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How to Find and Secure Scholarships for College

High school students and undergraduates should consider these expert tips on how to find college scholarships.


MONICA MATTHEWS, A mother of three, developed strategies to help her children learn how to find scholarships and ultimately win more than $100,000 for college.

Her eldest son, who attended the University of Michigan—Ann Arbor for a bachelor's in aerospace engineering, won so many scholarships that he graduated debt-free, she says. Encouraged by other parents, the Michigan mom authored an e-book, "How to Win College Scholarships."

"It only happened because I helped my elder son win so many scholarships," Matthews says.

Some of her top recommendations: Start the process early, apply to many scholarships and follow all the instructions.

Winning scholarships, experts say, can help close the gap between college savings and educational expenses. With some planning, it's possible to increase a student's odds of nabbing scholarship money, which can lower college costs. Here are a few responses to common questions to help guide students through the college scholarship application process.


What's the Difference Between Grants and Scholarships?


Grants and scholarships share a common trait – both are "gift aid." This is money that doesn't need to be repaid.

Grants are typically awarded on the basis of financial need, such as the federal Pell Grant for low-income students. Need-based grants are awarded at the federal, state or college level. Scholarships, however, are usually awarded on the basis of merit, whether it's for academics, athletic ability or a specific talent.

While some private scholarships are based on whether a student is from a low-income family, such as the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation College Scholarship Program, there's usually a merit component. Private scholarships are typically awarded by private foundations, nonprofits, for-profit corporations or philanthropists, to name a few sources.

How Do I Find Scholarships for College?


Students should start their search with local scholarships, since these awards are often less competitive, experts say. But it's still important to sign up with a few national scholarship database websites.

"But don't do 20 of those because you'll end up overwhelmed because they send out so many emails," Matthews says.

Different types of national scholarships are listed on database search websites, including Fastweb.com, Cappex.com and Unigo.com.

While many high school students apply for college scholarships during their senior year, experts say they can begin their search and the application process much earlier.

"New scholarship databases allow for students to begin researching and finding scholarships as early as freshman year by completing a student profile that should be updated each year with new information," says Lindsay Muzzy, a financial aid consultant at My College Planning Team, an educational consulting firm.

To cut down on junk mail from these databases, Matthews recommends setting up a dedicated scholarship email account. She also suggests filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, even if a family doesn't think it will qualify, since some scholarship applications require a submitted FAFSA for eligibility.


Can College Students Still Apply for Scholarships?


College students can still apply for scholarships when they're in school. In fact, experts say some of the best places for students to search for scholarships include their school's financial aid office or academic department.

"Professional societies will award scholarships to current college students who are majoring in their field to promote their industry or keep qualified individuals in their field," says Thomas Jaworski, independent educational consultant and founder of Quest College Consulting.


What Types of Scholarships Are Available?


There are many types of college scholarships available. Some of these include:

  • Academic achievement. Many scholarships are based on grades, GPA or other academic merits. For instance, students' PSAT scores determine eligibility in the National Merit Scholarship Program.

  • Sports. Numerous athletic scholarships are based on participation in one or more sport. High school athletes aspiring for a scholarship at a Division I school should consider NCAA rules. There are different bylaws for financial aid under NCAA Divisions I and II for each sport. Some sports, such as basketball and football, are called "head count" sports and offer full-ride athletic scholarships, but there are restrictions on how many students can receive them. In Division I basketball, the head count is limited to 15 for women and 13 for men on a team at one time. But athletic scholarships aren't only limited to Division I and II sports. There are also scholarships for lesser-known sports, such as esports or surfing.

  • First generation. There are specialized scholarships for those who are the first in their family to attend college. For instance, the majority of scholarship finalists for California nonprofit QuestBridge's National College Match program are high-achieving, first-generation students from low-income backgrounds.

  • Underrepresented groups. Some scholarships are awarded based on students' backgrounds. The Gates Scholarship, for example, offers several awards annually to bachelor's degree-seeking students who are Pell-eligible and from a minority group, which includes those who are African American, American Indian, Alaska Native, Asian and Pacific Islander American or Hispanic American; these students should ideally also be in the top 10% of their high school class.

When Do I Start Applying for Scholarships?


While many application deadlines are March 1, experts recommend students begin the process earlier to increase their odds of nabbing more scholarship money.

"I highly recommend beginning the scholarship search as early as possible. Identify the eligibility criteria and important application deadlines," says Aaron Bruce, vice president and chief diversity officer at ArtCenter College of Design in California.


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