Guide to Scholarships for College and Graduate School

Guide to Scholarships for College and Graduate School

Scholarships provide free money for your college or graduate school education. Sometimes referred to as gift aid, scholarships are designed to help students handle the cost of college and, unlike students, this sum never needs to be repaid. Read on to learn the difference between need-based grants and merit-based scholarships, get tips on improving your chances of earning a scholarship, and find out how to kick off your scholarship search.

The cost of college is high and rising. According to the College Board, in just the last 20 years, the average cost for tuition and fees has more than doubled at private four-year colleges, and it has more than tripled at public four-year colleges! This means that the actual sticker price for your college education is likely to be far greater than the amount you receive in federal financial aid.

To learn more about student loans and grants, take a look at our Guide to Financial Aid in Higher Education.

This is why scholarships and grants are so important. With an estimated $46 billion available in grants and scholarships each year through the U.S. Department of Education, and an additional $3.3 billion distributed annually through a wide variety of charitable foundations, religious organizations, professional associations, labor advocacy groups, corporations, private benefactors and more, scholarships are an important piece of the college tuition puzzle.

And unlike your student loans, you will not have to repay your grants or scholarships. Sometimes referred to as “gift aid,” scholarships and grants are intended to help you pay for college or graduate school with no future financial obligations. You may be required to meet certain conditions in order to retain your scholarship, including keeping a certain enrollment status and meeting some basic academic thresholds.

Beyond this, scholarships and grants are generally risk free, as is applying for them. In most cases, applying for scholarships will only cost you time and effort. But the more of both that you dedicate to the scholarship application process, the better your chances are of earning some extra financial help on your way to college or graduate school. Read on to find out what steps you should take to begin your application process, how you can improve your chances of landing a great scholarship, and where you can find some of the best and most competitive opportunities on the scholarship landscape.

Grants vs. Scholarships: What’s the Difference?

Before we dive into the scholarship application process, let’s clarify some terms. Grants and scholarships are similar in nature, and to an extent, these terms may be used interchangeably. Both are financial gifts that do not need to be repaid by their recipients. The primary distinction is that “grant” typically refers to a sum of money which is given for financial or need-based reasons. This is particularly true of most gift aid provided through the federal student aid program. Federal need-based awards like the Pell Grant and the FSEOG are awarded through the Department of Education to those with demonstrated financial need.

Every student planning to attend college or graduate school should first fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) every single year of intended college enrollment. Completing your FAFSA will allow the Department of Education to determine your eligibility for need-based grants.

By contrast, the term “scholarship” more frequently refers to financial gifts that are awarded based on merit whether in academics, athletics, the arts, extra-curricular activities, or organizational affiliation.

With that distinction noted, bear in mind that these terms are not mutually exclusive, and may be used interchangeably by some organizations and information resources.

How to Prepare for Scholarship Application

Gather Personal Materials

Gather any personal materials that you might need, or begin the process of acquiring those which will require some work or outside assistance. This will likely include biographical information, copies of identifying personal documents, and in the case of need-based grants, information about your financial outlook and assets. If you are a dependent, you will likely also be required to present information about the financial outlook and assets of your parents or guardians. If married, you’ll be required to provide this information about your spouse.

Request Academic Documents

Many scholarships will require you to meet certain academic performance thresholds, especially those scholarships which are primarily based on academic merit. Every scholarship fund uses its own set of rules for what you must submit and how it must be submitted. You may be required to submit academic transcripts, standardized test scores, or any special awards or certificates you have earned.

Some scholarship committees will allow you to submit these materials directly, but others may require sealed transcripts provided directly by your high school, college, testing agency, or other educational organization. Read the submission rules for each scholarship application very carefully and be sure to adhere to these instructions as you gather and submit the relevant materials.

And be sure that you give your self sufficient time to either secure these documents or have them transmitted to the appropriate scholarship selection committee.

Secure Letters of Recommendation

Similar to the broader college application process, the scholarship application process may require you to obtain letters of recommendation from teachers, coaches, professors, employers, or others who have had a direct and positive impact on your education. If you haven’t already obtained letters of recommendation as part of your application process (or if you’re already enrolled in college and several years removed from the application process), begin by compiling a list of those who might be willing to write a positive message on your behalf.

Consider teachers or coaches with whom you’ve formed a strong relationship, especially those who work in a subject area where you might be seeking a degree and scholarship. It’s important that those you approach have a strong sense of your work, your talents, and your goals if they are to produce compelling recommendations.

College applications and scholarship applications alike may call for between two and three letters of recommendation. And in cases where these letters aren’t required but will be accepted, a glowing endorsement could improve your standing. Once you narrow your list, approach your top choices with professionalism and gratitude. Whatever your relationship is with your favorite instructors, they are busy and they will be doing you a favor.

Show your appreciation by giving your top choices plenty of time to get it done. Just as with your school transcripts and other materials, allow sufficient time to make your requests, to schedule conferences with your top choices if needed, and to allow them the necessary flexibility to write something thoughtful.

What are Scholarship Committees Looking For?

Scholarships fall into a wide range of categories, as we’ll discuss in a subsequent section. The nature of a scholarship can certainly shape what a committee is seeking in a candidate. Naturally, an academic scholarship will require above-average academic performance; an athletic scholarship will, of course, require athletic involvement and ability; and a scholarship for religious affiliation may require a noteworthy level of involvement with a religious institution.

However, beyond these specifications, there are a number of standard features that most scholarship selection committees will seek out:

  • Grades—Most scholarships, even those which are not academic in nature, will likely carry a basic academic threshold including a minimum grade point average or class rank.
  • Test Performance—Some scholarships, especially those based on academic merit, may consider your test scores as part of your academic profile, including SAT/ACT scores and scores on advanced placement tests.
  • Extracurriculars—Scholarship committees are usually looking for well-rounded candidates who have been active in a wide range of pursuits, which may include school clubs, student government, performance or visual arts, athletic involvement, part-time employment, and more.
  • Service Activities—In addition to a well-rounded extracurricular résumé, many scholarships require you to demonstrate an active service résumé which might include community service, volunteer work, local activism, contributions through a religious organization, or participation in the PeaceCorps or AmeriCorps service groups.

When Can You Apply For Scholarships?

Every scholarship carries its own deadlines. Some have rolling deadlines and will accept submissions at any time of year; some may have one strict annual deadline for submission, and others may have several deadlines over the course of a year.

Know Your Deadlines! When you do begin searching for relevant scholarships, you’ll want to build a calendar and schedule you submissions accordingly. Some scholarships will be short and simple, while others may require a number of materials, letters of recommendation, and personal essays. Be aware of approaching deadlines and give yourself enough time to get your applications done properly.

And don’t hesitate to apply for relevant scholarships even if you’re already in college. Some experts suggest that existing enrollment might actually improve your chances by demonstrating your commitment to a chosen degree path.

How Many Scholarships Should You Apply For?

The short answer is that you should fill out as many scholarship applications as you can. But the longer answer is that you should prioritize the applications you fill out to get the best bang for your buck.

Filling out scholarship applications can be a time-consuming process. Between requesting transcripts, getting letters of recommendation, and writing personal essays, you could spend several weeks on a single application. So while there is a great benefit to filling out as many scholarship applications as you believe you qualify for, you may also want to choose your priorities based on a couple of factors:

  • Likelihood of Eligibility—Most importantly, don’t waste time completing applications for scholarships for which you likely won’t qualify. Read terms and conditions carefully, including the conditions for eligibility. Factors like age, enrollment status, basic academic thresholds, and economic considerations can all impact your eligibility. Dedicate your time only to scholarships for which you actually qualify.
  • Relevance—Prioritize scholarships which are of the greatest relevance to your personal outlook. If you have very strong grades and test scores, you may want to prioritize academic scholarships. If you have a close relationship with your local church, mosque, or synagogue, prioritize awards connected to your faith. Whether you’re active in community service, dedicated to the arts, employed part-time in your intended career field, or already on your path to a specific type of degree, there are scholarships with a direct connection to your areas of interest and achievement. Make those your top priority.
  • Value—You’ll also want to move the highest valued awards to the top of your list. Once you’ve determined relevance, the actual dollar amount should figure into your priorities. Remember that your primary goal is to cut down on the price-tag of your education. Obviously, the best scholarships are those which make the largest dent in your overall cost. Also be aware as you seek out the best value that some scholarship applications may actually charge a submission fee. Though this number is often modest, you should also consider that the vast majority of scholarship applications can be submitted free-of-charge. Certainly, you should prioritize free applications over those which charge a submission fee. If you feel that you have a competitive edge in earning a specific scholarship with a commission fee, do your due diligence to be sure that the scholarship fund is reputable and that its claims of past awards are verifiable.

Once you’ve prepared for the application process — which should include gathering your personal and academic materials, securing letters of recommendation, and identifying your top priorities in a scholarship — you’re ready to search for relevant scholarships.

*Remember that any need-based federal grants will be awarded based on your completion of the FAFSA. But for additional scholarships, you will likely need to pursue opportunities through a wide range of channels.

Get Guidance

Before you dig into your search, seek sound advice. Reach out to teachers, counselors, alumni, admissions officers, coaches, employers, or even scholarship reviewers for tips on excelling at the scholarship application process and for some direction in your search. Teachers and counselors, in particular, can help you kick off your search by pointing you toward relevant scholarship opportunities. Seek guidance from knowledgeable parties so that you can hone in on some of the top scholarships for which you are eligible and for which you are uniquely qualified.

Make Personal Contact

You can learn a lot from a phone call or email. Make a list of organizations and institutions with which you have some affiliation, then make contact. Find out if the organization in question offers any scholarships, or if they can otherwise connect you with a scholarship program. Begin with:

  • Your College
  • Your State
  • Religious Affiliations
  • Extra-curricular
  • Part Time Jobs
  • Youth Groups
  • Sports Teams

There are likely other affiliations in your life that could fit on this list. Reach out to as many relevant organizations as you can to ask about existing programs.

In fact, if your relationship with an employer or religious organization is especially strong, it may be possible to secure some financial support even in the absence of a formal scholarship fund. When it comes to financial support for college, it never hurts to ask!

Search Online Scholarship Directories

Online scholarship directories are certainly among the most popular avenues for securing financial gifts for college. A number of web-based directories offer expansive and constantly updated indexes of scholarships which can be browsed according to discipline, deadline, award size, and a host of other factors. These directories can be an incredibly rich source for active scholarships, as well as direct links to their applications. The following are among the leading online scholarship directories:

Completing Your Scholarship Applications


Refer back to your application prep. Now is the time to prepare a calendar of scholarship deadlines. Cross-reference your list of prioritized applications with your calendar and begin attacking your top scholarship choices based on the order in which they’re due.

Follow All Instructions

Read the instructions for your scholarship application carefully. Be sure that you have all the requested pertinent personal and financial information at hand, that you are submitting any academic documentation in the appropriate format, and that you understand what is being asked of you — both the terms of applying for the scholarship and the conditions for keeping your scholarship in good standing.

Writing Your Personal Essay

Many scholarships require personal statements or application essays. Prompts may vary extremely widely from straightforward questions about your academic history to more abstract creative writing tasks. Be prepared to do some writing as part of your application process. If writing is not a comfortable activity for you, prepare yourself for this challenge. This statement is a chance for you to set yourself apart from other worthy applications so do your best to use the forum wisely.

This means:

  • Answering the original prompt with a relevant essay
  • Adhering to instructions about length, contents, and format
  • Finding ways to highlight your creative, unique, and interesting qualities
  • Finding a balance between demonstrating confidence and avoiding arrogance
  • Using appropriate language, good grammar, and sound organization
  • Seeking proofing or editorial assistance from a trusted source

Professional Resume

Just like job applications, some scholarship applications call for the submission of a professional résumé. A résumé may be more likely if the scholarship is provided by a professional association, or a corporation connected to your field of interest. Produce a strong résumé without filler, one that has been well-proofed by a trusted source.

Submit! Submit! Submit!

Once you’ve completed the application, attached all relevant academic documentation, and polished your personal statement, it’s time to submit. Again, after prioritizing according to eligibility, relevance, value, and deadline. Submit as many completed scholarship applications as you can! The more you submit, the better your chances are of earning additional aid for your college education.

The Department of Education does point out that there is one limitation to your scholarship eligibility. The amount of your combined financial aid and scholarship awards may not exceed the cost of your college or graduate school education. This could limit your ability to receive financial aid or scholarships for which you are otherwise eligible.


It’s also worth noting that some scholarships may require a personal interview with an individual or even a full selection committee, though this step would likely only occur if you earned consideration as a finalist for a scholarship for which you have already applied. If this step is required as part of the application process, prepare as you would for an actual job application. Present for your interview on time, dressed professionally, employing respectful language, and — once again — finding the balance between modesty and confidence.

Types of Scholarships

To reiterate a point noted at the beginning of this guide, scholarship usually refers to merit-based gift aid, whereas the term grant typically refers to a need-based award. The gift aid outlined below is divided into these two broad categories: Need-Based Federal Grants and Merit-Based Scholarships.

Need-Based Federal Grants

Federal Pell Grants

Federal Pell Grants are awarded to low-income students based on need. Unlike loans, Pell Grants do not need to be repaid. Eligibility for Pell Grants is determined based on expected family contribution (EFC), and is available to undergraduate students in the amount of $6,345 during the 2020-2021 school year, though the amount may vary depending on financial need, the cost of the school, and full- or part-time student status. Some graduate students may also qualify for the Pell Grant in specialized circumstances.

Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG)

The Federal Supplemental Education Opportunity Grant is also provided to students based on demonstrated financial need and does not require repayment. This grant is available to undergraduate students who have already qualified for a Federal Pell Grant but who both require, and are eligible for, further financial support. Students may be given an amount between $1000 and $4000 each year on top of the sum provided through the Pell Grant program. The annual FSEOG grant amount will vary based on the extent of each student’s financial needs. Students must have completed a FAFSA, must claim full-time status, and must have qualified for a Pell Grant, in order to qualify for the FSEOG program.

Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grants

Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grants are awarded to college applicants who lost a parent or guardian who served as a member of the armed forces and gave their life in Iraq or Afghanistan following the events of September 11th. Eligible applicants must have been under 24 years of age, or already enrolled at least part-time in college at the time of the parent or guardian’s death. Additionally, eligibility is reserved only for those who qualify for all conditions of a Federal Pell Grant but the expected family contribution (EFC) condition. The sum for the Service Grant will typically match the amount awarded for Federal Pell Grants in a given year. For the 2020-2021 school year, that sum is capped at $6,345. As with other federal grants, recipients do not need to repay the awarded sum.

Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grants

The TEACH grant is distinct from other federal grants in that students must take certain courses, and commit to certain post-graduate jobs in order to be eligible. Failure to meet these conditions can result in the grant becoming a loan which must be repaid. To earn a TEACH grant, an applicant must complete a FAFSA, qualify for federal student aid, enroll in a TEACH-participating undergraduate or graduate school, enroll in a TEACH-Grant-eligible program, meet basic academic performance thresholds (which may vary per school and should be discussed with your school’s financial aid office), receive TEACH Grant counseling, and sign a TEACH Grant Agreement to serve.

This agreement commits the applicant, upon program completion, to serve in a high-need field, usually in a school or service agency serving low-income families, and for at least four complete academic years within eight years of graduation. TEACH Grant recipients will generally be awarded up to $4,000 per year, which does not need to be repaid if the conditions outlined above are all met.

Jump to our Guide to Financial Aid for College to learn more.

Merit-Based Scholarships

Scholarships are awarded for a wide range of possible achievements, affiliations, and career goals. As you speak with advisors or visit scholarship directories, you’ll be able to target your search based on the areas in which you are strongest, where your accomplishments are likeliest to stand out, or where you ultimately see your education and career headed. There are a number of ways to advance your search. Consider any of the following scholarship types, reach out to relevant institutions, and determine your eligibility:

  • Academic—Those with excellent grades and test scores are encouraged to pursue scholarships given on academic merit.
  • College Based—Many colleges give out their own scholarships on the basis of merit, need, or both. In fact, elite universities like Harvard famously avail enormous sums of scholarship money to qualified candidates. Reach out to your college (or prospective colleges) to learn about possible college-based scholarships.
  • Demographic—Many scholarships are awarded based on race, nationality, creed, ethnicity, immigration status, gender orientation, disability, religion, and more. If you fall into a distinctive demographic, there may be scholarships designed for members of your community.
  • Needs-Based—Many scholarships include a financial-need threshold in addition to factors relating to performance, achievement, or affiliation.
  • Career-Based—Many professional associations, private companies, and larger corporations provide scholarships based on existing service in a specific field or based on demonstrated commitment to a specific career path. Some employers may even help you pay for college based on your commitment to the organization in question.
  • Athletic—One of the most prominent forms of scholarship, this is given to those who excel in a specific sport, and who intend to participate in this sport at the collegiate level.
  • Military—Veterans, service-members, and in some cases, spouses and children of veterans or service-members, will have access to scholarship funds through the GI Bill as well as through an array of other awards sponsored by military groups, veterans associations, and military advocacy groups.
  • Arts—Standout artists in theatre, music, visual arts, digital arts, and more may be eligible for gift aid from arts alliances, foundations, and private benefactors.
  • Charitable Foundations, Non-Profit Groups, Government Agencies, etc—A wide range of charitable and non-profit groups also make scholarships available based on a wide range of qualifying factors, especially financial need and academic performance.

Retaining Your Scholarship

Just as with the rules for eligibility, the rules for keeping your scholarship can vary widely from one award to the next. Many scholarships are given as one-time awards with no strings attached.

Other scholarships may only be retained when a student meets certain conditions. This is especially true for scholarships that are distributed across multiple years of college or graduate school.

Many such scholarships will require the recipient to retain a minimum GPA, especially academic scholarships. An athletic scholarship will likely require continued participation in the sport in question while a scholarship given by an employer may require a minimum length of subsequent employment with the company.

Be sure the you understand what is expected of you as the recipient of a grant or scholarship, and take every step to meet these expectations. This gives you the best chance of making the most out of your gift aid, and out of your higher education experience.


For more tips on paying for school, and guidance on what you can expect from the process, check out our Guide to the True Cost of College. Also check out College Raptor’s scholarship finder.

Photo by Edu Lauton on Unsplash

Find the Best Grad Schools in Each State

Find the Best Online Master’s Programs in Each State

The 50 Best Online Master’s Programs in the US

Check out the College Admissions Process Guide for additional tips on finding, applying to, and getting into the college of your choice.

See our Resources Guide for much more on studying, starting your job search, and more.

Do you have a question about this topic? Ask it here