College Scholarship 101: Financial Aid for Your Education
Who doesn't love a free college scholarship? While loans must be paid back and work-study programs require maintaining a job, scholarships are gifts that go directly toward your tuition.
Roughly $6.1 billion worth of college scholarship money was awarded to 1.58 million students for 2015-2016, according to the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study. The average recipient got $3,852 for the year. That's $4,202 if you only count those studying for bachelor’s degrees. That's nothing to shrug off considering the rising tuition costs in the U.S.
If you're pursuing a degree, you can expect a lot of expenses. Why not try to get someone else to help cover the bill? The odds of getting a college scholarship are about one in eight. While this may seem daunting, you can greatly improve your chances by learning about the process.
How Do Scholarships Work?
A college scholarship is an award of financial aid for a student planning on attending a public or private post-secondary school. This could be a one-time or ongoing payment. In most cases, the funds will be paid to the university. Some scholarships for college are paid directly to the student with the expectation that the funds will go for education.
College scholarships come from a range of sources, including the following:
- Private corporations
- Philanthropic organizations
- Federal or state programs
- Institutions (the college or university)
How Much Money Can Scholarships for College Save You?
The amount of money offered by scholarships for college varies greatly. At the top end of the spectrum are full ride scholarships. These cover the entire cost of attendance, including tuition, room and board, textbooks, school materials and possibly living costs. The chances of getting a full ride scholarship are low; only 1.5% of students get enough college scholarship money and grants to cover 100% of their education.
Just under 19% of students get a scholarship amount that pays for at least half the cost of attendance. Of course, you also have to factor that some colleges cost more than others. As for overall scholarship amount, 97% of recipients get $2,500 or less. That's still a significant number, especially for a young adult.
What Are the Typical Requirements for Scholarships?
There's a common misconception that only the most academically accomplished and athletically gifted students qualify for scholarships. The truth is that virtually anyone who's earnest about getting an education will be eligible. That being said, staying on top of your studies is important if you want to win a college scholarship.
You'll also need to keep a certain grade point average once you're accepted. Most ongoing scholarships require maintaining a minimum GPA of 3.0 or higher. Falling below that threshold could mean losing out on your funds. Many scholarships for college are also contingent on you studying in a certain program or playing a sport.
How Can I Apply for a College Scholarship?
Applying for college scholarship typically involves the following:
- Filling out application forms
- Submitting grades and test scores
- Answering question forms
- Writing a scholarship essay
- Providing reference letters
There's no limit to the number of scholarships for college you can apply for. However, it may not be wise to spread yourself thin by applying to as many as possible. When searching for scholarships to apply for, play to your strengths and focus on quality over quantity.
The review boards that go over applications for college scholarships will do more than just check that you've submitted all the necessary documents. They'll analyze every answer, check for grammatical errors and follow through on references. That's why it's important to proofread and ensure that you've completed every part of the college scholarship application.
You'll also need to keep the scholarship deadline in mind. Applications could be due anywhere from a few months to over a full year before classes start. If you're in the middle of your senior year, it's easy to get overwhelmed by schoolwork, tests, friends and college applications. To avoid missing a scholarship deadline, plan ahead and apply early. There are even scholarships for college juniors that you can secure two years before you start college.
How Do I Prepare a Scholarship Essay?
For many students, writing a scholarship essay is the most intimidating part of the process. However, you should look at it as a chance to stand out from the other applicants. Essay scholarships are meant to give review boards a glimpse into your personality and dreams. Writing about yourself isn't easy, but a good essay could impress a reviewer enough to overlook lower test scores and grades.
The writing portion of your scholarship application may involve several in-depth answers to questions and/or a long-form essay from a prompt. Here are some scholarship essay examples for questions:
- Why do you deserve this scholarship?
- Can you tell us about yourself?
- What's your greatest strength/weakness?
- Why did you choose this school?
- What's something that has made a big impact on your life?
Even if the questions seem generic, your answers should be as personal and specific as possible. Never use a "stock essay" as most review boards will see right through any generic responses. These committees are looking more for enthusiasm and creative thinking than "perfect" writing.
The best way to prepare is to come up with topics that interest you. Even if you're answering a specific prompt, you'll have the freedom to work around your own subject. Consider searching online for scholarship essay examples. Successful applicants tend to work in some personal stories and even a bit of humor.
Where Can I Find Scholarships Online?
Whether you're looking for athletic or academic scholarships, you'll find plenty of resources online. There are dozens of excellent databases that compile college scholarships and provide application and deadline info. Here are some of the best:
Unigo: By creating an account with Unigo, you'll get personalized college scholarship results to match your education goals.
Fastweb: This search tool, which also requires creating a profile, has access to more than 1.5 million scholarships from multiple sites.
Scholarships.com: To ease your search, this site conveniently sorts scholarships in different categories, such as by major, sports and state.
Niche.com: Like some other options here, this search tool aims to match students to a college scholarship in their "niche."
Discover: This credit card brand has a free search tool that lets you search over 3 million scholarships worth more than $18 billion.
What's the Difference Between College Grants and Scholarships?
Scholarships and college grants have a lot in common. They're both forms of gift aid, which is money for school that doesn't need to be paid back or earned. However, a college grant is generally offered based on the student's financial need. Scholarships for college are generally awarded for achievements or merits, such as high test scores, artistic ability or athletic talent.
Most grants are offered by the federal or state governments. An example is the Federal Pell Grant, which is given to students from families that fall below a certain income threshold. You determine your eligibility for such programs through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Submitting the FAFSA is the first step for any student who wants to apply for grants or any college loans.
College Scholarships by State
While most scholarships are primarily achievement-based, many states offer aid that also factors financial need. These scholarships are often designed to encourage residents to go to an in-state school. An example is the College Bound Scholarship program in Washington. To qualify, middle school students who are financially eligible make a college-bound pledge by the end of eighth grade.
Many other states have opportunities similar to that of the College Bound Scholarship program. Be sure to check your state's education websites to learn more about your options. Some state-wide scholarship programs don't even have an application process; eligible students get notified after graduation. Furthermore, you'll find many private and institutional scholarships that are only available for in-state residents.
College Scholarships for Specific Majors
If you pick a major before graduating high school, your college scholarship search will be a little easier. You'll find scholarships in every field of study, from accounting and linguistics to history and philosophy. In addition to exploring scholarship databases, consider reaching out to groups and businesses that may be related to your major. Many organizations won't use outside websites to promote their scholarships.
College Scholarships for Minorities
If you fall into a minority group, consider this as you search for college aid. Thousands of scholarships aim to provide opportunities for groups that often face barriers to obtaining post-secondary degrees. These scholarships vary greatly in their eligibility criteria, and they're usually not limited by race or ethnicity. Furthermore, many scholarships for minorities are created for women and members of the LGBTQ community.
Which Tests Do Scholarship Administrators Pay Attention To?
While schools have been trending toward becoming "test optional" as far as admissions, standardized testing can still play a major role in qualifying for scholarships. A high ACT or SAT score is often a prerequisite for a merit-based college scholarship or financial aid. Even if testing is not required, a great score will certainly be considered by the review board.
Different scholarships pay attention to different tests. For example, a good PSAT score is necessary to qualify for the National Merit Scholarship. If you're hoping to get an Advanced Placement Scholar Award, you'll need to get a good AP score.
The two most used tests are the ACT and SAT. You can look for an ACT scholarship based on your score. Depending on where you live, you'll need a 20 or higher to qualify. If you score above 30, you'll fall into the 90th percentile of ACT test-takers and be eligible for more merit-based scholarships.
An SAT scholarship will work the same way. Scoring above 1350 puts you into the 92nd percentile, which opens a lot of college scholarship doors. However, some scholarships accept SAT scores as low as 400.
How Do Academic Scholarships Compare with Athletic Scholarships?
Academic and athletic scholarships are similar in that they tend to produce the highest payouts. For this reason, they're also the most competitive with applicants. That being said, you don't need to be a blue-chip recruit or academic all-star to win these funds.
Academic scholarships range from merit-based awards for undergrads to fellowships for post-graduate degree seekers. The top candidates will have excellent grades, a high class ranking or a strong extracurricular resume. As noted earlier, most require essay scholarships. However, there are many no essay scholarships that use other criteria for applicants.
Athletic scholarships are available for all varsity-level sports. Depending on the school's athletic program, this could include everything from track and field and volleyball to big draws like basketball and football. All NCAA D-I and D-II programs have a set number of institutional scholarships available per sport.
Lower-revenue sports can offer partial, or "equivalency," scholarships that may be spread out among the team. There are six "head count" sports that can only give out full ride scholarships. Head count sports are:
What Steps Can I Take Toward Getting an Athletic Scholarship?
To get an athletic scholarship, you need to be recruited by a school. This means getting the attention of coaches and scouts. Honing your on-field skills and maintaining respectable grades are important, of course, but you'll have to take action to get noticed. The main steps are attending camps and showcases, visiting schools and establishing a good rapport with coaches. It's also vital to learn about the process as well as the NCAA recruiting rules and deadlines.
Connecting Coaches With Student Athletes
How do scholarships work? If you're still asking this question, there's help available at Next College Student Athlete, the world's largest recruiting network. Our team of 750-plus former college and pro athletes and coaches understands how complicated the process can be. After all, they have first-hand experience with recruitment.
We aim to take the mystery out of the process by working with students and offering free recruiting assessments. Since we started in 2000, more than 200,000 NCSA clients have reported commitments to college teams. To learn more, set up a free profile or give us a call today at (866)495-5172.