Guide to Scholarships for College

Student loans are probably the first thing that comes to mind when most people think about financial aid, but there's another source of aid that can help you keep costs down without adding to your burden of student debt.

Unlike loans, college scholarships don't need to be repaid once you finish your degree. They're offered at all three levels of public financial aid availability — federal, state and institutional — and may also be provided by private sources like corporations, community organizations, trade unions and social clubs.

Scholarships are similar to grants, which also don't require repayment, but they differ in one key aspect: grants tend to be awarded mostly based on financial need, while most college scholarships have an academic performance requirement. Different types of scholarships are available for different types of students, and the specific qualifications tend to vary based on the student status of the individual applicant.

  • Recent high school graduates are likely to find several state-based and private scholarship programs that apply to them. If you fall into this category, a strong academic record in high school is one of the best predictors of your award eligibility.
  • Nontraditional and adult students have different considerations depending on their recent academic history. If it's your first year back in school after some time away, your scholarship options may be somewhat limited until you prove your dedication with a semester or two of good academic performance.

Whichever of these situations applies to you — or to the aspiring college student in your family — our scholarship database can clue you in to more than 22,000 options from all available sources. If you already know how to apply for a scholarship and want to get started on your search, visit that link and use the filter tools along the right-hand side of the page to dial in your qualifications.

If you want to learn more before digging into the application process, read on below for our guide to types of scholarships to find out about the different ways aid might be awarded.

Types of Scholarships (And Ways to Find Them)

Here's a list of different types of college scholarships and some details about availability:

Scholarships by major/field

  • These programs are generally offered through state, institutional and private sources and may be available to undergraduate, graduate or post-graduate students. They award cash or tuition assistance to qualifying students in specific degree fields, such as $1,000 Nurses First Scholarship that requires a 3.5 GPA or the $30,000 National Science Foundation research fellowship for new graduate students in science, math or engineering who have a GPA of at least 3.75.

Business scholarships

  • Corporations and corporate foundations, whether large or small, often provide student aid programs for employees and their families or the general public. One corporate scholarship program with wide availability is the Leaders of Promise program, funded by Coca-Cola and administered by the Phi Theta Kappa international honor society. Students with a 3.5 GPA and 12-36 college credits on their record can qualify for one of twenty $1,000 awards each year.

State/geographic scholarships

  • Many scholarship programs are limited to a specific geographic area — typically a state, county, city or other shared economic region. California's Middle Class Scholarship is available exclusively to state residents and awards up to 40 percent of tuition and fees at California State University and University of California schools.

Federal scholarships

  • Federally funded scholarships are rare, but there are a few national programs that can take a big bite out of your tuition bill. The National Merit Scholarship Program is one of the largest such initiatives, awarding as much as 100 percent of tuition cost plus a yearly stipend to high school graduates who record high scores on standardized college readiness tests like the PSAT and SAT, have an exceptional academic record and meet other qualifications.

School-based scholarships 

  • Most community colleges and universities throughout the U.S. have been endowed to offer a wide range of scholarship opportunities through the institution itself. The Blue Sky Scholars Program administered by the University of North Carolina system provides a $7,000 scholarship, a $2,500 work-study award and a $2,500 opportunity grant to be used toward internship, research or study abroad programs.

Need-based scholarships

  • Although most scholarships are awarded primarily on the basis of academic merit, a percentage of them also take financial need into account when determining eligibility. One such program is the Imagine America Scholarship for high school seniors, which adds financial need and demonstrated community service to its GPA requirement of 2.5 or higher.

Merit-based scholarships

  • Most of the scholarships available to U.S. students may focus on their merit-based requirements, but some take financial need into account as well. The National Merit Scholarships mentioned earlier fall into this category, as well as several plans for students with a specific academic interest. An application essay is typically required, along with a high GPA, strong standardized test scores or a solid record of community service.

Athletic scholarships

  • Most athletic scholarships are awarded at the institutional level and aim to provide a pathway to a college education for aspiring students with high-demand athletic talents at a particular university. Award amounts and eligible sports tend to vary significantly from one school to another — check with your intended college or university if you think you might qualify.

Students who are members of certain demographic groups may be eligible for scholarship awards designed to foster increased achievement among their community. Here's a list of college scholarships for a few specific types of student:

  • Women. Several community organizations and other private sources offer scholarships for women pursuing degrees at a high level or in fields such as science, technology engineering and math (STEM) where women are typically underrepresented. The American Association of University Women (AAUW) offers several such initiatives, including a $20,000 award to post-graduate women conducting full-time research or working on a doctoral dissertation.
  • Students with disabilities. Depending on the circumstances of your disability, you may be entitled to priority consideration for certain scholarship programs from national, state, institutional or private sources. The AG Bell College Scholarship Program focuses its efforts on students who were diagnosed with bilateral hearing loss before the age of four and display high academic achievement.
  • LGBTQ. Students who identify as members of the LGBTQ community have access to an array of national, state and private scholarships based on their sexual or gender orientation. The Point Foundation maintains a national scholarship fund for LGBTQ students, which is designed primarily to serve campus-based undergraduate and graduate students at four-year colleges and universities but also offers a $2,000-$4,800 tuition award for community college students.
  • African-American. American students of African descent can find dedicated scholarship programs in a wide range of academic disciplines. The National Press Club Scholarship for Journalism Diversity provides a $2,000 award that can be renewed for up to three years at $2,500 per year, and the National Association of Black Accountants (NABA) offers three college scholarships with awards that range from $1,000 to $3,000.
  • Hispanic/Latino. Students with cultural roots in Central America, South America and the Caribbean often qualify for generalized minority opportunity scholarship programs, but several national, state and private awards are tailored specifically for them. The NBCUniversal/LNESC Scholarship program is one such initiative, awarding $5,000 to a high school senior or undergraduate college student with citizenship or legal right to work in the U.S. and a GPA of 3.0 or better.
  • Native American. Students whose heritage comes from American tribal nations have exclusive scholarship options at the national, state and tribal levels. Members of federally recognized tribes like the Osage, Cherokee and Navajo Nations can apply for scholarships administered by tribal leadership groups, and the American Indian Education Fund offers a variable award to students enrolled at two- or four-year universities across the U.S.
  • Military. Members of the armed services, veterans and their families often have access to valuable college aid programs. Scholarships are available for Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) members, whether Army, Navy, Air Force or Marine, and spouses of active-duty servicemembers or their children under age 24 can apply for several scholarships through ThanksUSA.

How to Apply for College Scholarships

Scholarship committees set their own specific guidelines for the application process, but there are some general steps for how to win a scholarship that apply to nearly all students. Here's a checklist to help you make sure you're ready:

  1. Fill out your FAFSA. The Free Application for Student Aid (FAFSA) is something of a master document in the financial aid process. It gathers information about your student status and family income and uses it to determine your eligibility for federal awards like the Pell Grant, and most college scholarships require it as part of their application packet. Take a look at our FAFSA guide for more info.
  2. Gather your application materials. Most scholarship applications will ask for official records of your academic history, such as sealed transcripts and test scores, so you'll need to make sure you have access to those documents. Some scholarships for college students will also ask for letters of recommendation from professors, community service leaders or other authorities.
  3. Verify application deadlines. Scholarship deadlines can vary, so it's a good idea to double-check them and make sure you'll be able to get everything in on time. Your college's financial aid office should keep a record of relevant due dates, and scholarship info pages online should also provide current deadline information.
  4. Compose your essay (if applicable). Although a handful of college scholarships may not require an essay with their application, a large percentage of them will ask you to write between 500 and 2,000 words on a topic selected by the award committee. Starting on your essay early can help you ensure you have enough time to produce your best work.

Bonus: How to Get Scholarships for College Transfer and Private Education

A large percentage of available scholarships are geared toward applicants who are enrolled at or planning to attend public colleges and universities, but there's still plenty of opportunity for students in other categories. If you're looking for information on how to apply for scholarships for transfer students, for example, check out our college transfer guide for some helpful tips.

If you're planning to attend a private college or university, you'll need to take a somewhat different path than the FAFSA-focused steps for public college students. The College Scholarship Service (CSS) profile is private higher education's answer to the FAFSA when it comes to awarding institutional college scholarships and grants, and it features a more specialized set of criteria than the standardized FAFSA. Check out our guide to financial aid for private schools to learn more.

College Scholarship Resources

  • Our searchable scholarship database can help you narrow down the thousands of available scholarships for college students and find the ones that can work for you.
  • Although it doesn't offer as detailed a search tool as our database, has information on millions of scholarship and grant opportunities for students at all levels.
  • The Federal Student Aid Office of the U.S. Department of Education offers another informative resource for students and parents seeking scholarship aid.
  • Scholar Snapp, a tool created and maintained by the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, can help you save time in the scholarship process by copying and pasting your personal information from one application to another.

If you're still coming up short on college funding after exhausting your scholarship options, never fear. College scholarships aren't the only way to get help with your education bills. Take a look at our more expansive page on how to pay for college to learn more about how to get scholarships for college.

Article Sources
Article Sources


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