Finding Scholarship Opportunities

Finding Scholarship Opportunities
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College scholarships are an appealing part of a financial aid package because they provide free money, unlike student loans requiring repayment. Whether you're heading to college right after high school or you're a working adult ready to further your studies, you can find plenty of scholarship opportunities based on factors such as merit, financial need, interests and affiliation. If you're ready to begin your search, places to check include the school's financial aid office, scholarship databases and the scholarship information websites of organizations offering the scholarships directly.

Read More​: Federal Student Grants

Explore Types of Scholarships

Before you start building a list of scholarship opportunities, you'll want to understand that scholarships are usually need-based, merit-based or a combination of both. Need-based scholarships go to people with financial need such as those who earn lower incomes. Merit scholarships depend on factors like your grade point average (GPA), chosen area of study or a particular talent or accomplishment rather than your financial background.

Along with need-based and merit-based scholarships open to all qualifying students, you'll find several scholarship offerings targeting students from a certain background or who are of a specific gender, ethnicity or religion. For example, some scholarship programs target women, African Americans, international students, single parents, adopted students or students from military families. Some of them target students in a particular year of college or in grad school.

To make your search for scholarship providers easier, it helps to make a student profile with the categories you fall into so you can filter the scholarship options you find. You'll also want to look at important criteria like your grades or finances. Completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) beforehand can also help since it will provide an idea of how much money your family is expected to contribute to your education, and it can offer some idea of whether you have a lot of financial need.

Check With Educational Institutions

If you're still a high school student, your guidance counselor can often point you to scholarship programs that you meet eligibility requirements for based on your academic record and personal situation as part of the college planning process. Your counselor can also help you with the application process and offer general advice on college financial aid.

But if you've completed your college search and are in the process of applying to a specific school already or you've enrolled, consider checking with the college's financial aid office or visit their website to learn about scholarship programs that the college itself offers. The school might also automatically consider you for some institutional scholarships during the financial aid application process. Or, they may ask you to fill out a scholarship application as a new or returning student.

Search a Scholarship Database

To find a large number of scholarship opportunities in one place, you can take advantage of the numerous scholarship search engines on websites and scholarship search tools available. Depending on the website, you might have to create an account before you can view the scholarships listed, or you might only need to set up an account once you're ready to apply. It's common for such websites to use your information to match you with relevant opportunities and save you time.

Some popular websites featuring a scholarship database include:

  • Fastweb
  • Sallie Mae
  • Unigo
  • Peterson
  • Chegg
  • The College Board
  • Niche
  • CareerOneStop

When visiting one of these websites, you'll often have the option to narrow down scholarships by category, focus on new scholarships added or even filter by the ease of the application process. For example, you can narrow scholarships down to a particular need, location, major or ethnic group. You may complete the scholarship application through the database website and have all your applications tracked for convenience, or you may get sent to the sponsoring website to continue.

Search Through Your State Agency

State grant agencies can offer scholarships for college students that meet residency requirements, attend specific state schools or community colleges, have an impressive high school record or choose to study a high-demand field like nursing or teaching. You can either do a web search for your state's grant agency or use the "State Contacts" tool on the U.S. Department of Education website to guide you. You should find a scholarships page that will list all the scholarships and have buttons to apply directly.

Research Businesses and Organizations

You'll find that private businesses, charities, professional associations and civic groups are all potential sources of scholarships. So, contacting familiar businesses and organizations directly or visiting their websites can help you uncover potential scholarships for which you might qualify.

You also could start by reaching out to any current employer, religious institution or community group with which you're affiliated. If you regularly volunteer for a charity like Habitat for Humanity, for example, you might find scholarship opportunities in your state. And you can ask your parents if their employers offer any scholarship programs for employees' children. Walmart is one major company offering scholarship programs to both employees and their dependent children, and they allow for a renewing scholarship.

If you're interested in a particular area of study, check out professional organizations or businesses in that field since they'll often offer scholarship opportunities for people interested in a related major, especially if you already have experience in the field. For example, Microsoft has some scholarship programs that target minority students who want to earn an undergraduate degree in the arts, math, technology, engineering or science.

Consider Other Scholarship Search Options

You can use some other tactics to find additional scholarships available.

If you're involved in a particular hobby such as sports or music, local sports teams or music education groups might provide scholarships. You can also get access to scholarship opportunities by joining the National Honor Society in high school or participating in contests in a specific subject area such as science or art. Online sweepstakes are another potential source of scholarship money, but you'll want to avoid scams and understand that the drawings are random.

It also helps to simply ask people you see in your daily life if they know about any scholarship opportunities. This might mean speaking with current college students and their parents, asking employees at schools or checking in with your local librarian who might have some information. You can also consider borrowing or buying books that list scholarship programs to get more ideas.

Applying for Scholarship Opportunities

When you find scholarship opportunities, you can expect an application process that varies. In most cases, you'll fill out a form online with personal information, answer questions about your educational goals and demonstrate that you meet all the scholarship program's criteria. However, sweepstakes scholarships may have just a basic contact form since the provider needs less information due to the random drawing used.

Scholarship applications often ask that you include attachments that prove the information you provided on your application is accurate. You might also be asked to explain why you need or deserve the scholarship. Many scholarships require an essay answering relevant questions or explaining your situation, while others may allow for a video, project sample or interview.

For merit-based scholarships based, you might need to submit a current grade report or transcript, letters of recommendation from past educators or supervisors, or records of certain accomplishments. Financial documents showing family income can support a scholarship application for need-based aid.