When your child is in high school, you're likely to hear college counselors talking about the wonders of college scholarships, also known as grants. You may also notice stories in the media about college freshmen who won thousands of dollars in scholarship money. All that can make it sound like it's not impossible to get a full ride to the school of your dreams, as long as you follow the right steps. However, most college applicants and their parents soon discover that winning big scholarships is not as easy as it can sound.

Key Takeaways

  • Unless a student is an elite athlete, in the top 1% academically, or has accomplished some other notable feat, the likelihood of getting a full-ride scholarship is slim to none.
  • However, good students can still earn need-based or merit scholarships to cover a portion of the bill.
  • Don't assume that you won't qualify for scholarships because of your income, lack of stellar athletic skills, or ethnicity. Hundreds of scholarships are available, some small and some large.

How to Get a Full-Ride Scholarship

The full-ride scholarship is the ultimate wish-list item for college-bound students and their parents, but it's only a reality for a few. A child who is making national headlines for athletic skills, musical virtuosity, scientific discoveries, or academic achievements may be on track for schools offering full rides, or at least very enticing award packages.

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

That said, there are still plenty of partial scholarships, private scholarships, and other types of aid that can help defray college costs.

Unfortunately, many students never even apply for scholarships due to concern over their grades, lack of athletic skills, race, or family income. While there are many scholarships directed toward individuals with particular skills or specific ethnicities, there are hundreds of other scholarships out there. Beyond freshman year, there are also scholarships designed for transfer students and sophomore, junior, and senior-year students.

According to the most recent "How America Pays for College" report from the lender Sallie Mae Bank, 25% of college students received some amount of scholarship or grant money in 2019-2020.

How the FAFSA Can Help

For students with average athletic ability and academic performance, aid is still available, most of it through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Based on the information you supply regarding your income, assets, and other factors, the FAFSA computes your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) toward college. If your EFC is less than the cost of attendance at a particular college, the school's financial aid office will attempt to bridge the gap with grants, subsidized or unsubsidized federal loans, and paid work-study jobs.

The confusingly-named Expected Family Contribution (EFC) will be renamed the Student Aid Index (SAI) to clarify its meaning as of July 2023. It does not indicate how much the student must pay the college. It is used by the school to calculate how much student aid the applicant is eligible to receive.

Grants and scholarships represent money that you never have to repay. Federal loans do have to be repaid, but they tend to have low interest rates and flexible repayment terms compared with money you borrow from a bank or other private lender.

While grants and subsidized loans are limited to students with "exceptional financial need," unsubsidized loans are available to students and parents regardless of need. So no matter how much money you earn or have in the bank, the FAFSA is worth filling out. State and local governments, private scholarship sources, and the colleges themselves can also use the FAFSA in determining their awards. 

For example, many colleges award so-called merit scholarships out of their own funds in order to compete for desirable, if not necessarily stellar, students.

$9,850

That's the average scholarship or grant aid per undergraduate in 2019-2020, according to the College Board's "Trends in College Pricing 2020" report. The number includes federal, state, institutional, private, and employer grants.

Don’t Write Off Smaller Scholarships

While far from full rides, smaller scholarships from local organizations, professional societies, and other groups can be useful. Typically in the range of $50 to $500, they could cover a semester's worth of textbooks or lab fees. Many times, a smaller scholarship will have fewer requirements and be less competitive. Also, these smaller scholarships are usually paid directly to the student rather than the school itself, which makes it possible to use them for a wider range of costs.

Ask your child’s high school college counselor for more information about local scholarships and to recommend some trustworthy scholarship directories. Also ask the potential schools on your list about their available awards and funding. Your local library and your city’s chamber of commerce might also have information about scholarships you can apply for.

Beware of Scholarship Scams

Millions of dollars of scholarship money go unclaimed each year—or so they say. Don’t let scam companies use this dubious stat to entice you to use (and pay for) their services.

When researching scholarships, you will likely come across shady businesses that offer their “expert" services to help you find scholarships. Some may even guarantee that they can get you scholarships in return for a fee.

Never pay money for a scholarship search or to apply for a scholarship. Every legitimate scholarship is accessible through free means, such as the sponsoring organization's website. And, whatever you do, never give your credit card number or other personal information to one of these outfits.

How likely is a full-ride scholarship?

The odds aren't in your favor—about 1 student among 100 will get a full-ride, meaning everything from tuition to fees to room and board is covered. Don't get discouraged. Plenty of options, from smaller scholarships to grants, are available.

How important are grades in winning scholarships?

While you can't underestimate their importance, you can overestimate them. Sadly, many students never even apply for scholarships due to concern over their grades (as well as lack of athletic skills, race, or family income). While there are many scholarships directed toward individuals with particular skills or specific ethnicities, there are hundreds of other scholarships out there. Beyond freshman year, there are also scholarships designed for transfer students and sophomore, junior, and senior-year students.

How prevalent are scholarship scams?

You may encounter shady businesses that offer “expert" services to help you find scholarships. Some may even guarantee that they can get you scholarships in return for a fee. Avoid them! Never pay money for a scholarship search or to apply for a scholarship. Every legitimate scholarship is accessible through free means, such as the sponsoring organization's website. And, whatever you do, never give your credit card number or other personal information to one of these outfits