What is the best way to apply for scholarships? There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. However, there are certainly ways that you can better your chances of winning scholarship money for college.

The best way to apply for scholarships will vary depending on the specific scholarship and the application process. In other words, there are many different types of college scholarships and each will have their own unique application requirements (i.e. scholarship deadlines, GPA, extracurricular requirements, etc.).

You’ve probably heard the common advice: do your research, submit materials early, follow all instructions, and write a compelling personal statement. Well, that’s probably easier said than done. So, below we’re going to cover these pieces of advice, but go well beyond offering general, vague information. Whether you’re a high school senior or already in college, our insights will help you find debt-free ways to pay for college and offset college tuition. It may also help you pay off student loans you already have.

Ultimately, there is free money for education and we want to help you win it.  

How to Find and Apply for Scholarships

Search for Scholarship Opportunities: Make a List of Relevant College Scholarships 

The number of scholarships that exist in the world is remarkable – the number of scholarship search tools out there shows this quite clearly. For this reason, applying for and winning scholarships is a bit of a numbers game and starting the research process correctly is key to your success. The more scholarship competitions you find, the more for which you can apply. And the more you apply for, the better your chances will be to win one. Fair enough?

While hunting for scholarships, you should look at it’s key features closely and consider the likelihood of competition for the scholarship prize. For instance, if you find an option that gives away a lot of money and is open to any student from any university, it’s likely the case that there will be a lot of applicants. You should ask yourself if your profile can stack up against this kind of competition. If it does, go for it! But, if not, try to find scholarships that are less advertised or more uniquely suited to you. You can do this by searching for scholarships based on the many communities that you may be a part of or by looking for scholarships with smaller awards.

For example, if you are a bird watcher, do a search for scholarships for students who bird watch. If you’re into environmental advocacy, look for this specific criterion. Perhaps scholarships for veterans, scholarships for Hispanics, local scholarships given out by your community, or a wide range of other scholarship awards will be available to you. You should also do a search for scholarships by major. Since all students aren’t engaged in these activities or studying what you’re studying, this will decrease the amount of competition you’ll face and better position you to be a scholarship winner. 

Ultimately, there are scholarships out there for everyone and numerous reasons why scholarship awards are given away, so don’t sacrifice your research – you may miss out on different scholarships that fit your profile. Schedule time and make the biggest list of scholarships you’d like to apply for. Of course, you can always use our scholarship directory to help you get started. We’ll help you find merit scholarships, needs-based scholarships, weird scholarships, and everything in between.

Confirm Eligibility Criteria & Understand the Application Process

Before submitting a scholarship application, it’s important that you carefully read the eligibility criteria. If you’re not in the right year of study, the right program, or at the right school, your application won’t be considered. In other words, scholarships require you to meet strict eligibility criteria and there are rarely exceptions made. 

Don’t be deterred from applying to scholarships with a lot of eligibility criteria! In fact, it may even be favorable for you to do so. If you meet a lengthy set of rules and regulations for a certain prize, that’s good! It likely disqualifies many students, which translates into less competition for you. 

You should also be aware of deadlines. It’s so disappointing to find a suitable scholarship prize, only to find out that the due date just passed. 

Before Starting Your Scholarship Application: Research the Mission of the Scholarship

Imagine that a scholarship is being given away to a student who is engaged in leadership activities. However, you write a personal statement saying that you’re a great candidate because you have strong grades or because you need financial aid. There’s obviously a disconnect here. 

The mission of any scholarship, the reason why it was established, or the reason why it is given away, is of central importance to almost any scholarship committee. The committee, or the individuals choosing the winning student, will likely have this mission in mind when they read your application. They’ll likely ask themselves how well you meet the mandate that the scholarship is trying to serve. If you demonstrate that you understand and reflect their set of values, it will better your chances of winning. You should always research the scholarship mission before you apply for scholarships. 

Write a Scholarship Essay That Answers the Prompt

Most scholarships will ask you to write a personal statement. You may be asked to answer a specific prompt or to articulate why a scholarship committee should choose you. No matter the content, your scholarship essay should be enjoyable to read and, where possible, it should highlight aspects of your character that are not easily identified from other parts of your application. For example, maybe you’re a resilient person, a leader, or a charismatic student with plans to change the world! These are things that may not be so obviously communicated by your grades or extra-curricular activities. Use the personal statement to your advantage and tell a scholarship committee something unique about who you are. 

Get Feedback Prior to Applying for Scholarship

It’s always a good idea to get feedback on your writing before you hand in a scholarship application. Ask someone you trust to examine your application to ensure you haven’t missed anything. Beyond this, ask your reviewer how someone reading your application might perceive you. Sometimes, we make assumptions about what people will think when they read our work so it’s important to make sure that there isn’t something major in your application that lacks context or presents a confusing idea. 

You may also want to ask your reviewer if your application is memorable. Since you’ll likely be competing against many students for any scholarship prize, you’ll want to ensure that you stand out for a good reason. 

Every college student needs to pay for college, so don’t be shy to ask others for help. Applying for scholarships is important and deserves your (and others’) time and attention! If you need some motivation on this front, remember that getting some feedback from a trusted source could help to diminish the amount of financial aid you take on, and hopefully, credit card debt, too. Constructive feedback increases your chances of winning a scholarship prize and paying down college tuition, so don’t be nervous about asking for someone else’s perspective. It will be worth it!

Start Applying for Scholarships (Well) Before the Deadline

While this advice may seem obvious, there’s a bigger point to consider here. Many scholarships set up some kind of automated platform or process to accept applications. It is not uncommon for these platforms to get overwhelmed and crash just before the deadline approaches. One of the most stressful scenarios when it comes to scholarship applications is to work really hard on an application only to face an “ERROR” message when trying to submit it an hour before it’s due. It’s also not guaranteed that technical difficulties will be considered as a valid reason for not submitting your application on time. So, wherever possible, submit your application early!

When Scholarships Require a Letter of Recommendation

Sometimes, applying for a scholarship may require you to submit a reference letter. Make no mistake about it, the quality of a reference letter can absolutely be a difference maker. This is why throughout college (and high school) you should take time to build a positive rapport with your professors and/or volunteer supervisors. If you’re serious about submitting multiple scholarships applications while you’re in college, this is one of the most supportive things you can do for yourself in your college career.

We have written elsewhere about how to ask for a reference letter in more detail, but a quick summary of that advice is that you should ask the right person, give lots of notice to your referee, and communicate well with them regarding the scholarship process.

Summary: Best Ways to Apply for College Scholarships

  • Create a list of scholarships that is as long and diverse as possible. Search for niche prizes like school-specific scholarships, scholarships for women, graduate student prizes, engineering scholarships, essay scholarships, or whatever themes apply to your unique profile.
  • Get organized and note eligibility requirements, word limits, deadlines, and if you need to contact others for things like a letter of recommendation or forms for financial aid from your school’s financial aid office.
  • Research scholarship websites to determine why a scholarship is being given away and ask how you meet the criteria. Note that search tools giving you “easy to apply to” scholarships are typically very competitive.
  • Set aside time to write a personal statement that is interesting to read and memorable. 
  • Have someone read your application and give you feedback. 
  • To avoid last-minute complications with the submission process, apply early.