One of the best ways to subsidize your college education is by obtaining a scholarship. As such, you should keep in mind the criteria that selection committees use in awarding scholarships.

There are two types of scholarships available — need-based and merit-based. Need-based scholarships are awarded based on financial need. Merit-based scholarships, by contrast, are awarded to students who have distinguished themselves in one or more of the following areas.


Almost every scholarship involves some degree of academic achievement. Scholarship committees want to make sure applicants can cope with the rigors of college. As such, they will look at a combination of indicators (usually GPAs and test scores) and eliminate applicants that fall beneath a certain cutoff point. That being said, while a high GPA is important, most committees will also take into account your class schedule and reward you for taking challenging courses.


Leadership means that an individual has the motivation, independence, and ability to complete projects and lead others. And while leadership can be shown in a variety of ways, scholarship committees typically focus on extracurricular activities or work experience. Committees tend to look for applicants that can work well with a variety of people, including teachers, administrators, co-workers, employers, and even various government and civic organizations.


Scholarship committees value applicants with personality and creativity. Creativity can be shown through an applicant’s ability to play a musical instrument, sing, or draw. Applicants can also illustrate their creativity through less conventional means such as graphic design, auto repair, and computer programming. The important thing is to demonstrate that you are well-rounded and unique.

Physical Fitness

While colleges and universities do award scholarships solely on the basis of physical fitness — usually to exceptional student-athletes — many scholarships have some kind of physical-fitness component. As with creativity, committees are looking for applicants who are well-rounded — and that includes physical fitness. This does not mean you need to be star varsity athlete; it just means you need to demonstrate a commitment to health and fitness, perhaps by jogging regularly, by participating in some kind of intramural sport, or even by riding your bike to work.


Scholarship committees like applicants who take an active interest in others and in the community. That being said, service should not be forced or faked. Committees need to be convinced that service is part of your life, not just a mechanism for getting a scholarship. Don’t worry, this doesn’t mean you have to join the Peace Corps; you can show meaningful service simply by volunteering at a retirement center or school fundraiser. The important thing is be sincere and consistent.

Courage & Determination

In addition to successes — academic, creative, physical, or otherwise — committees also value applicants who have demonstrated courage and determination in the face of difficult obstacles. These obstacles can range from physical, mental, or social handicaps to financial problems. The important thing is to explain to scholarship committees what these obstacles were, how you overcame them in order to achieve your goals, and, most importantly, what you learned about yourself in the process.

Finally, while each of these criteria is important, bear in mind that many scholarships will typically focus only one or two areas, so don’t be discouraged if you are weak in one or more of these areas. Simply identify your strengths and then find the scholarships that favor those strengths. With the number of scholarships available — and they are legion — chances are you will find a scholarship that is perfect for you.


Kari Whitaker is a technical as well as creative writer. In addition to articles on education and careers, she also enjoys writing short stories, essays, and poetry.

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