When your child is in high school, college counselors begin talking about the magical wonders of college scholarships. They make it sound like anyone can get a full-ride to the school of their dreams, as long as they follow the right steps. Your teen’s magazine or favorite website might have even published the story of a college freshman who won thousands of dollars of scholarship money. However, many college freshmen and their parents are discovering that winning free scholarships is not as easy as the experts make it sound.

Key Takeaways

  • Unless your child is an elite athlete, a top 1% student or has accomplished some other notable feat, the likelihood of getting a full-ride scholarship is slim to none.
  • However, accomplished students, even if they are not at elite status, can still earn partial-tuition scholarships or private scholarships.
  • The Free Application for Federal Student Aid is an option for families that meet certain income requirements; there are also small scholarships in the $50 to $500 range on both the local and national level.
  • Don't assume that you won't qualify for scholarships, based on your income, locations, achievements or ethnicity; there are hundreds of scholarships out there and you may qualify for more than you think.

How Likely Are Full-Ride Scholarships?

The full-ride scholarship is the ultimate wishlist item for most college-bound students and their parents. However, this type of scholarship is mostly only a reality for elite students. If your child is making the news for their athletic skills or academic achievements, then they are probably on track for schools offering enticing award packages.

When it comes to full-ride scholarships, though, it is not enough for a student to have a 4.0 or be the captain of the soccer team. Universities look for diverse individuals who stand out among their peers. Most students will not meet their criteria. However, there are still partial scholarships and private scholarships available.

It is also important to note that full-tuition and partial-tuition scholarships do not always come from your student’s dream school. The scholarships can come from universities you have never even heard of or from a state you have never visited. It is important to consider these scholarships too, even if it was not your child’s original college plan.

FAFSA Is Still an Option

For students with average athletic and academic performance, remember there is still the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The FAFSA awards money for college to families who meet their income requirements. No matter how much money you make, always fill out the FAFSA each year. You might be eligible for student aid, and if not, it is essential to fill out the FAFSA to gain access to low-interest federal student loans. 


The amount that the average student typically wins in scholarships, even after putting in a great deal of dedication and effort.

Don’t Write off Small Scholarships

Smaller scholarships, those that are usually $50-$500, can be extremely helpful for students. They will not pay the whole college bill but can help pay for a semester of books or a lab fee. Since many smaller scholarships are directed towards local students, they should be pursued with just as much effort as the bigger scholarships. Many times a smaller scholarship will have fewer requirements and be less competitive. Also, these smaller scholarships are usually paid directly to the student in the form of a check, which allows the student to use the money for any school-related costs.

Don’t Take Yourself Out of the Game

Many students will never apply for scholarships due to their grades, lack of athletic skills, race, and average family income. While there are many scholarships directed towards individuals with good grades or specific ethnicities, there are still hundreds of other scholarships available. There are even scholarships available for transfer students and sophomore, junior, and senior year students. Ask your child’s high school college counselor for more information about local scholarships, and ask potential schools about available awards and funding. Your local library and your city’s chamber of commerce might also have information about scholarships available.

To win scholarship money, you've got to approach the process like a part-time job: be prepared to put in many hours researching options, perfecting applications, and applying for multiple scholarships.

Scholarship Myths and Scams

Millions of dollars of scholarship money go unclaimed each year, or so they say. Don’t let scam companies use this stat to entice you to use their services.

When researching scholarships, you will likely come across shady businesses that offer their “expert services” to help you find scholarships. Usually, these businesses sound too good to be true, and that is because they are. Never pay money for a scholarship search or to apply for a scholarship. Every scholarship available is accessible through free means, although not every scholarship will have an updated website.