Scholarships can be instrumental in making college more affordable, helping students minimize debt so that they can begin saving sooner for future financial goals. But the benefits of receiving a merit-based award go far beyond mere dollar signs.
Free money for school, in the form of scholarships, enables students to focus on academics by reducing the number of hours they need to work during college. With better grades, they can pursue better internships and jobs.
Less stress about paying tuition also makes it more likely that they will stay in school to finish their degree, which may boost their earnings potential. And, with less debt at graduation, they may be better positioned to take entry-level jobs that pay slightly less (or nothing at all) but have the capacity to accelerate their careers.
Despite the benefits of winning a scholarship, however, many students don’t even apply. Some believe that scholarships are reserved for valedictorians and exceptional athletes.
“There are scholarships for everyone and everything, not just students with perfect GPAs,” she said. “There are scholarships for being extremely tall as well as awards from employers. You’d be surprised to see just how many scholarships you qualify for based on your unique qualifications.”
Scholarships are free money
Scholarships are a form of financial support awarded on a variety of criteria, such as:
- Academic merit.
- Athletic or performance talent.
- A special trait (like being a twin or gender orientation).
Additionally, some scholarships are tailored to:
- The LGBTQ community.
- Specific majors (such as meteorology).
- Students from specific backgrounds or ethnicities. (Forbes Advisor provides a roundup of the top scholarships for minorities.)
Unlike student loans, scholarship awards do not have to be repaid.
Many are provided by colleges (institutional aid in the form of grants and scholarships), corporations, nonprofits, community groups, and private employers. Some are endowed by individuals.
Those with strong grades, a record of athletic excellence, or an impressive resume of extracurricular activities (internships, community service), are most likely to receive the biggest awards. Be aware that in the case of athletic scholarships and other scholarships that renew annually, you may have to meet a minimum GPA. (Learn more: How to get an athletic scholarship)
It is also worth noting that private colleges are often more generous with scholarship awards, but they also come with a higher sticker price. With a bigger scholarship, students may find that they pay the same or even less than their in-state public school.
How much scholarship money do most students receive?
Roughly 1 in 8 students in an undergraduate bachelor’s degree program use scholarships to help pay for college, with the average amount awarded about $4,200. Just 0.1 percent of undergraduate students win $25,000 or more in scholarships, according to Mark Kantrowitz, author of “How to Appeal for More College Financial Aid.”
“If we include [institutional or federal] grants in the mix, which is also money that need not be repaid, only 1.5 percent of students in bachelor's degree programs get enough scholarships and grants to cover the full cost of attendance,” he said.
That said, every bit helps when it comes to cutting the cost of college down to size. (Learn more: 6 ways to cut college costs in half)
“Every scholarship dollar that is won is one less dollar that has to be borrowed to pay for college,” said Randolph. “You may win a large award that covers most of your college costs, or you may win smaller awards to help cover textbooks and student fees. Either way, it’s a win.”
More than 6 in 10 (62 percent) college seniors who graduate from public and private nonprofit colleges have student loan debt with an average balance of $28,950, according to the most recent data available from The Institute for College Access & Success.1 (Calculator: How much do I need to save for college?)
Scholarships help reduce the debt you incur while in school, so you can begin saving for a down payment on a home, putting money away for retirement, and begin building wealth faster.
“I do recommend that college students apply for as many scholarships as they are eligible for — no matter how big or small,” said Laura Schroeder, a financial professional with Lenox Advisors in Los Angeles, California. “A $500 scholarship may seem like nothing, but that could pay for a semester of textbooks.” (Related: 3 uncomfortable truths about college saving)
Schroeder, who herself won scholarships to help pay for college, said many choose not to apply because of the time it takes to complete the applications, write the essays, and, in some cases, secure recommendations.
But it can be well worth the effort.
“After all, the college applications you have to fill out — I can imagine young students getting burnt out from filling out one more application,” she said. “I think some do not appreciate the financial long game, but at age 18 it can be hard to look past life after college since applying and getting accepted is what you have been laser-focused on a majority of high school.”
How to get a scholarship
The first step in winning scholarship awards is to identify the ones for which you are eligible.
“Look first for scholarships online on free scholarship matching websites, such as Fastweb and the College Board's Big Future,” said Kantrowitz. “You can also look for scholarships in scholarship listing books in the library or local bookstores, but check the copyright date to make sure the book isn't too old to be useful.”
The Fastweb and Big Future search tools enable students to create a profile that includes their GPA, selected major, and extracurricular activities, to match them to scholarship opportunities.
Kantrowitz said students should also look for a bulletin board near the school counselor's office or in the jobs and careers section of their high school or college library that may provide information about small, local scholarships, such as a PTA scholarship or Dollars for Scholars. The specific college you attend (or will attend) may also have endowments, which are used for both need-based aid and merit-based scholarships.
School counselors, teachers, and admissions officers are often highly knowledgeable about scholarship opportunities.
“Students should apply to every scholarship for which they are eligible,” said Kantrowitz. “Winning a scholarship is as much a matter of chance as it is skill. Applying for more scholarships increases your chances of winning one.”
When should you start applying?
As for the best time to apply for scholarships, many applications open up a year before the next academic year begins. Thus, the summer between your junior and senior year of high school is a good time to start researching and applying for scholarships, according to the federal financial aid website StudentAid.
Look for and apply for scholarships “all of the time,” said Randolph. “There are some who say that applying to scholarships over the summer is the best time, because the applicant pools are much smaller, but scholarship deadlines occur throughout the entire year. The question, then, is not when to apply to scholarships, but how often. Treat the scholarship search like a part-time job or set a goal to apply to one or two scholarships per week.”
Kantrowitz added that “after your first half-dozen scholarship applications, it gets easier, because you can start reusing your essays.”
A college degree may improve your job prospects, but it doesn’t come cheap. By taking the time to apply for merit scholarships and other kinds of scholarships, you can potentially reduce the amount of debt you owe at graduation and pave the path to financial independence.
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1 The Institute for College Access & Success, “Average Debt for Class of 2020 Varies Widely by State and College; Private Student Loans Drive Up Debt Loads in High-Debt States,” Nov. 17, 2021.