How to Apply for Scholarships



Scholarships are the best type of financial aid. Unlike student loans, scholarships are gifts that you don’t have to pay back. And unlike work-study programs, scholarships don’t require you to spend hours each week working a campus job to get money off of your tuition. There are thousands of scholarships out there that can reduce the cost of your education. While some are small, one-time awards, others can cover the entire cost of your college degree. 

Types of scholarships

There are two primary types of scholarships, institutional scholarships and outside, or private, scholarships. 

Institutional scholarships are awards offered by colleges and universities and can either be merit- or need-based. Students who receive institutional scholarships are typically notified in their financial aid packages. These scholarships are often based on achievements that students accomplished in high school. While you may have to maintain a certain GPA to keep institutional scholarships, you typically don’t have to apply or reapply for them.

Outside scholarships are awards offered by companies, organizations, foundations, and individuals looking to give back to younger generations. They vary greatly in value and requirements. They can be based on academic merit, community involvement, athletics, diversity, passion, and much more. Oftentimes, they are tailored to the entity that offers them. 

For example, Hyundai annually awards five $10,000 scholarships to women pursing STEM education.

Unlike most institutional scholarships, which are automatically awarded to you from your college or university based on your achievements and financial need, outside scholarships often require a bit more work because you have to find them and submit applications worthy of winning. For that reason, the bulk of this article will focus on outside scholarships. 

How to find scholarships

There are tons of scholarships available and many places to find them. Where to search first depends on who you are and what types of scholarships you are looking for. For example, there are scholarships aimed at high school seniors, female students, Black students, Black female students, Asian American students, and international students

College-bound high school students should first check with their guidance counselors. Oftentimes, guidance counselors will release lists of outside scholarships for students to apply for. 

According to Sarah Chomette, an eAdviser with the College Advising Corps, the benefit of checking with your counselors first is that they often are aware of all of the local scholarships, which are typically less competitive than national scholarships because fewer people apply for them. The downside is that local awards might not be the highest-dollar scholarships. But, small awards do add up and can really make a difference in terms of how much money you have to pay for college. 

Current college students can reach out to the financial aid office at their respective institutions. Although most institutional scholarships are automatically awarded to students and can’t be applied for, financial aid officers will also likely have a list of outside scholarships that they recommend. So, don’t be hesitant to reach out to financial aid officers. It is their job to help students find ways to afford college. 

Another great way for both high school and college students to find college scholarships is by asking guardians and relatives, Chomette advised. Many companies and organizations, both big and small, offer scholarships to the children and relatives of employees. Oftentimes, these can be big awards with relatively small applicant pools. 

Finally, another great way to find scholarships is by looking on scholarship search engines. You can find scholarships through TUN’s scholarship search engine, which allows you to search by grade level, major, state, and more. Other companies and organizations, including the College Board, also have search engines that make it easy to find both national and local scholarships. 

When to apply for scholarships 

Each scholarship has a specific deadline, and these deadlines occur throughout the year. You should be aware, though, that some scholarships have deadlines that fall months, even a year, before the start of the academic term for which it will be applied. 

So, high school students aiming to get scholarships for their freshman year of college should start the search process as early as their freshman or sophomore year of high school. You won’t necessarily have to start applying for scholarships that early, but it is beneficial to develop an understanding of what’s out there. 

The same goes for current college students. You should be looking for scholarships throughout the year. That way, if you find an award that is appealing to you, you’ll be ahead of the game. 

In terms of submitting scholarship applications, it is worth noting that most scholarships are very strict about deadlines. No matter how impressive your application is, most providers will not look at anything that is submitted past the set due date. 

How to apply for and win scholarships 

Each scholarship has its own unique requirements and qualifications. The first step to successfully applying for and winning any scholarship is reading the details carefully. Make sure that you fit the eligibility criteria, and don’t forget to submit everything required of you as part of your application. Scholarships are often competitive, and failing to follow directions will result in your application landing in the “no” pile. 

Hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of students can apply for the same scholarship at one time. For that reason, it is important to find ways to separate yourself from the pack. 

When applying for scholarships that ask for essays, you want your personality and creativity to shine through. The easiest way to do that is by showing instead of telling, according to Chomette. 

“When answering a creative prompt or inputting your personal statement, it’s important to provide the reader with a story instead of just telling them about your goals and accomplishments,” said Chomette. “That can be kind of boring and it makes you get lost in the crowd.”

Additionally, Chomette said there are four major components that you want to include in a successful essay. The first is about your values. You want to make sure that your personal values are evident in your essay. The second is vulnerability. You want to write with honesty and openness to help the reader feel a natural connection with you. The third is insight. You want to make sure that you always answer the “so what” portion of the essay. The fourth is craft. You want to make sure that you reread your essay and dedicate time to the revision process. 

Not all scholarships ask for essays, though. Some, like the TUN Volunteerism Scholarship, allow applicants to submit videos or infographics. Others ask for recommendation letters. You want to make sure that you go above and beyond. Stay within the guidelines, but make sure that you put your thought and effort into your scholarship applications, no matter what they ask for. 

If a scholarship asks for a video, don’t rush it. Dedicate time to make sure it is creative and unique. If a scholarship asks for letters of recommendation, make sure that you spend time thinking about who knows you best and who would be the best fit to write the recommendation(s). 

Scholarships to avoid 

The vast majority of outside scholarships that you will find will be legitimate. However, there are some red flags that you should be aware of. 

Never pay to submit a scholarship, said Chomette. 

There are some scholarship programs where you pay a couple of dollars and gain access to a lot of scholarships. Those are typically okay, but you still want to do your research to verify that they are legitimate. But, you should avoid any singular scholarship that asks for money. 

“You should also be wary of any scholarships that are asking for credit card information and social security numbers,” said Chomette. “There are very few reasons why a scholarship would require a social security number, and those are normally just going to be for the high-dollar, well-known scholarships.”

“If you ever feel uncertain about if you’re applying to a legitimate scholarship, you can always get a second opinion from a guidance counselor or a teacher,” she added. “You can also Google if the scholarship is a scam or just decide, ‘Hey, I’m not going to move forward with a scholarship. There are tons of scholarships out there, and there are always more to find.’”

Can outside scholarships take away from your financial aid? 

As a current college student or incoming freshman, you are required to report all outside scholarships to your college or university’s financial aid office. Outside scholarships are often considered assets and can therefore increase your expected family contribution and take away from the amount of financial aid your institution offers you. 

Colleges can decide which type of financial aid they want to reduce if you receive and report an outside scholarship. Some schools may take away from your need-based grants. Others, however, may take away from your loans, which would be to your benefit because you would no longer have to pay them back. 

“Say, for example, the school expects you to take out $5,000 in loans to pay for college but you later receive a $5,000 scholarship from an outside source,” said Chomette. “It’s possible to replace those loans with that scholarship so that you’re not taking out loans, you’re just covering this cost with scholarships instead.”

Whenever you receive an outside scholarship, it is important to notify those at your school’s financial aid office and inquire about your scholarship will impact your current financial aid. 

Are scholarships taxable?

Typically, scholarships are not taxable. However, it can depend on how the scholarship money is being used, according to federal tax laws. 

Scholarship dollars are tax-exempt if they are going to a degree-seeking candidate and are being used to pay for tuition and fees required for enrollment, books, supplies, and other educational expenses. 

Scholarships are not tax-exempt and you must report them as “gross income” if they are used to pay for room and board, travel, or optional equipment. 

Those with additional questions should reach out to the financial aid office of their prospective or current college or university. 


There are scholarships out there for everyone. No matter your financial status, academic standing, athletic ability, age, or passion, there are scholarships waiting for you. By dedicating time towards finding and applying for scholarships, you can greatly reduce the cost of your education and prevent student debt. 

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