A Practical Guide to Scholarships

For prospective college students, there is no doubt a great deal of excitement, expectation, and, of course, trepidation about where they are headed. Scholarships are a major part of the college prep, and while they are often regarded as overwhelming and confusing — something students don’t even want to bother with — they don’t have to be.

We’ve broken down the basics of scholarships for you. Where to find them, how to apply for them and why you (or your student) will definitely want to bother. However, before we get into all that…

What are Scholarships, Exactly?

Scholarships are a form of financial aid awarded to students to further their education based on any number of different criteria; scholarships usually reflect the values and purposes of the donor or founder of the award.

You will likely have heard scholarships discussed along with other sources of aid such as grants and student loans. Like scholarships, student loans are designed to help students pay for university tuition, books and living expenses. However, the difference is — and it's a key difference — loans must be paid back, with interest.

Grants for college are similar to scholarships, in that grants are not expected to be paid back. They are often seen as an investment on the part of the organization giving the grant. For that reason, grants often require much more compliance and reporting on the part of the recipient than scholarships. That being said, many scholarships still require a student to maintain a certain level of scholarly conduct and a minimum GPA.

In recent years, a common misperception regarding scholarships has formed: students from specific, non-white ethnic groups have more opportunities for scholarships based on their minority status within the US. However, a 2011 report illustrates that Caucasian students still receive a disproportionate share of private scholarships and merit-based grants. In fact, Caucasian students receive more than three times as much in merit-based grant and private scholarship funding as minority students.

The Different Scholarships Available

Despite inequities, the sheer number of scholarships available to students of every walk of life continues to grow. Virtually every prospective college student is eligible for some type of scholarship, and there is no limit to the number of scholarships available to one person. Here are some of the most common:


When people think of scholarships, academic achievement is probably what springs to mind first. Many high profile scholarships are based on academic merit — especially a student’s GPA. It’s worth noting that extracurriculars and volunteer work also tend to factor into merit-based awards. Some academic scholarships offer a relatively large payout – some even offering a “full ride” scholarship. While students will push themselves to win such giant sums, regardless of what sort of scholarship they actually end up with, simply earning a scholarship at all is an accomplishment that always look very good on a resume.


There are some students whose athletic abilities are so exceptional that universities all over the country vie to award them generous scholarships. Landing a stellar athlete can mean years of success — and money — for prominent universities. It should be noted, however, even for athletic scholarships, students must also be able to demonstrate a solid academic performance; scholastics are still the backbone of the collegiate experience.


Need-based scholarships are offered to students who would otherwise be unable to attend college due to financial constraints. These are offered at nearly every major university, with some schools even promising to offer need-based aid to any eligible student who would not be able to attend the school due to economic hardship.

Minority Groups

Almost every ethnic or minority group has a scholarship dedicated to recognizing and awarding exceptional students from a specific background; this includes women, who, while not a minority, were long considered a minority in the world of advanced degrees. There are also scholarships offered to minority groups in general, usually in the interest of promoting academic diversity. Funding for these scholarships comes from various sources, ranging from government programs to universities and private organizations.


For veterans of the U.S. armed forces, there are a variety of scholarships designed to enhance opportunities and increase the number of vets who go on to college and pursue lucrative careers. Veterans scholarships are offered by the U.S., as well as a variety of veterans groups, nonprofits, and even some private organizations.

Community Service

There are also a number of scholarships available for students who, as upstanding citizens, have made meaningful contributions to their community. These scholarships can be somewhat less common — and somewhat less known — than merit-based awards. This can limit the number of applicants and increase the chances of being a recipient.

How to Apply for Scholarships

When it comes to scholarships, the sooner you start researching what’s out there, the better. You’ll not only get to spend more time crafting your applications, you’ll get to apply to more scholarships, increasing your chances of landing some great financial aid.

Remember, every scholarship has its own distinct requirements. It’s smart to reach out to people in the know who can direct you to the applications worth your while. Both your high school guidance counselor and the financial aid office at universities you are applying to, or hoping to apply to, help students with their financial aid choices for a living. Getting in touch with them as early as possible will help them find what best suits you.

Of course, the 21st century student also has ample opportunity to do research on their own. In fact, public libraries are an excellent place to do some independent sourcing of possible scholarships.

Every scholarship has its own deadline, and it’s up to you to keep track of each on you are going for. You will likely have to fill out an application online, or print the application and turn it in via the post office prior to the deadline.

If and when you are finally awarded a scholarship, it’s worth knowing that you may never have direct access to the funds. In some cases the funds are sent directly to the college to cover your tuition and other academic expenses. However, if there is still something left over, some scholarships will give the remaining money to the recipient in the form of a check.

In Conclusion

It takes time to track down great scholarships, put together a great application and wait to hear back from an organization. However, for motivated students, they can be a fantastic investment. Well before your first day at college, applying for scholarships allows you to get a head start on the independence that makes the college experience such a unique and worthwhile transition into adulthood.