For some, the word “scholarship” conjures up visions of super-intelligent college-bound kids with astronomical SAT and ACT scores or star athletes scooping up full-ride four-year awards. The truth is that only about 0.1% of college students (less than 20,000) receive full-ride scholarships each year.

Compare that with the five million active college scholarships worth $24 billion that can be found using Sallie Mae's Scholarship Search tool. With that much available aid, your chances of getting a scholarship may be better than you think.

Key Takeaways

  • Scholarships are usually merit- or talent-based, using grades or a special ability as the criteria.
  • Scholarship rules and requirements vary greatly depending on who is offering the scholarship and why.
  • According to Sallie Mae research, you have a better than six in 10 chance of some free aid for college.

What Are Scholarships?

A scholarship is one of several types of financial aid that also include grants, student loans, and work-study jobs. Scholarships are typically based on merit (grades) or special ability, such as athletics or music, though some can be need-based. As with grants and work-study jobs, the money you receive from a scholarship does not have to be repaid unless you fail to live up to the terms of the award.

Scholarship funding comes from a variety of sources, including federal and state government , schools, employers, individuals, private companies, nonprofits, communities, religious organizations, and social and professional groups. 

Scholarships vs. Grants

People often confuse scholarships with grants because in many ways they are alike. Both consist of financial aid that normally doesn’t have to be repaid and can come from the same sources—government, schools, employers, individuals, organizations, and so forth. They differ in that most grants are awarded on the basis of financial need, while scholarships, as noted above, are typically based on merit or talent.

Scholarship Classifications

Although most scholarships are merit-based, there are three broad award classifications sponsors may, and often do, utilize in a sort of mix-and-match approach.

  • Merit, also known as “academic” or “talent-based,” considers standards set by the scholarship sponsor, such as academic achievement or a special talent such as athletics or music.
  • Need takes into account you and your family’s ability to pay for your education.
  • Identity restricts awards to certain groups, such as minorities, women, people from a particular area or location, or people with a specific background. This could also include students from military families or whose parents work at a particular employer.

Scholarship Requirements

In addition to the classifications noted above, each individual scholarship has its own rules or requirements. You should understand these requirements and keep in mind that some scholarships may only consider grade point average (GPA), class ranking, or talent, while others require demonstrated financial need, being a member of a minority group or the first person in your family to go to college, or some other qualification.

The Eastman School of Music, for example, runs a “need blind” first round to its admission process following which it offers merit-based scholarships to nearly 100% of those accepted. After that, a “need-informed” process makes additional awards available to those who qualify based on financial need.  Another example is the Gates Scholarship, which offers scholarships to students in the top 10% of their high school class who are also eligible for a Pell Grant and from a minority group. In this case, merit isn’t enough. You must also both demonstrate need and be a member of a special population.

Your Odds of Landing a Scholarship

According to “How America Pays for College,” you have a better than six in 10 chance of obtaining some kind of free aid to help pay for college. In 2018-19, the study reports, 65% of families relied on scholarships to cover part of the cost of going to college. This translates to 12.9 million (out of 19.8 million) college students on scholarships that year. 

Combined, scholarships and grants covered 31% ($8,177) of an average total college cost of $26,226, leaving $18,049 to be covered by savings, family support, loans, and work-study. That’s more than $8,000 in free aid.

Assess Your Qualifications

The first step in the process is a self-assessment of your potential scholarship qualifications. This list should include your grades, special skills, interests, hobbies, community connections, and family background. As noted above, many scholarships consider much more than academic performance or talent. Take hobbies for example. You may not be a star football or softball player, but what about other sports or activities? There are scholarships available for everyone from gamers to green thumbs.

While your overall GPA is important, so are your subject area achievements. You may be an average student with all A’s in math. In that case you may want to look into STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math) scholarships. Consider awards you have won, community service you’ve performed, church involvement, minority status, military connections, family connections (where your parents attended), and the fact that nobody in your immediate family has gone to college, if that’s a part of your history.

Start Your Search

Armed with a profile of your strengths, contact any/all of the following for information about available scholarships for which you might qualify:

  • School Counselors
  • College and University Financial Aid Offices
  • Public Libraries
  • Churches
  • Local Foundations
  • Businesses (including your employer)
  • Your Parents’ Employers
  • Civic Groups
  • Ethnic Organizations
  • Your State Department of Education
  • Your State Office of Veterans’ Affairs

Online Search Options

Free online search engines will help you find additional, almost unlimited scholarship opportunities, including many you may not have considered or didn’t know existed. Almost all online search options include the ability to filter search results in order to match your qualifications with available aid.

The table below lists 10 of many search engines available.

Search Tool Comments
Sallie Mae Scholarship Search Access to five million listed scholarships worth $24 billion. Includes filters to match your skills, activities, and interests. Set customized alerts for matching new scholarships.
U.S. Department of Labor Scholarship Finder

Search more than 8,000 scholarships, fellowships, grants, and other financial aid award opportunities. Arrange by closest deadline. Includes keyword search. Filter by award type, location, level of study, and more.

College Board Scholarship Search Information about more than 2,200 financial aid programs worth nearly $6 billion. Based on the College Boards Annual Survey of Financial Aid Programs. Enter personal, academic, award type, and affiliations for aid matching opportunities.
Americorps Education Award Community service award for up to the maximum amount of a Pell Grant based on hours of service in a 12-month period.
U.S. Department of Education State Contacts Government search engine that lets you connect with various state agencies to find scholarships and other aid available in the state where you live.
Fastweb.com Respected search engine that lists 1.5 million scholarships worth $3.4 billion. Uses personal profile to match you with scholarships. Weekly and monthly contests to win free money.
Niche.com Comprehensive website that includes a scholarship search engine, with scholarships organized by categories. Considered one of the easiest to navigate.
Scholarships.com Lists more than 3.7 million scholarships and grants worth $19 billion. Browse by category or create a personal profile to be matched to scholarships that fit you.
ScholarshipMonkey Includes more than 4,000 scholarship sources and $3 billion in aid. The site lets you search three ways: by personal profile, keyword, or scholarship category.
Chegg Scholarships Easy, simple interface that lists more than 25,000 scholarships. Scholarships are easily searchable by application type, your current level in school, age, and GPA, or you can sign up, fill in a more complete profile, and obtain finer-tuned matches.

To find even more opportunities, type “scholarships websites” or “scholarship sources” into your favorite internet search engine. If you want to narrow the field, add some limitations, such as “scholarships for children of veterans” or “scholarships for art majors.” You will be surprised at what you find. There’s even a $40,000 scholarship for Whale Campers available—not a category you would think of on your own.

Watch Out for Scams

You shouldn’t have to pay for scholarships or scholarship searches. If you are unsure, seek the advice of your school counselors or college financial aid offices. Some of the more common scams include:

  • There’s a fee to apply (extremely rare) or claim your scholarship (nonexistent).
  • Your scholarship is guaranteed or your money back.
  • We have exclusive scholarship information not available anywhere else.
  • You need to supply credit card or bank information to “hold” a scholarship.

In short, anything that involves payment of any kind (other than an occasional modest application processing fee) is probably a scam. 

It’s important to apply early and often for scholarships; for some people, applying could start at age 13 or even younger.

When to Apply

Ideally, you should begin applying for scholarships as soon as you start planning for college. For some that could be 13 or younger, according to student financial aid information website FinAid.org. Early college awareness programs such as the U.S. Department of Education’s Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) program supports state and partnership grants that provide early intervention and often also offer scholarships to low-income students as they enter college.

Once you enter high school, you should at least begin searching for scholarships and applying for those that allow it. Between your junior and senior year of high school is the latest you should begin applying, because some scholarships and other financial aid have application deadlines more than a year before you start school.

Don’t forget to keep applying (and reapplying) once you are in school. Some scholarships are renewable, but require that you reapply. If you have a scholarship, find out the rules about getting it renewed, if necessary. Other opportunities may come into play after you are already enrolled. Scholarship money is free money and worth the time it takes to ask for it.

This New Agreement May Help

Action taken in 2019 by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) to strip provisions from its Code of Ethics and Professional Practice (CEPP) now lets college counselors recruit students even after they have committed to another school. Furthermore, NACAC members are now allowed to encourage enrolled students to transfer to a school with a better financial aid package, offer perks (such as special scholarships and priority course selection for early enrollees), and recruit students beyond the traditional May 1 deadline, giving those students more time to choose the best financial aid package.

Whether this will agreement will result in more aid is debatable. If you are particularly talented or competitive, you may find last-minute opportunities arise, even after you have committed to a specific school.