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Intro to Scholarships: What, How, and When

What Is a Scholarship & How to Get One?
Susan Guillory
Susan GuilloryUpdated February 23, 2023
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You’ll soon be off to college, and you’re exploring ways to pay for what may be a very large expense over the course of your education. You know about student loans, but you’d rather have an option that you don’t have to pay back.If you qualify, scholarships may be a good option. But what is a scholarship? How do scholarships work? How do you get scholarships? Not to worry — we’ve got all the answers you need right here.

What Is a Scholarship?

A scholarship is financial aid that covers part or all of your costs to attend college. This money does not have to be repaid.Certain scholarships are need-based financial aid, and you and/or your parents may need to make under a certain amount of money. Others are based on grades or experience in a certain area, like sports or music.Some scholarships are for $100 or so, while others are for tens of thousands of dollars and may fully cover the cost of attending a college (the latter are usually offered by the college itself). You can be awarded multiple scholarships that add up to a larger amount to help cover part or all of your education. Scholarships may be only for one year, while others are automatically awarded for every year you attend school.Recommended: Discover the Benefits of Tuition Waiver Programs

Types of Scholarships 

Let’s look closer at different types of scholarships, so you can determine which you might be eligible for.

Academic Scholarships

Some scholarships reward good students. Merit scholarships may have certain criteria to qualify, such as having a certain GPA or taking advanced classes.

Musical Scholarships

If you’ve studied music for years or participated in your high school’s band, orchestra, or choir, you may qualify for musical scholarships. Some may require you to continue studying music in college.

Personal Circumstances 

This category may be broad. These scholarships may be available for students of a certain religion, students who are caregivers for others, or students who come from a certain ethnic background.

Sports Achievement 

Sports enthusiasts may qualify for athletic scholarships, particularly if they did well on a sports team in high school. Some schools specifically recruit incoming freshmen to play on the college football or basketball team and will offer full-ride scholarships as an enticement. (A “full ride” means the entire cost of tuition and room and board is covered.)Recommended: Balancing Being a Student Athlete & Academics in College

Company Scholarships 

There are hundreds of companies across the U.S. that offer scholarships to soon-to-be college students. Some may be available to students who want to study a particular subject, and some may offer work or internship opportunities with the company.

Financial Need

Not everyone can afford college, and for these students, there are need-based scholarships. These scholarships can enable students to get the education they need without suffering financially.

How Can You Get a Scholarship?

Now, let’s look at how to get a scholarship. Start by filling out your FAFSA. This is the Free Application For Federal Student Aid, and you’ll need it for the college to determine whether you’re eligible for scholarships, grants, or student loans.If you’re under 18, your parents will fill out the FAFSA and enter their income. If it’s below a certain number, you may qualify for need-based scholarships. Once the FAFSA is processed, the school you plan to attend will receive a copy of it. Based on the data, the school will determine what types of financial aid you qualify for, including scholarships.You can also explore other scholarships online. Start by seeing what your future college offers and determine whether you’re eligible for any. Many schools will automatically award scholarships you’re eligible for when you get accepted.There are also online resources and databases where you can search for scholarships based on your qualifying criteria like Finaid and

Improving Your Chances of Getting a Scholarship 

A big tip in applying for scholarships is to pay careful attention to the criteria needed to qualify. Some scholarships may require you to be enrolled in a certain number of credit hours. Others may only be available to freshmen. Some may require you to write an essay to apply. By paying attention to the details, you can quickly weed out any scholarships you won’t be eligible for.Don’t be shy about applying for as many scholarships as possible. National scholarships have a lot of competition, and you’re not guaranteed to get any of them. By applying for as many scholarships as you qualify for, you can maximize your chances of getting one or more to help pay for college.

How Can I Find Scholarships?

As mentioned, there are online databases for scholarships available. Start your search here, and set a filter for those you’ll be eligible for.You can also search for scholarships based on what you’re most likely to be eligible for. Some example search terms include:
  • Scholarships in Nevada
  • Scholarships for tuba players
  • Scholarships for Native Americans

When Should You Start Looking for Scholarships?

The sooner you start looking for scholarships, the better. Aim to start early in your senior year of high school.Each scholarship has its own deadline, so you’ll want to allow plenty of time to get your application in on time and make sure your essay, if required, is well-written and error-free.

The Takeaway

Scholarships provide a cost-free opportunity to go to college. Even if you or your parents don’t have a lot of money, scholarships can help you cover the high costs of higher education. There are a number of types of scholarships offered, from need-based to merit-based, so take the time to search around for scholarship opportunities that may apply to you.

3 Student Loan Tips

  1. Even if you’re not yet in school, it can fly by and before you know it, your student loans will be due. It’s smart to plan ahead for repayment. Paying extra each month on your student loan can reduce the interest you pay and so lower your total loan cost over time. (The law prohibits prepayment penalties on federal or private student loans.)
  2. Students majoring in education or a related field, take note: if you teach full-time for five complete and consecutive academic years in a low-income school, you may be eligible for federal student loan forgiveness.
  3. Refinancing your student loan can lower your monthly payments and help you adjust your loan term. Compare student loan refinancing rates to find a loan that works for you.

Frequently Asked Questions

When should I apply for a scholarship?
How do I get my scholarship money?
How does a scholarship affect my other student aid?
Photo credit: iStock/Riska

About the Author

Susan Guillory

Susan Guillory

Su Guillory is a freelance business writer and expat coach. She’s written several business books and has been published on sites including Forbes, AllBusiness, and SoFi. She writes about business and personal credit, financial strategies, loans, and credit cards.
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