When it comes to finding money to pay for college, we hear a lot about grants, but scholarships are just as helpful. Like Pell grants, they do not have to be repaid as long as stipulations are met. Unlike grants from the federal government, however, there are thousands of different kinds of scholarships and they are each slightly different. To take advantage of this other source of “free” money, you need to understand what scholarships are and how to find the right ones for you.

**Note: most of our info here was taken from ScholarshipLibrary.com, which lets users search for scholarship info without getting spammed.

What are scholarships?

Webster’s Dictionary defines scholarships as a “a grant-in-aid to a student (as by a college or foundation),” and that’s not a bad definition. But for your own practical needs, all you need to know is that scholarships are usually money that organizations give to students to help them pay for their schooling. They can award that money to any applicant for any reason, but it’s usually based on the applicant’s achievements in academics, community involvement, and other areas.


Scholarships can come from any kind of organization you can think of. Your local Masonic lodge, Coca-cola, your parents’ employer, the Federal Government, Brown University, the State of Texas, and the Sierra Club all offer scholarships to college students. And these scholarships usually support those organizations’ goals. For example, the Texas Tennis and Education Foundation awards $1,000 in scholarships to college-bound tennis players who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford college.

Scholarships are usually awarded to one or more students who have been chosen out of a pool of applicants because their application stood above the rest. This means that, when you apply for a scholarship, you are competing against other applicants for a limited number of scholarships. In short, bring your “A” game in all your application materials. Assume that all other applicants will be doing the same thing.

If you are chosen for a scholarship, you may receive the award as a check or it may go directly to your student account at your college or university. Awards given by private organizations usually come to the student as a check. But awards given by a college or university or the government will typically go directly to the student’s account. In this case, tuition and fees will be taken out of the award amount before the student receives the rest.

What’s the catch?

While it would be nice to believe that scholarships are free money that you use however you please, every scholarship has stipulations. If you don’t use your scholarship as stipulated by the organization that awarded it to you, you may find the organization asking for their money back. Understand exactly how you can and can’t use your scholarship before you book that scholarship-funded trip to Puerto Vallerta or drop out of school. Dropping out of college might cause you to have to repay your scholarship, even if you’ve already spent the money.

What are the benefits of scholarships?

As long as you adhere to the stipulations of your scholarship, you never have to pay it back. It was given to you out of the goodness of someone’s heart and they ask for nothing in return except for you to make the most of it. This makes scholarships just as good as Pell grants and other grants.

What are the drawbacks?

Scholarships are competitive and so the application process can be time-consuming. Also, unlike Pell grants or other forms of government financial aid, there’s no guarantee that you will receive anything, even if you meet all their criteria. As stated above, only so many awards can be given, so naturally someone gets left out. That person might be you, meaning that you have to be ready to get nothing for all the work you did.

Also as stated above, once you accept the scholarship, you are expected to meet all of the scholarship’s stipulations. Falling below a certain GPA, dropping out of school, or failing to meet other requirements can result in a stress-inducing loss of scholarship, leaving you scrambling for other funding. Not that this is that different from Pell grants, which require that you pay back the grant if you fail to complete the term, or take enough credit hours in the term, for which you received the grant.

Bottom line: if people are going to give you free money for college, they expect you to use it to further your college education. Or give it back.

How much are scholarships worth?

It really depends. The value of a scholarship can range from a few hundred to tens of thousands. Also, some scholarships are only given for one year or semester, others for your entire college career as long as you meet requirements. The only way to get a better idea than this is to start looking at scholarships that might fit you and see how much each one is worth.

Do you qualify for scholarships?

Chances are, yes. But this question is better asked this way: what scholarships do you qualify for? Scholarships vary so much in their requirements that it’s tough to say them all in one paragraph.

That last one is pretty important. Luckily, there are scholarships out there for virtually every category of society you can think of. Before you start trying to decide which scholarships you qualify for, you might want to start with listing all the categories you fit into. Think of where you fit in terms of the following:

  1. State – Every state offers scholarships in a variety of categories. A simple Google or a visit to your financial aid or guidance office will turn up a good list of the scholarships your state offers.
  2. College/University – Most scholarships are offered by colleges and universities themselves. Once students are accepted and register at one school, they can start looking into the scholarships that are offered at that school.
  3. Major/Career – Having an idea of what you want to do for a career can help you narrow down your search. It’s common for majors at colleges and universities to provide scholarships to their best and brightest. And organizations that promote certain careers (Ex: The American Dental Association) also offer scholarships to those interested in entering their fields (Ex: dentists).
  4. Race/Ethnicity – What ethnic groups do you belong to? Chances are, there are organizations that promote the welfare of those ethnic groups by providing scholarships to students of that race or ethnicity.
  5. Religion – Religions also try to provide scholarships to members of their congregations.
  6. Disability – People with disabilities may find that they have many more doors open to them when it comes to scholarships. Hearing-impaired, cancer-survivor, diabetic, or students that suffer from any one of dozens of other maladies qualify for scholarships.
  7. Extracurricular Activities – This doesn’t just include sports. It also includes hobbies (surfing, chess, etc.) and community service (food banks, YMCA, etc.).
  8. Military Experience – From government and non-government organizations, military service people have quite a few sources scholarships.
  9. Parent’s Employer/Associations – It’s not all about you. Your parent’s employer, union, or any other trade organizations they belong to can be a source of scholarships.

We recommend that students sit down and make a list of all the categories that they belong to before embarking on their search for scholarships. Doing so will help you focus your energy and make the most of your time.

In short, knowing if you qualify for scholarships is more about knowing what scholarships fit you than meeting a certain standard.

How do you apply for scholarships?

Every scholarship is different, and so every application process is a little different. This is another reason why it’s important to narrow down your scholarship options, because you will have to do something different for each one. Here is what you can expect from most of them:

  • The applicant should has to be in a certain grade in school (graduating high school senior, college freshman, etc.).
  • The applicant has to show noteworthy performance in academics, leadership, and/or community involvement. This might include sending in your transcripts.
  • The applicant might have to write an essay on a given topic and/or provide letters of recommendation or references.
  • The applicant might have to prove their affiliation with the organization awarding the scholarship. A football-related organization will likely require that the applicant prove they are indeed a football player, for instance.
  • The application will have deadline, so be aware of that and don’t turn your materials in late.

As mentioned earlier, scholarships are competitive so put your best foot forward. As with a college application, get friends and family to read your materials and help you polish them up before you send them in. Take the time to make sure your materials stand out because they will need to for you to get the scholarships you need.

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