How to Pay for College with Scholarships: The Complete Guide to Getting Free Money for School

If you’re here, you want to find money for college. And we want to help. That’s why we’ve put together this scholarship how-to guide: how to find them, how to organize them, how to apply for them, and, most importantly, how to win them.

BY Abby Perkins

How to Pay for College with Scholarships: The Complete Guide to Getting Free Money for School

Financial Aid Terms & Definitions

Loans are financial aid that can come from the government, banks and private institutions. What makes them different from grants and scholarships? You have to pay it back (usually with interest). Today, around 70% of students graduate with student loans, with an average debt of $29,000 per person.

Grants can come from the government, colleges and universities, and even corporations – but unlike loans, they don’t need to be repaid. Federal grants, like the Pell Grant, are typically offered based on financial need, while private institutional grants are available based on need, merit, student demographics and more.

Scholarships are another form of financial aid that doesn’t need to be repaid. There are thousands of scholarships out there, and millions (if not billions) of dollars in available award money. You can find scholarships that relate to just about any interest or experience, from animals to technology to childhood illness – some are need-based, and some are merit-based.

External scholarships are awards funded by private groups, including individual donors, businesses, non-profits, foundations and other organizations. They are not typically affiliated with or restricted to students from a particular school.

School-sponsored scholarships are affiliated with or provided by individual colleges and universities. Although they may also be funded by private individuals or foundations, they are restricted students of a particular school (and sometimes of a particular major), and students must usually apply through the school.

Average Student Loan Debt Over Time

Need-based scholarships are awarded based primarily on demonstrated financial need. These can be especially helpful for students whose parents make too much to qualify for federal aid programs, but who still need help paying for college.

Merit based-scholarships do not typically take financial need into account (although some may, to a lesser extent). Instead, these scholarships are awarded based on exceptional talent in a given discipline. Although there are many general academic merit-based scholarships, some are targeted toward specific majors, sports, art forms, interests and more. Merit-based scholarships may also be awarded to students who demonstrate impressive volunteer work or commitment to a particular field.

Renewable scholarships award scholarship winners a certain amount of money each year they attend college (usually up to four years). Receiving these awards for multiple years is often contingent on maintain a certain GPA or enrolling in a certain major.

Non-renewable scholarships provide winning students with funds for only one year – in fact, previous winners are often forbidden from applying to the same non-renewable scholarship two years in a row.

84.4%

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

30.2 billion

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

Source: NCED.ed.gov

How to Find the Right Scholarships

It’s hard not to get overwhelmed by the sheer number of scholarships out there, and even harder to know where to start. The most important thing? Finding and applying for scholarships that are right for you.

Too many students go for quantity over quality – they apply for tons of scholarships without considering whether they really qualify. In fact, according to a recent GoodCall survey, a third of scholarship providers say that up to 50% of applicants do not meet the requirements of their scholarships.

The trick is finding scholarships that you actually have a chance of winning. That’s where scholarship search tools come in. They can make it easier to find scholarships that are designed for students like you – whether you’re a female engineering student or an English major who loves animals.

1 of 3 providers say that up to 50% of applicants do not meet scholarship requirements.

Source: GoodCall

First, focus your scholarship search by filtering results based on:

  • Gender
  • Ethnicity
  • College major
  • Geographic location
  • School

There are scholarships intended specifically for male or female students, students with different majors, minority students, and students from different areas of the country. Applying for scholarships with these restrictions will narrow the applicant pool, giving you a better chance of winning.

Beyond those basic filters, there are also specific scholarships based on things like volunteer work, sexual orientation, disabilities and illnesses, future career paths and general interests – there are even scholarships designed for tall students, vegetarians, and Star Trek fans.

Many scholarships, on the other hand, are open to any student enrolled at an accredited institution, or any student with a certain GPA. These scholarships are often easy to apply for – however, that also means they get a lot of applicants, making them more competitive.

Students need to consider how they want to approach scholarships: apply for many that are easy to enter but might be highly competitive, or apply for fewer that they are more likely to win. Scholarship search engines can make it easier to decide on the value of individual scholarships with unique entry difficulty and competition level metrics, which evaluate scholarships based on the number of schools that list them, the reputation of the sponsoring organizations, award amounts and eligible student populations, entry methods, additional materials required and more.

Organizing Your Scholarship List

If you’ve applied for scholarships before, you know how difficult it can be to keep track of all the due dates, required materials and award amounts. If you’re submitting applications for multiple awards at once, it can even be hard to remember which scholarships you’ve applied for, which ones you still have to work on, and where you are in the process. That’s why it’s important to organize your scholarship list.

Keep track of your scholarships in whatever way makes sense to you, whether it’s a paper calendar, a Google Doc, or a complex system of Post-It notes. Scholarship search engines can also be helpful here, allowing you to:

  • Organize scholarships by status (watching, applied and won)
  • Keep track of deadlines, award amounts, and entry methods for individual scholarships
  • Set earnings goals and track progress toward those goals
  • Remember essay topics you’ve already written for future use

Whatever system you choose to organize your applications, make sure you include the big things like upcoming deadlines, necessary materials (including letters of recommendation, transcripts and proof of residency, volunteer work or financial need) and scholarship amounts. It’s also a good idea to set a total monetary goal and subtract the scholarships you win from that goal, so you can see the progress you’re making.

Keep track of your scholarships in whatever way makes sense to you, whether it’s a paper calendar, a Google Doc, or a complex system of post-it notes.

Scholarship Application Tips

Ever heard the saying, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat?” Well, there’s more than one way to apply for a scholarship, too. In fact, there are a lot of ways. While most scholarships require a standard paper or online application form (often with an essay), others ask for more creative submissions, including:

  • Videos or songs
  • Art projects or paintings
  • Computer programming projects
  • Photographs or digital designs
  • Culinary projects

One popular scholarship asks for students to create prom dresses out of duct tape, while another requires applicants to craft an original peanut butter sandwich. These creative applications are great for some students, especially those who have specific athletic, artistic or other talents. However, they’re also usually a pretty significant time investment –and it’s important to decide whether they’re worth it.

Speaking of time – how much time should you be spending on scholarship applications? Everyone from parents to college counselors says that you should start the scholarship application process early and apply to as many as you can. But how do you do that – while keeping your grades up, volunteering, attending extracurricular activities, and seeing friends and family?

How Much Time Do Students Spend on Scholarship Applications?

The secret is time management. Dedicate a few minutes at the beginning of each week to organization, so you know what you need to do and what deadlines you need to meet. Then, figure out how much time you need to apply for each scholarship on your list. A 1,000-word essay is obviously going to take more effort than a simple online application, but make sure you’re not spending more time than necessary on applications. GoodCall survey data shows that most students spend two hours or less on each application.

As for general application tips? The most important one is to proofread and double check everything before you click “submit.” Check for grammatical errors, and make sure you have all the required materials and additional documents. In addition to that:

  • Make sure your application is clean and neat
  • Fill out all application fields completely
  • Make sure you send your application to the correct address (email or snail mail)
  • Save a copy in case your application gets lost

Scholarship Essay Tips

Many (though not all) scholarships also require an essay in addition to the basic application. Some have essay questions that relate to the particular scholarship or provider, while others are more general (“Tell us what education means to you,” or “Tell us about your goals for the future”). No matter the essay prompt, there are a few guidelines you should follow:

  1. 1. Stick to the prompt. According to GoodCall survey data, nearly one in two scholarship providers say that up to 50% of the applications they read do not accurately answer the prompt. Stick to the essay question, exactly as it’s written, and you’ll already be ahead of the pack.
  2. 2. Start with an outline. Most scholarship essays don’t give you much room to get your point across. Start by outlining everything you want to cover in your essay, and then decide if you need to cut or expand on anything. This will give you a framework to start from, making the actual writing easier.
  3. 3. Be clear and concise. While it’s important to hit the minimum word or page count, don’t feel like you need to make your essay longer (scholarship judges have a lot of applications to read, after all). Don’t pad your essay with unnecessary words or elaborate sentences – just make your case clearly and concisely.
  4. 4. Proofread. Read over your essay and check for any grammar or spelling errors. If editing isn’t your strong suit, ask a trusted friend, parent, teacher or counselor to help. They may also be able to provide helpful feedback on how you come across in your essay and whether you’re conveying what you want to.
  5. 5. Be yourself. Our number one tip for scholarship essays? Be yourself. Scholarship judges don’t want to read essays that all sound the same – or that sound like they were written by a machine. Let your unique voice and personality help you stand out – and remember that there’s a real person reading your essay on the other side, too.

Scholarship judges don’t want to read essays that all sound the same — or that sound like they were written by a machine.

Scholarship Interview Tips

Not every scholarship requires an interview – in fact, most don’t. But if you’re applying for an extremely competitive or prestigious award, you may be required to speak with a member of the organization sponsoring it – either in person or over the phone. If you don’t have much interview experience yet, start with these tips:

  1. 1. Prepare. Prepare for a scholarship interview just like you would for a job interview. Clean up your social media accounts, deleting anything questionable or unprofessional. Research the scholarship and the organization sponsoring it, so you’re prepared to talk about why you’re a good fit.
  2. 2. Dress professionally. There’s (probably) no need for a suit and tie, but don’t walk in wearing jeans and a t-shirt, either. Think khaki or dress pants and button-down shirts, conservative dresses or skirts, and professional shoes. Dress to impress, and you’ll make a good impression on your interviewer.
  3. 3. Be honest. Never lie about academics, volunteer work, awards, or other qualifications or experiences – especially during in-person interviews (believe us, interviewers have seen it all). Just be honest about what makes you a great candidate for the scholarship, and don’t try to embellish or exaggerate.
  4. 4. Be yourself. It can be easy to fall into über-professional robot-speak in stressful situations like interviews. But your interviewer wants to get to know you – so try to relax and be yourself. Don’t think of it as talking to a friend (you don’t want to be too casual), but try to act as if you’re conversing with a mentor you respect or a teacher you know and like.
  5. 5. Be enthusiastic. Scholarship interviews aren’t the time to play hard to get. Get excited about the opportunity, show your enthusiasm, and demonstrate why you are a great choice for the award. Try to show what the award would mean to you – whether it’s a semester without worrying about the cost of books or your entire college tuition.

Just be honest about what makes you a great candidate for the scholarship, and don’t try to embellish or exaggerate.