hundreds of applications, they are looking for easy ways to weed out candidates. If you haven’t filled out the application accurately or followed the instructions for the essay explicitly, your application may be discarded immediately. Taking the time to double check that you’ve met all of the requirements can set you apart right away. Be thorough and intentional in every aspect of the application process. Your hard work will pay off!

#2. Apply early and apply often.

A lot of scholarships are given out on a first-come, first served basis. You leave an impression, not only with the words in your essay and the activities listed in your application, but also with your promptness in returning the applications before the deadline. Going above and beyond with your communication can help leave a good impression as well. If you’re sending your application by mail, call to check that it arrived. Make it a habit of writing thank you letters, even to scholarship foundations that you didn't receive an award from. And above all, commit to applying to as many scholarships as you can.

#3. Be strategic about what scholarships you go for.

That being said, you want to make sure that you’re investing your time in scholarships you’re more likely to get. Take an inventory of what talents, achievements, and circumstances you have and use those as a guide for which scholarships to apply for. Look closely at the scholarship requirements and be realistic about whether or not you’d be a good candidate. Don’t waste time on scholarships that require a large amount of time but don’t have a good payout or would be a long shot for you to win. The competition is less in local scholarship contests, so you may want to make those a priority. Don’t discount scholarships with smaller awards. You’re more likely to receive those scholarships since there’s generally less competition, and they can start to add up quickly. Make it a balance of being bold but also wise.

#4. Nail the personal essay.

Keep in mind that your application and essay are going to be read by people that are looking to be inspired to support you. They want to find the perfect person to invest in that shows the characteristics that match their organization or reason for creating the scholarship in the first place. You need to set yourself apart from the hundreds to thousands of other applicants. One of the best ways to do that is to write a glowing personal essay. Avoid the temptation to copy generic essay responses. Think about your unique talents, what experiences have you had that most others have not, or what challenges have you overcome to find success? Or maybe you have a profound idea to change the world. Share what makes you special.

#5. Be yourself.

Confidence is key when it comes to looking for scholarship money. It might be intimidating to consider the competition you’re going up against. Know that you are worthy of receiving the scholarships you apply for and that your journey is one that others want to support. You don’t need to inflate the truth or go to extremes to impress others. Authenticity and confidence are inspiring. Whether you feel like you’ve lived an ordinary life, or you’re ambitions for college are coming out of a story with lots of obstacles, you have a lot to offer the world.


It’s time for the reality check. Most people tend to overestimate what they can receive for merit-based private scholarships. The reality is that it’s pretty rare for students to get their entire college bill paid for by scholarships alone. (Only 0.3% of students receive a truly “full ride” scholarship.)

Chances are that you’ll end up paying for the cost of your education through a variety of sources, including federal and state aid, your own savings, and hopefully some grants and scholarships. The main goal is to pursue as many options to pay for college that minimize your need for loans. While scholarships may not cover everything, it is very likely that you can cover a portion of your costs with scholarship money.

With realistic expectations, you can maximize your efforts to get the most amount of scholarships possible. The act of applying for scholarships is a way of advocating for your own growth. Pursuing a college degree has immense value. Thousands of organizations, individuals, and companies see this value as well and are looking to support students just like you. With a bit of planning and persistence, you can have access to this support to pursue your higher education dreams!

Article Sources

You've Started Your List