College Scholarships: How to Find, Apply & Win

Are you looking to fund your college experience with scholarships, but not sure where to start? In this ultimate guide, we’ll not only help you find and apply to scholarships, but also give you all the tools necessary to stand out and win college scholarships successfully.


How do scholarships work?

What is a scholarship?

Student Scholarship from Blood Centre East TexasA student receiving a scholarship from The Blood Centre East Texas. Photo by Gulf Coast Regional Blood Center

Put simply, a scholarship is a financial aid award for a student to pursue higher education.

There are many different kinds of scholarships—academic and athletic-focused ones are options you might know about already, but you can also get a scholarship if you dance or do community service or have been in the military... The list goes on and on.

Due to the wide range of scholarships available, they are awarded based on different criteria. We’ll examine these scholarship types in detail so you know what opportunities fit your skills best.

Maybe you’re a high school senior, or a college sophomore, or a high school freshman getting ahead of the game. It turns out you all might be eligible for scholarships...

Who can get a scholarship?

Am I eligible for scholarships?Want to know if you're eligible for a scholarship? Keep reading to find out! Photo by Javier Trueba

Scholarships can be awarded to incoming college freshmen as well as older undergraduate students.

This guide will focus on undergraduate scholarships, but there are also many opportunities for graduate scholarships.

First we’re going to go over some basic information about how scholarships work, and how they’re different from other financial aid.

Scholarship sources

You’re probably wondering where scholarships come from...

Scholarships are distributed by universities, well-known companies, non-profit organizations, state governments, and private individuals. Burger King awards scholarships, and so do individual philanthropists.

Now let’s talk about the cash (or in this case, checks).

How much money do scholarships award?

The average scholarship student receives between $1000 and $5000. These scholarships do not cover all costs, but do assist with tuition and other expenses.

It is possible to win multiple scholarships, increasing the amount of aid you receive. However, it’s important to know that the scholarship aid you use cannot exceed your tuition costs. 

Keep in mind that there are also half- and full-tuition scholarship opportunities. The possibilities are just about endless, which is both exciting and overwhelming!

Scholarship LuncheonMany schools host luncheons where students can meet potential donors and find out what is available. Here's one being held in Illianois, Springfield. Photo by Illinois Springfield

Yearly grant & scholarship money in the US

$46 billion: by the U.S Department of Education and U.S. colleges and universities

$3.3 billion: by private individuals and organizations


If you’ve been awarded a scholarship, it’s time to address the most important question about your winnings...

How do you receive your scholarship aid?

Scholarship money is received in multiple ways:

  • One-time check in the student’s name
  • Renewable check in the student’s name
  • Money given to the school and applied directly to educational expenses
Scholarship award ceremonyMost scholarships will be given directly to your school, but if you attend an award ceremony, you may get a certificate like this one! Photo by Northland Community & Technical College

How often do you receive aid?

Scholarship money may be paid in total at the beginning of the semester, or in installments throughout the school year. It really depends on the individual scholarship and amount of money you’re receiving.

Many scholarships are renewable if a student maintains a high performance level. Like grants, this is money that does not have to be repaid.

You might be asking yourself...

What is a grant?

Before moving forward, let’s discuss the difference between scholarships and grants.

Scholarships vs. grants

Scholarships are awarded by corporations, universities, other non-profit organizations, or individuals, whereas grants are financial aid packages typically distributed by the state or federal government.

You might be confused about whether you can receive grant money. We’ve got the answer...

Finding out the differences between scholarships and grantsDon't get overwhelmed by all the options! Photo by Jeshoots

Grant eligibility

The government determines your eligibility for grants based on your family’s income and other economic information. Fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Student Aid) to figure out whether you can receive grant aid. You need to be financially eligible because grants are need-based.

Pay attention to the official FAFSA deadlines and requirements, which can be found on the FAFSA website.

Even if you’re not sure about your eligibility, fill out the FAFSA anyway! You could receive aid that you wouldn’t have otherwise.

Fill out FAFSA to receive grant aidPhoto by Wes Hicks

So what else makes scholarships different from grants?

Unlike grants, scholarships are typically merit-based, though there are need-based and lottery-based exceptions.

You might qualify for one or more of these scholarship types:


How do you qualify?


Awarded based on the abilities of a student in an academic setting or their personal achievements.


Awarded based on an individual’s level of financial need.


Awarded based on a sweepstakes and not determined by financial need or merit; anyone can enter. Important: the recipients of a lottery-based scholarship are chosen at random. It is important to be aware of possible scams regarding lottery-based scholarships. To learn how to recognize these tricks, see How to Avoid Scholarship Scams later in this guide.

There is one more distinction between scholarship types to keep in mind, which is in-state vs. out-of-state options.

In-state vs. out-of-state college scholarships

If you are applying to (or attend) a state college/university in your home state, consider applying for in-state scholarships.

In-state scholarships

State schools are likely to offer need-based aid to students who reside in that state. There are also in-state merit-based scholarship opportunities.

These scholarships are not national, meaning they will have a smaller pool of applicants.

Private/out-of-state scholarships

Tuition at out-of-state schools is typically higher, but there are need-based and merit-based scholarships offered at these private colleges. When considering where to go to college, it is important to investigate the options.

Public vs. Private

For more information on public vs. private financial options, check out “The Cost of Private vs. Public Colleges”.

Now that we have the basics down about how scholarships work, let’s examine the specific types of merit-based scholarships available to determine what type best suits your skillset.

Scholarship types

It’s time to think about what scholarships you might want to apply to.

Finding the scholarship that is right for you

Often scholarships have a focus based on what you intend to study at the undergraduate or graduate level, but the recipients are selected based on their past experience in a variety of fields.

Read through this list of scholarship types and decide which categories suit your experience and skills best.

Alethtic scholarships for outstanding performanceSchools want the best athletes for their teams, so there are many scholarships available for students who show outstanding athletic and sporting abilities. Photo by Chris Brooks


How do you qualify?


Demonstrate outstanding academic achievement; often offered by college/university itself.

Average academic

Demonstrate some academic achievement; extracurricular activities and skills outside the classroom are also taken into consideration.


Demonstrate outstanding athletic ability as a high school/college athlete (this extends to individual athletic pursuits, not only school teams).


Demonstrate artistic and creative skill—there are music, dance, art, acting, and other creative scholarships.


Based on individual’s unique skills, community service experience, or other achievements outside of the classroom; some scholarships are

based on one-time challenges. This is a catch-all category, and includes a variety of opportunities.


Awarded to minority students; some opportunities focus on specific ethnic groups.


Awarded to female students, available in a variety of fields.


Awarded to service members, veterans, and military families.

Military scholarshipsThere are also many military scholarships available to help service men and women and their families. Photo by HendersonStateU

Based on this list, you probably have an idea of which categories are relevant to you. With this information, it’ll be a lot easier to find particular scholarship opportunities. In the next part we’ll show you exactly where to look to find the best scholarships for you.


How (and Where) to Find Scholarships

Finding scholarship opportunities can be overwhelming because of the options. Scholarships are available from an enormous variety of providers—companies, universities, non-profit organizations, and individuals.

In this section we’ll wade through this abundance of options and get you started on your search. Following the steps provided will guarantee that you’ll have a successful search.

Already found scholarship opportunities?

  • If you have a list of scholarships that you want to apply to, skip to our important tips to keep in mind both during and after your search at the end of this section.
  • If you have questions about applying to scholarships, continue to How to Apply to Scholarships, the next section of this guide with step-by-step instructions and example essays for a successful application process.

Find scholarships that match your skillset

It is important to look for scholarships relevant to your situation and abilities. Applying to a scholarship that suits your skillset will automatically give you a higher chance of winning the scholarship.

Write Down Your Skills

Before you begin your search, make a list of your current skills/interests and future areas of study you want to pursue so you can narrow down your scholarship options. Maybe you play soccer, or make ceramics, or love studying law...Or all of the above!

Narrow down scholarship options with extra cirricular activitiesYour extra cirricular activities and interests will help you stand out on applications. Photo by Juliet Furst

Stick to writing down current extracurricular activities and interests, rather than fun facts or past interests. If you did karate as a kid but quit several years ago, it probably isn’t relevant to scholarship opportunities now.

Your list can be short or long—you might have a few particular interests, or a bunch of different ones!

How to Use Our Scholarship Finder

Before we take a look at some other useful scholarship search engines let's first try a search with our tool.

Sympathink's scholarship search engine has many filters to ensure you find options that suit you, and includes over 2000 active U.S scholarships. Follow these steps to try a search:

Begin by using the Category filter

Here are the categories you can choose from:

  1. Career
  2. Ethnicity
  3. General
  4. Interests
  5. Major
  6. Sport
  7. State

If there are multiple categories that apply to you, select them all—this will give you more results.

Use the Instant Search field, which will start immediately when you begin typing. It will search the scholarship name, category, and subcategory fields at the same time.

  • For example, if you’re looking for writing scholarship opportunities, begin typing ‘writing’ into the Instant Search field. Before you finish typing, opportunities will pop up.
  • Use the Deadline filter to select a month at least two months from your search date to give yourself adequate time to prepare your applications.
  • Narrow down your options further by using the slider for amount of money awarded.
  • Once you’ve narrowed down your results, click on the scholarship title to go directly to the scholarship website and read up on its criteria. Make sure it is relevant to your experience and matches your college goals. If a scholarship requires you to study art in college, but you want to major in biology or law, you can cross it off your list and look at other options.
  • Keep track of any scholarships of interest to you in one place. We highly recommend using a spreadsheet system—later on we’ll give you some pointers about this organizational method.
Find scholarships onlineOur online schoarlship finder makes it incredibly easy to narrow down your scholarship search based on personalized criteria. Photo by benericwalton

Use the Deadline Filter

The deadline filter is particularly useful—you can select by deadline month, making it easier to skip scholarships with deadlines coming up too soon to fill out an application.

Best scholarship search engines

If you haven’t found the right opportunity for your skillset, try using another scholarship search engine. Some also include matching tool functions, which sort through scholarships automatically based on your interests. As mentioned above, many require you to make an account, but the process to do so is quick and easy.

If you’re not sure how to start narrowing down your search, try scholarship search engines with matching tools such as...

  • Fastweb: This is a combined search engine and organizational site. After making a free account, you can create a profile that will find targeted scholarships based on your interests and skills. This is useful if you’re not sure how to find more specific results—Fastweb does it for you. The website also includes a college search function, which might be helpful if you’re a high school student trying to decide where to apply to school.
  • Unigo’s Scholarship Directory: Unigo has a scholarship search engine as well as a Scholarship Match tool to find particular scholarships you qualify for based on your skills and academic interests. Both tools require an account, though the Scholarship Match tool is very useful to find scholarships relevant to your individual skillset.

If you want a lot of options, try...

  • The Free College Scholarships Search: This well-reviewed search tool involves making a free account, after which you can search the site’s database of 3.7 million scholarship opportunities. You can receive emails about scholarship and grant options or opt out of these updates.
  • The College Board Scholarship Search: The College Board surveys financial aid opportunities and has a database that advertises more than 2000 scholarship opportunities. This search option also involves making an account.

If you don’t want to make an account, use...

  • The U.S. Department of Labor’s Scholarship Search Tool: This search engine includes filters to find specific scholarships based on your level of study, area of academic interest, location, and scholarship type. Over 8,000 scholarships are listed. No account is needed, making the search process easy to begin. You can also search by keyword for more general options in terms of scholarship types and areas of study.

These are some of the most reputable scholarship search engines, but there are many more to explore if you have the time or want to explore even more options.

Find scholarships on college websites

College websites are especially useful if you are interested in (or attend) particular schools. Look for a ‘Tuition and Financial Aid’ or ‘Financial Aid and Scholarships’ information tab, typically in the ‘About’ section. There you’ll find detailed information about scholarships offered directly by the college itself.

To give you an idea, here’s an example from Rider University’s website:


As evident by the links listed above, colleges also provide information on federal and state grants and other scholarships, making them excellent resources.

Staying informed is key in order to succeed in getting scholarships—know your options.

You can also talk directly to representatives from the financial aid department when visiting college campuses—see our guide to in-person scholarship resources below.

Finding a scholarship in person

For a comprehensive search, use both online and in-person resources to find valuable scholarship opportunities. Useful resources around you include:

  • Your high school college counselor: ask your counselor what resources they have about scholarships, or if they can recommend particular ones that might suit you. Take advantage of the people who know you well and want you to succeed!
  • College financial aid offices: when visiting a college campus, stop by its financial aid office to talk face-to-face with an employee about opportunities. If you are applying to a scholarship at this particular college, this also shows initiative. You want to stand out!
  • Local businesses and organizations: check out businesses in your area to see if they fund scholarships. This is another situation where your college counselor will be helpful, because they will know what local opportunities are available.
  • Your/your parents’ employer(s): Similar to local businesses, an employer of you or someone you know might also offer scholarships. Check with your parents, relatives, and friends.
In-person resources to find scholarship opportunitiesMake sure to use all your available connections - you never know who will be able to help. Photo by Christina

So, now that you know where to find scholarships, what else should you keep in mind to make the most of your search?

Tips for a successful scholarship search:

Do your research.

  • Applying to many scholarships increases your chances of being awarded one, due to competition. Research ahead of time to find scholarships you are interested in applying to in order to give yourself enough time to write a better application.
  • Most scholarships have deadlines between September and May. Confirm the deadline for the particular scholarship(s) you are applying to, and do not apply after the deadline has passed.
  • Missing the deadline will often result in a lack of consideration by the scholarship committee.

Consider all of the guidelines.

  • Make sure you can satisfy all of a scholarship’s requirements. Say you want to study Public Health, so you consider applying to a scholarship that will finance a Public Health degree but requires community service experience. If you have no community service experience—even if you plan on doing community service in the future—look for a different opportunity.
  • It is better to apply for something you’re qualified for, and stand a better chance of winning, rather than take a chance. The number of scholarships out there means there’s one (or more likely, more than one) that’s exactly right for you!

Make a schedule and apply to scholarships regularly.

  • The variety of scholarships means that deadlines are scattered throughout the year, giving you the opportunity to apply to many over a longer period of time.

Stay organized.

Stay alert.

  • Make sure you are doing adequate research into the background of a scholarship, as there are also fake opportunities out there. In the next section we’ll teach you the best ways to determine if a scholarship is legitimate.

How to Avoid Scholarship Scams

There are easy ways to spot a scholarship scam before giving out any of your information.

Watch out for:

  • application fees – Legitimate scholarships will never ask you to pay to apply.
  • lack of information – If there is no background information about the scholarship, or any contact information for its organizers, it is most likely a scam.
  • lack of requirements – Though some lottery-based scholarships are easy to apply to, be wary of scholarships that only require some personal information and no supplemental materials.
  • requests for personal information to determine eligibility – You should not have to give out personal information to know if you qualify for a scholarship (ex: bank account, Social Security number).
  • guaranteed awards – If a scholarship advertisement says you are guaranteed to win, it is a scam; no scholarship awards money to all applicants.
  • unsolicited emails – These will come from unrecognizable sources and advertise scholarship opportunities. Often these offers seem too good to be true; trust this feeling.
  • lottery-based sweepstakes scholarships – These are often created in order to collect personal information from those who enter. Research any sweepstakes scholarship before participating.

How to know if a scholarship is reputable:

Rely on official government, school, and company websites that are easily researchable.

A reputable scholarship will require supplemental materials (essays/recommendations), test scores, and have GPA requirements.

Now that you know how to find the best scholarship opportunities for you, let’s discuss how to submit a successful application.


How (and When) to Apply for Scholarships

In this section, we’ll guide you through the process of applying—what materials and documents to include, how to answer essay questions (including essay examples), how to prepare for interviews, and how to keep yourself organized through the process.

We’ll also go over some common pitfalls when applying to scholarships, and how to avoid them. In short, when you’re done reading this, you’ll know how to submit the best application possible.

Let’s begin by talking about the timing for submitting scholarship applications. 

When should you apply for a scholarship?

The simple answer to this question is early and often.

When should you apply for a scholarship?Make sure you send your scholarship applications early and often for the best chance of success. Photo by Brooke Cagle

Apply early

Scholarship deadlines are often earlier than you might expect.

For high school students:

Deadlines are typically a year before you begin college.

  • You do not have to receive a college acceptance, or make a decision about where you’re attending school, before applying to scholarships. You do not have to be a senior, either—even high school freshmen can apply to scholarships.
For college students:

Deadlines are typically a year before you would receive aid, but sometimes only a few months. Make sure to confirm the timing when researching particular opportunities.

  • Applying to scholarships in college can also be done at any undergraduate grade level.

Fact box: [Remember the three scholarship application seasons:

Fall – August-December

Spring – January-May

Summer – June-July]

Typically, you apply one year ahead of receiving scholarship money. For example, you would apply to a scholarship in August of this year to be awarded money for the school year beginning in August of next year.

Apply often

  • Scholarships are competitive. Applying to many increases your chances of winning one or more.

Timing your application

Knowing when to apply also gives you an idea of when to put together your application materials, which differ depending on the scholarship you’re applying to.

It’s helpful to have a list of everything you’ll need for your application. We’ve put together a list of what you’ll most likely have to include in terms of educational materials and other information. 

What are typical scholarship application requirements?

If the requirements for a scholarship aren’t listed online, there will likely be an email contact included to request more information. Don’t hesitate to send an email introducing yourself and asking about the application’s requirements.

Materials needed to apply for scholarshipsNow is a great time to get all your papers organized to make applying for scholarships a breeze. Photo by Wesley Tingey

Scholarships require different materials, but the majority will ask for this list of items:


  • Most scholarships will ask for a recent transcript. Request an official copy of your most recent transcript from your school. If it’s January now, you would send your fall semester grades.

GPA/test scores

  • Some scholarships will require your GPA or SAT/ACT scores. Your GPA should be available from your school.


  • If the scholarship you are applying to requires a resume, make sure yours is up-to-date with relevant information.
  • If you need help formatting your resume, talk to your school’s college or career counselor. It’s always helpful to have someone else look over your work!

Recommendation letters 

  • Many scholarships ask for 1-3 recommendation letters from teachers or other authority figures. Later in this section we’ll talk about how to get great recommendations.


  • Many scholarships require one or more essays. Scholarship providers are looking for a reason why you should receive their scholarship over anyone else, and the essay is the space you are given to convince them in detail.
  • Later on we’ll explain in detail how to write a successful scholarship application essay.

Some scholarships do not have essay requirements, making them easy to apply to. However, they are more difficult to win due to a larger applicant pool. But it doesn’t hurt to apply! We will detail a few of these options below. 

Easy Scholarships

Some scholarships have fewer requirements in terms of written work, making the application process quick and simple. There are two types:

1. No-Essay scholarships

Some scholarships don’t require an essay, though they might ask you to answer some questions about yourself. Some ask for videos or other non-traditional materials.

Scholarship video applicationSome scholarships may require a video application. Don't let this put you off though! It's just another way for the institution to get to know you. Photo by Lewsphotos

Niche, a reputable college search website, awards its $2000 “No Essay Scholarship” once a month to students—the only requirement is making a free account on its website.

The downside of no-essay scholarships: they are lottery-based, meaning your chances of winning are smaller. When possible, apply to merit-based options to increase your chances of winning scholarship aid.

2. Short-essay scholarships

These scholarships typically have short-answer questions; some ask for 250-word short essays on a topic they provide. Unigo has assembled a useful list of easy scholarships to apply to.

Fact box: [It is important to remember that scholarships with fewer requirements typically also award less money.]

If you’re interested in learning more, PrepScholar has compiled useful information on no-essay and short-essay scholarships, and a list of opportunities.

Multiple Scholarships, Multiple Deadlines

It’s a good idea to apply to a variety of scholarships, and important to keep track of all opportunities that stand out to you in order to avoid missing deadlines.

We know that’s a lot of information, so we’ll walk you through some useful organizational options to ensure success (and keep you from getting overwhelmed)!

How to keep track of your applications using a scholarship spreadsheet

It can be difficult to keep track of all of your scholarship applications. Fortunately, there’s an easy solution! Try using our Scholarship Spreadsheet to keep all of the information you need in one place.

A spreadsheet will help keep you keep yourself organized while you complete applications, ensuring success.

Even if you’re just starting the scholarship search process, it is best to set up this organizing method right away. If the Scholarship Spreadsheet doesn’t suit your needs, you can also develop your own using the steps below.

How to keep scholarship applications organizedWhatever method you choose, make sure you keep your applications organized. Photo by Marten Bjork

Step 1: Create your own scholarship application spreadsheet.

Making your own spreadsheet with more personalized categories might be more helpful for you than using an existing template. You can do this using Microsoft Excel, Google Spreadsheets, or a simple piece of paper!

Try including a few (or all) of the following categories, which will be helpful in keeping track of everything you need to know:

  1. Scholarship name
  2. URL
  3. Contact information/address
  4. Criteria
  5. Deadline
  6. Amount of money awarded
  7. Requirements – recommendation letters, essay, transcript, etc.
  8. Date submitted
  9. Status (submitted/won/rejected etc..)

Add any other categories that include information you know you’ll want to keep in mind, and alter your spreadsheet as needed.

Creating an application checklist in your spreadsheet

It’s useful to include columns for all of the documents you need, so you can use your spreadsheet as a checklist as well as a timeline.

Check the requirements of the scholarship you’re applying to and add checklist boxes for submission of your test scores, essay, recommendation letters, and any other required documents.

Making a timeline in your spreadsheet

Make sure to add categories for submission date and status of completion to give yourself a timeline for working on applications.

Different application requirements for different scholarships?

The Scholarship Spreadsheet includes columns for all the different documents needed, a useful feature as different scholarships require different materials. Just check yes or no for each document option depending on the scholarship, and you’ll know exactly what you need when you go back to put together your application.

This organizing method will also let you look at all of your scholarships’ requirements side by side to compare which applications you might be spending more time on.

It’s always important to have good time management when dealing with applications on different deadlines.

Step 2: Fill out the spreadsheet as you find and apply for scholarship opportunities.

It is important to stay on top of all of this information, so keep your spreadsheet updated whenever you find a new opportunity or are working on a new application.

Now that you have some organizational strategies in mind, let’s move on to the meat of a typical scholarship application: the essay.

What are scholarship essays about?

Essay prompts vary depending on the scholarship you are applying to. However, there are common themes among applications.

Here is a list of example application prompts:

  • Tell us about yourself.
  • What person do you most admire? And why?
  • Describe your most meaningful achievements and how they relate to your field of study and your future goals
  • How has your education contributed to who you are today?
  • Describe how you have demonstrated leadership skills in and out of an academic environment.
  • How will your study of _________contribute to your career plans?
  • Where do you see yourself ten years from now?
  • Why will this scholarship help you?
  • Tell us about your greatest strength/weakness.

With these prompts in mind, let’s talk about the writing process itself.

How to Write a Winning Application Essay

Scholarship essays help distinguish you from your competition. The scholarship essay is your place to be yourself and talk about your experiences, showing the committee why you should win this scholarship.

Everyone has a unique life story, but we have seven key tips that will ensure you write a great scholarship essay. 

  1. Follow the directions: Essays typically have a specific word count and spacing requirements. If you do not pay attention to these instructions, your application will likely be rejected. Following the directions is the easiest way to ensure success.
  2. Research: Have an idea of the company/sponsor of the scholarship; read any information about the scholarship’s goals available to you, because you might include it in your essay. It is a way of demonstrating your enthusiasm to the committee.
  3. Be concise/outline: Often essays are required to be less than 1000 words; outlining your answer is a good idea to make sure your essay is organized and reflects the points you want to get across. Always keep the word count in mind.
  4. Be unique and passionate: Use your own life experience to craft a creative, individual answer. Make sure the topic is something you’re passionate about.
  5. Use your own words: Scholarship committees want to get a sense of who you are as a person. Let your personality shine through, and rely on your own ideas/writing.
  6. Proofread, proofread, proofread: Review your essay for easily fixable grammar and punctuation mistakes. It’s helpful to have someone you trust look over the essay for any errors.
  7. Do not reuse essays: Even if you’re applying to multiple scholarships, it’s important to make an essay specific to one scholarship. It shows the scholarship committee who is reading your application that you’re invested in this particular opportunity.

How to Begin Your Essay – Hook the Reader

A scholarship committee often reads hundreds of essays. You want to stand out, and can do this easily by creating a hook for your reader. 

Begin your essay with a strong first sentence to draw in the reader: an anecdote rather than a basic statement they will not remember. Use your own words rather than a quote. Here is an example:

  • Prompt - What person do you most admire? Why?

Do not begin with: The person I most admire is my mom.

Do begin with: When I was eleven, my mom taught me how to change a tire.

  • This sentence introduces an intriguing story while also telling the reader the subject of the essay.

By the end of the introduction, your reader should have an idea of where the essay is going.

The Next Step – Outlining

Moving forward, you should have an outline to guide your essay’s structure.

  • Include a thesis statement, which sums up what you want to get across in the essay. A thesis will also help your own organization of your points.
  • Map your supporting ideas.
  • Include a conclusion to wrap up your ideas strongly.

After you have your outline, it’s time to start writing your full draft.

Continuing Your Essay – Remember Your Audience

Keep the scholarship requirements in mind while writing; you want to allude to particular qualities the committee is looking for.

It’s easiest to show this by giving you an example. 

Example scholarship essay:

It’s intimidating to write a scholarship essay without knowing what the finished product should look like. For that reason, we’ve provided an example scholarship essay that you can use to guide the structure of your essay. This example answers the common question, “What person do you most admire? And why?” based on the introductory sentence above.

Scholarship Example Essay

When I was eleven, my mom taught me how to change a tire. We were driving home, and our car hit a pothole with a deadly pop. It was almost sunset; we were alone on the road. But my mom had always planned to teach me how to fix my own car problems, so in her eyes, this was a positive turn of events. Together, we swapped the tire for our spare; she helped me use the jack, and answered my nonstop questions patiently. I always had a lot of questions about science as a kid. Her expertise was in real estate, but she would tell me whatever she could about clouds, or the migration of birds, or gravity. My love of science questions turned into a love of physics, and my mom continued to try to help me find the answers to science-related questions. One day, I want to do the same thing for other young girls as a physics teacher.

My mom’s father taught her how to change a tire, and she was determined to pass on that knowledge to me, as she is a single mom. She approaches every task with resolve and a sense of calm that I aspire to. As someone who had to work extremely hard to get to where she is due to family and economic struggles, she instilled a sense of determination in me to work hard, but above all to pursue my passions.

I had my mom as a female role model, but all of my science teachers were men, and boys dominated my physics classes and afterschool clubs. I felt out-of-place and insecure; I hated being the target of jokes. My mom assured me that it didn’t matter, that I deserved to be there. She also gave me some good retorts to my classmates’ teasing. Eventually, with her encouragement, I decided to look into Physics and Engineering program options for college.

I had my mom to encourage me to this point, and I want girls who might not have this role model to feel comfortable pursuing their passions. With financial aid, I will be able to complete my Physics degree and go on to inspire a new generation of girls as a researcher and physics teacher. I’d like to play the same role for other girls that my mom has for me, teaching me new skills and being a steady source of love and support. I not only want to tell girls that they can change a tire—I want to show them how to do it, and much more.

What It Does

This essay weaves in personal experiences, personality, and what this student plans to use her scholarship for.

How It Does It

The essay begins with a personal experience, goes on to develop the student’s situation, and closes with a direct reason why this particular scholarship would be helpful to her future plans.

The essay’s story links the student’s background to the scholarship, which is the most important thing to keep in mind when answering any scholarship essay prompt. Keep your story relevant! Using your own life experience, not a made-up story, is the best way to make an impact on the scholarship committee.

Finishing Your Essay – A Strong Conclusion

Wrap up your essay on a high note, and be concise. Tell your reader why this particular scholarship is right for you, based on what you have said in the rest of your essay. No matter the prompt, your essay should answer this question in some way. 

Fact box: [For more example scholarship application essays, and more tips, check out these online resources:

Fourteen Scholarship Essay Examples That Won Thousands 2019 Scholarship Essay Examples That Won Money

3 Examples of How to Write a Scholarship Essay — And Win ]

Getting recommendation letters

It might seem intimidating to ask adults for recommendations, but teachers, professors, and other authority figures are used to these requests. They’ll be happy to help you!

Here’s how you should approach getting recommendation letters:

Step 1: Make a list of possible recommenders

It is helpful to make a list of everyone you’re considering asking for recommendations. Your recommenders might also vary depending on what scholarships you’re applying for.

Who should you ask?

Often scholarships will ask for one or more academic references. If possible, ask a teacher/professor you have had in the past two years.

You can also have non-academic recommendations from people like coaches or work supervisors.

  • For example, if you’re applying to an arts scholarship, a good non-academic recommendation would come from a music or art teacher.

Your recommenders should be people who are both familiar with your work and know you well; having a connection will result in a more personalized letter.

When should you ask?

Ask your possible references a month ahead of time to allow them to write the best letter possible.

Step 2: Ask Politely, and Include Information

It is best to ask for a recommendation in-person. If that isn’t possible, trying calling the person you want a recommendation from. This shows consideration and respect on your part.

Ask your recommender if they want a copy of your resume or any work you’ve done inside or outside the classroom. This will help them write a more specific recommendation, which will stand out among other applicants. Even if you know your recommender well, 

If You Are a Recommender

If you’ve landed here as a teacher/recommender looking for advice on how to write a great recommendation, here is a sample letter:

Scholarship Example Recommendation Letter


Scholarship Committee Name (individual if possible)


Dear ________,

I am writing on behalf of Grace Smith’s application to the ABC History Scholarship. I have known Grace for two years, first as her American History teacher during junior year and then as her high school advisor. During that time, Grace continued to assert her passion for learning and drive to succeed. After the first week of class, she started showing up in my office to ask questions about class material, bringing her humor and acute observation skills. As my advisee, we continued to have stimulating conversations about history topics and her academic future. Together, we investigated scholarship options for her college career, eventually finding the ABC Scholarship.

Grace wants to pursue an undergraduate degree in History and go on to become a professor, a career path I strongly support for her. Outside of class, she is involved in Model U.N. and various community service projects. She is also the founder of the school history club, and enlisted me as the faculty supervisor during the spring of her junior year. I was happy to oblige; her vision and organization skills have ensured the club’s success.

Though Grace was never the loudest voice in class, I could always rely on her to provide insightful answers to my questions. Her work was punctual, organized, and well-researched. I always enjoyed hearing her explain certain concepts in small-group work with her peers. The mid-term essay she submitted on the Civil War was a stand-out assignment that I will continue to use with future classes to demonstrate exemplary work. Grace brings patience and enthusiasm to the classroom as well as her extracurricular pursuits. She possesses all of the tools necessary to have an incredibly successful college experience.

This scholarship would enable Grace to pursue her dream, and I know of few students less deserving. A college history program will stimulate her in more ways than her high school experience ever could, and I know how much this opportunity means to her. For these reasons, I recommend her very highly for this scholarship.


Sarah Brown

Recommendations should focus on the student’s positive attributes, and include personal anecdotes and information about the student’s individual approach to their academic or extracurricular interests.

Step 3: Send a Thank-You Message

After you receive the recommendation letter, say thank you to your recommender, whether it’s in a note, email, or an in-person visit.

Now take a deep breath – that’s the application process done! Let’s go over a few final tips to think about before you submit your application.

Getting scholarships applications finishedThat feeling of finishing your scholarship applications! Photo by Bruce Mars
If You Have More Questions About Submitting an Application...

Whether you are an adult looking for information to help with a student’s scholarship applications, or a student yourself, share these tips with anyone who is caught up in the scholarship search:

Tips to keep in mind while finishing your application:

  • Take chances – You may think you don’t have a chance of winning a certain scholarship, but if you meet the requirements, don’t be afraid to apply anyway. Hit that Send button!
  • Keep track of deadlines – Always submit your application before the deadline. This is the easiest way to guarantee you have a shot at winning.
  • Be thorough – Review all components of your application before submitting it, and allow another person to review it for any errors you might have missed.
  • Check the requirements – Confirm that you have all required parts of your application as directed by the scholarship requirements. This is a good time to go back to your scholarship application spreadsheet and confirm the requirements of the specific scholarship you’re applying to.

The Next Step: Scholarship Interviews

If you receive an interview request for a scholarship opportunity, it means you have progressed toward receiving the scholarship!

Interviews can be nerve-wracking, so we’ll give you the tools you need to go into an interview with confidence...and without sweating. 

First, prepare for the interview by learning what questions you might be asked.

Prepare for a scholarship interviewPhoto by Christina

Typical interview questions

Interviewers often ask similar questions to the ones used for application essay prompts. Here is a list of questions you might run into:

  • Tell us about yourself.
  • What are your career goals?
  • What kinds of activities are you involved at school or in your community?
  • How are you planning on using this scholarship?
  • Why do you deserve this scholarship?
  • Talk about your leadership experience.
  • What are your questions about this scholarship?

It’s a good idea to write out some answers to these questions so you remember everything you want to mention to interviewers.

Interviewing tips

  • Come prepared – Give yourself a refresher on the scholarship’s background, and write down any questions you have about the opportunity.
  • Dress professional – Like a job interview, this will leave a good impression on the interviewer(s).
  • Be polite – A warm demeanor will leave a bigger impact than any of your achievements.
  • Keep your resume/experience in mind – most of the interview’s questions will relate to your educational/extracurricular experience. Remind yourself that you’re an expert in this field!
  • Be yourself – Have an idea of how you can answer the above questions, but don’t worry about memorizing information. Your interviewer will appreciate you being yourself and won’t expect you to recite a speech. In fact, it’s better to pause and be informal.

Above all:

Be prepared to talk about what this scholarship means to you, as well as your academic and extracurricular experience.

To learn about strategies for answering interview questions, see this advice from College Vine and Unigo.

Just so you know...

You may have to go through multiple interviews. The good news is that this is the last stage of the process!

Remember to thank your interviewers after the fact; this is an easy way to stand out from your competition.

Standing Out – Scholarship Thank You Letters

Make a mark on the scholarship committee by sending a thank-you letter after your interview. This will show your initiative and investment in the opportunity.

Make your letter concise, warm, and enthusiastic. Don’t forget to proofread for any errors. Here is an example letter template:

Scholarship Thank You Letter Example – Post-Interview:


Your Name


Dear (Name/Organization),

I am writing to thank you for the opportunity to interview for the ABC Psychology Scholarship. I really enjoyed learning about the scholarship’s history and was excited to share my experience and academic goals with you. I am actively pursuing Psychology degree programs; this scholarship would allow me to achieve the dream of graduating from college and going on to medical school to become a psychologist.

Please let me know if I can give you any additional information about my past experiences and academic background. I look forward to hearing from you!


Your Name

It’s also a good idea to send a thank-you letter post-acceptance; this will give you the opportunity to follow up personally with the scholarship committee, and ask any questions you might have.

Writing a scholarship thank-you letter also shows your appreciation for the award. Here is a sample letter you can use to guide your writing:

Scholarship Thank You Letter Example – Post-Acceptance:


Your Name


Dear (Scholarship Donor Name/Organization),

I am honored to have been selected as the recipient of the ______ Scholarship. I am writing to thank you for your generosity, which will enable me to pursue my passions and complete a degree in Biology.

I am a freshman at ABC University and intend to become a marine biologist and researcher. Without this scholarship, I would not be able to afford my studies without hardship. Now, I will be able to do research, attend classes, and make new connections with my peers and professors.

Thank you again for this opportunity; I am incredibly excited and grateful for the doors that this scholarship opens up for me.


Your name

Make sure to adjust the letter based on your own interests and the opportunities of your scholarship.

That’s your application process finished—Congrats! Stay positive, and keep applying using these tools.

But before you go—keep in mind these scholarship pitfalls.

Common Pitfalls of the Scholarship Application Process

Using application completion websites that fill in your application automatically
  • These websites and tools may seem useful when you have a lot of applications to fill out, but be wary of mistakes. It’s better to enter the information yourself—it won’t take that long.
Don't use scholarship application completion websitesDon't get lazy and use scholarship application software - it shows! Photo by Kate Stone Matheson
Applying to scholarships you don’t meet the qualifications for
  • You may want to take a chance on a scholarship that awards a lot of money, but if you don’t meet the qualifications, there’s really no point. Your application won’t be taken into consideration
Not reading the directions carefully
  • Application guidelines can get long and tedious, but make sure you read every line! Otherwise you might miss a particular document or short-answer question that’s required.
Not applying to smaller scholarships
  • Well-known, national scholarships that award large amounts of money are definitely more appealing, but they’re also more competitive. Don’t make the mistake of only applying to these larger scholarships; you have a higher chance of winning a local/smaller scholarship because fewer people apply.
Using different email addresses for accounts/applications
  • Always use the same email address for you scholarship applications to prevent any confusion or communication from slipping through the cracks. Getting all of your scholarship information delivered to one place makes this whole process more organized and much easier.
Assuming your scholarship will be renewed
  • Confirm your scholarship’s renewal on a half-year/yearly basis with your scholarship committee/contact. Maybe your scholarship is a one-time award, or the amount awarded to you might be changed based on multiple factors. You can have a conversation about this with your scholarship donor/organization. Communication is key.

You’ve Won! What’s Next?

So the application is done, and you’ve won one or more scholarships. Congratulations! After sending your thank you letters, you’ll probably have questions about your next steps and how your scholarship will affect your school experience.

Use Scholarship Finder to start the application processHopefully this guide helped you get one step closer to that all-important graduation day. Photo by Vasily Koloda

First, let’s talk about the effect of scholarships on your need-based aid and student loans.

How Scholarships Might Affect Other Financial Aid

Your financial need is calculated by your college using the FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid and other materials. You cannot receive more than $300 above your calculated need amount, so you have to inform your college about any scholarships you’ve won.

Colleges may adjust or decrease your financial aid package based on scholarship aid. Your aid also cannot add up to more than the cost of attendance at your college.

Don’t let this stop you from applying to scholarships, though! Winning more scholarships will decrease your loans, which must be repaid eventually...unlike scholarship money.

There are also steps you should take after winning.

 1. Notify your school of any scholarships

Let your school’s financial aid office know about any scholarships you will receive; as explained above, they will take this new information into account when determining your financial aid. If you are a high school student, save the information for conversations with the financial aid office when you begin college.

For more information, check out this article explaining how colleges take scholarships into account and the effect on financial aid.

Life on college campusLife on college campus. Photo by M. Kemal

2. Confirm the scholarship payment

Stay in contact with the scholarship committee so you know when and how you will be receiving your aid. If you have any questions or any details seem unclear, ask the committee (you’ll likely receive the name and contact information of at least one person).

3. Find out if the scholarship is renewable

This is not an urgent step, but it is important to find out whether you’ll have to reapply to the scholarship to receive aid in the future—this way, you can plan for future applications.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions or look for more information about anything regarding scholarships. That’s the reason we’ve included one last section for you—additional sources that will answer any specific questions you have about the whole process after reading this guide. 

Part 1: What is a Scholarship?

Grants vs. scholarships

  • Types of Aid via U.S. Department of Education – answers all questions you might have about grants, scholarships, and the ways these two forms of aid work.
  • The Basics on Grants and Scholarships via College Board – shows you practical steps to find out your aid eligibility, and includes a short video describing the differences between scholarships and grants.

In general, the Federal Student Aid website is extremely helpful for any questions regarding government educational aid. See this page to find out exactly how financial aid is calculated.

In-state vs. out-of-state scholarships

  • What You Need to Know About Out-of-State Tuition via CollegeXPress - explains the differences between in-state and out-of-state tuition, and is useful if you’re trying to figure out where to go to school (and which scholarships to apply to)

Find Scholarships by Type

  • Scholarships by Type via – an exhaustive list and description of scholarship types, with links to the website’s search engine for particular scholarships; this is incredibly helpful if you’re trying to figure out what types of scholarships fit your experience.
  • Scholarships by Type via Unigo – another detailed list that includes categories such as DACA, homeschool, and religious scholarships that might not be easily found elsewhere.

Video series

Part 2: How (and Where) to Find Scholarships

Scholarship Search Engines

  • 10 Sites to Kick Off Your Scholarship Search via U.S. News & World Report – we covered the best search engines in this section of the main guide, but if you’re looking for more options, this is a detailed list that includes pros and cons of other popular search engines.

Avoiding Scams

Part 3: How (and When) to Apply to Scholarships

Application materials

  • How to Get Your High School Transcript via PrepScholar – gives you step-by-step instructions for multiple ways to get an official copy of your transcript; this tells you exactly where to start.
  • 3 Best Resume Formats With Examples via Indeed – this up-to-date resume guide shows you exactly what your resume should look like; be warned that the article is long, but the formatting and content advice is exactly what you need for success.
Recommendation letters

Scholarship spreadsheet resources

We have a helpful Scholarship Spreadsheet for you to use. However, there are also other resources with excellent organizational methods:

Writing application essays

See the How to Write an Application Essay section of this guide for some additional writing resources, or check out these articles:

Scholarship interviews

Thank You Letters

Moving forward...

It’s time to head back to the Scholarship Finder to get your search started. Stay positive; this might have seemed like a lot of information, but you’ll get the hang of the process easily once you begin and get some applications under your belt.

College lectureIt won't be long until you're sitting in a lecture hall. Photo by Frank Hebbert

Spread the word!

If you found this guide useful, share it with your friends, school, or anyone navigating the world of scholarships. The application process doesn’t have to be confusing—now you know the best ways to go out and win scholarships.

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