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Scholarships 101: Your Guide to Researching Scholarships


A scholarship is a form of financial aid, typically awarded on the basis of merit, that doesn't need to be repaid by the student. There are between one and two million scholarship opportunities available to students. The search for applicable awards can be tedious but putting forth a determined and organized effort might uncover a surprising sum of college money. Scholarships run anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousands of dollars. Don't automatically discard scholarships offering small amounts and don't rely on just a few scholarship opportunities to come through. Exploit all opportunities. Apply and apply and apply. There are few free rides out there. Be prepared to build a college fund with your own two hands.

Types of Scholarships

Online scholarship sites lend ease to the search process but don't limit yourself to one online database. Don't limit yourself to the Internet either. Scour print guides and utilize your family and local contacts. Scholarships are often geared toward broad personal or scholarly profiles--gender, minority status, ethnic background, academic focus, extracurricular emphasis--but also touch on niche talents and interests--the idiosyncrasies of your personal profile might lead you to unexpected scholarship opportunities.

  • High School/School District Scholarships: Don't overlook what might be right in front of you. Consult your guidance office about scholarship opportunities and don't assume they will only apply to the valedictorian or student council president.
  • Local Scholarships: Regardless of how active you are in your local community, or how aware you are of statewide works, if you are college-bound you are a valuable member of your local communities. Seek out scholarship opportunities in your town, city, county and state, as well as Chambers of Commerce, local unions, and churches.
  • College-based Scholarships: Colleges offer a variety of scholarships to round out financial aid packages. Academic and athletic scholarships are the two most common on offer. Contact your college financial aid office for full and detailed scholarship options and procedures. Additionally, if you have a decided field of study, inquire into your college department to see if they offer scholarships specific to your major.
  • Corporate Scholarships: In short, the business world benefits from college graduates and invests in the upcoming talent base with scholarship funds. Look into corporate scholarships, at both local and national levels, and in both public and private sectors.
  • Federal Grants & Scholarships: Federal aid is typically furnished via loans, grants, or work-study programs. Scholarships, which differ slightly from grants, are often need-based. The website,, is a comprehensive guide to federal aid and covers available scholarships.
  • Military Scholarships: The Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) offers generous merit-based scholarships to students prepared for and committed to military terms of service. Each branch differs in its scholarship awards and terms. If you are an active duty or veteran servicemember, look for additional scholarships catered to the military, particularly at the state level. Also, if your parents are active or retired military personnel, there are scholarships dedicated to military families and their children.
  • Other Organizations: Explore the unexpected. Scholarships are awarded by a host of organizations that may not appear first in mind or first in search. Look into national unions, alumni associations, service organizations, fraternal organizations, clubs and societies, and other private organizations.

Applying For Scholarships

Applying for scholarships can be a mind-boggling, painstaking process, miring you in criteria and small print, but there are ways to make the effort a manageable one.

  • Start Early: The earlier you start, the better. The more you need, the earlier you should start. Students are known to start the scholarship hunt while in middle school. Even if sophomore year sounds early to you, be warned that senior year may be too late. You do not need to wait on college acceptance to apply for scholarship monies. Scholarships are often awarded on a first-come first-serve basis.
  • Respect Eligibility: Carefully read eligibility requirements. Don't apply if you don't meet each and every qualification. Attention to detail is mandatory. Resist making yourself an exception that is 'close enough' or thinking that superior qualifications compensate for ones that fall short of the required mark.
  • Be Meticulous: Carefully read and follow application guidelines. Specifications can be detailed to the point of whether or not paperwork should be stapled. Edit, spell-check, proofread, and take care with the formatting and printing of your application materials. Track your application process each step of the way for each application. Make copies of applications in full.
  • Get It Down to a Science: Scholarship requirements overlap. Sustain the application process by keeping copies of standard materials in stock and ready for submission. Reduce the application effort to unique elements.

Beware The Scam

As you research scholarship opportunities, be aware of scholarship scams. Legitimate scholarships are serious ventures and require neither fees nor credit card information. Don't be misled by terminology that suggests federal, state, or college affiliation.

The common signs of a scam include:

  • Unsolicited contact, hype and promises, bold declarations, urgent imperatives.
  • Advance fees, deposit fees, claimant fees, or any upfront money.
  • Money-back guarantees; guaranteed scholarship matches; exclusive opportunities.
  • No paperwork, no eligibility requirements, no hassle, no conditions.
  • You were selected out of the blue for a scholarship.
  • You won a scholarship prize you never applied for.

If you suspect a scam, you can file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission. Consult their website ( or call 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357).

  • "Tips from a Scholarship Whiz" Business Week, June 9, 2005 (
  • "Scoring a Private Scholarship or Grant" Jan 2010 (
  • "Judging the Scholarship Application",, Jan 2010 (
  • "Scholarship Scams", Federal Trade Commission Consumer Protection (; College Board 2010 Scholarship Handbook, Thirteenth Edition, The College Board, 2009

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