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How to Apply for Scholarships

College can be expensive. And if you’re in high school, you might be wondering how to pay for college in a few months or years.

Maybe you’ve thought about student loans as a way to pay for school. But here’s the thing: Student loans aren’t the only way to pay for college. It’s totally possible to pay for college without going into debt because there are plenty of ways to get free money to cash flow your education. (Yes, free!) But how?

Scholarships.

There are thousands upon thousands of scholarship opportunities out there. And even if you apply for scholarships that are only a few hundred dollars, trust me, those awards will add up. I’m going to walk you through how to apply for scholarships so you can pay for college without debt.

How to Apply for College Scholarships

I have all the faith in the world that you can win scholarships for college. Why? Because that’s how I paid for college! It’s true—I won $500,000 in scholarships to pay for my tuition, books, room and board . . . everything. It was hard work, but y’all, those long hours spent writing scholarship applications paid off (literally). And I know you can do it too!

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Before we get started, know that the rules and requirements for each scholarship application will change depending on the scholarship. But generally, when you’re learning how to apply for college scholarships, these are the steps you’ll want to take first:

1. Fill out the FAFSA.

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a form schools use to figure out if you qualify for financial aid and how much financial aid to offer you. That money could come in the form of scholarships, grants, work study or student loans.

Scholarships and grants are amazing resources because you don’t have to repay them—ever. It’s the same with work study—you only work during your school years or a few semesters to cover your expenses. With student loans on the other hand, you’ll spend years of your life after graduation making monthly payments. Plus, interest rates on loans means you end up paying way more than you originally borrowed. That’s not a good strategy to pay for school because it costs you so much more in the long run. (Remember: Use the FAFSA to get scholarships, grants and work study funds only.)

How to Fill Out the FAFSA:

  1. First of all, don’t panic! This form is straightforward.
  2. Go to the fafsa.gov home page and follow the prompts.
  3. Sign and submit the form. Your part is done!

Once you hit that submit button, the form will be sent to the financial aid offices at your schools of choice. They’ll crunch some numbers, and if you qualify for aid, they’ll send you an award letter telling you what kind of financial aid you qualify for, and how much.

A lot of people wonder if you have to fill out the FAFSA to go to college. It’s not required, but if filling it out means you could potentially get thousands of dollars in scholarships and grants to help cover the cost of college, then why the heck not? There’s no income cutoff to be eligible for aid (except for the Pell Grant, which has an expected family contribution limit). And if you fill it out every year you’re in college, you could get an award each year. Now that’s a wise way to pay for college.

2. Talk with your guidance counselor.

If you have access to guidance counselors or financial aid officers at your school, ask them for help finding scholarships. That’s what they’re there for! There are all kinds of Educational Opportunity Programs out there—like the Federal TRIO Programs that help students from disadvantaged backgrounds, first-generation college students and others. Your school should be able to give you more information about similar programs, or you can research them on the U.S. Department of Education’s website.

Your guidance counselors will probably also know about scholarships offered by local community organizations or businesses who want to help college students. And don’t forget about state and regional scholarship programs (like the Tennessee Promise Scholarship) that offer money for in-state or local tuition. Your guidance counselors or financial aid officers may be able to help you start the application process by getting you in touch with those contacts. Sometimes, all it takes is a short essay to apply.

3. Contact college financial aid offices.

When it comes to finding scholarships that come directly from colleges, your best bet is to reach out to the financial aid offices at each college you apply to, or to look up scholarship information on the college websites. Most schools offer both need-based and merit-based scholarships and will lay out all the details you need to know.

And get this: Did you know some scholarships awarded by colleges have nothing to do with academics? That’s right! Not all scholarships are for straight-A students or whizzes who score a perfect 36 on the ACT. Plenty of money is available to students who have incredible leadership skills, attend a local university, or have an impressive list of extracurriculars. Be sure to look into those other scholarship options.

4. Ask your parents’ employers if they offer scholarships.

Here’s a place not many students think about checking when they’re searching for scholarships: your mom and dad’s employers. They might not always promote that they offer scholarships, but many companies do provide scholarships to their employees’ kids. So, ask your parents to connect with their HR department.

5. Research organizations in your field of interest.

If you know you want to major in engineering, spend some time researching the college scholarships offered by NASA, the American Society of Naval Engineers, or whatever organization is most related to the specific type of engineering you’re interested in. Going to school for culinary arts? The National Restaurant Association, American Culinary Federation, and plenty of other organizations like those want to pay for talented students in that field to hone their skills.

Take some time to research and find the scholarships that apply to your specific career goals and industry. Money is out there.

6. Use an online scholarship search tool.                         

Sometimes you just need help filtering through all the options out there. Scholarship search tools and databases will help you sort through thousands of scholarships to find the scholarships that best fit your situation, interests and life experience. Use a few search tools if you can because you might find different results. Then, once you have a few lists, you can create your own short list of scholarships you want to apply for first.

Even with a scholarship finder, there’s no way around putting in time and effort to apply for these scholarships. Some might ask you to write essays, answer tough questions, or even go through an interview—but others could require little to no effort. If you treat the scholarship search process like a part-time job by spending at least an hour a day filling out applications, it will pay off.

7. Get—and stay—involved in extracurricular activities.

Extracurriculars are those activities outside of the classroom, like volunteer work, sports, church involvement and social clubs. Getting involved in a variety of extracurriculars will open up the number of scholarships you can apply for later—and it can make your applications more appealing to the scholarship judges. They’ll want to see that you have a range of experience and interests outside of getting a good GPA. Start getting involved now so you can build your resumé and set yourself up for success when it’s time to start applying for scholarships!

Tips When Applying for Scholarships

The process of getting scholarships starts way before you even sit down to work on an application. If you’ve built your resumé throughout high school by taking on leadership roles, volunteering, and being active in your community, you’ll have plenty of stories and experience to mention when it’s time to start applying. Here are a few other tips to remember when you’re applying for scholarships:

  • Get to know the scholarship program. Learn about the organization and their mission, as well as why they’re offering the scholarship.
  • Pay attention to the scholarship details. This is so important! Follow all the instructions, pay attention to word limits, and don’t miss deadlines. You’ll be ahead of the crowd just by following these basics.
  • Write a strong essay. You want to show the scholarship judges how awesome you are, not just tell them! Use powerful examples and stories to demonstrate the qualities and experiences they’re looking for. Essays are a fantastic opportunity to stand out in the application process, so putting in the time to write a strong essay can really pay off.
  • Recycle essays. Once you have a few strong essays, you can tweak them to reuse in future scholarship applications. (But make sure the content in your essay is relevant to the scholarship you’re applying for!)
  • Apply to several scholarships. It is a numbers game, but still make sure to submit quality applications. It doesn’t help to apply to a ton of scholarships if your application is sloppy or incomplete.

Cash Flow Your College Education

Applying for scholarships is just one of the ways you can cash flow your college education. There are plenty of other things you can do to graduate with zero dollars of debt! That’s right, zero.

Want to learn more about how to go to school without loans? Check out my friend Anthony ONeal’s book, Debt-Free Degree. It’s the book all college-bound students—and their parents—need to prepare for this next step. Grab a copy today or start reading for free to get plenty of tips on going to college debt-free!

Frequently Asked Questions

Let’s look at some common questions parents and students have about how to get scholarships.

What’s a grant versus a college scholarship?

When it comes to financial aid, people often use the terms grant and scholarship interchangeably, but they’re not the same thing. College grants are typically need-based, meaning they’re given to students facing financial difficulties. Scholarships are normally merit- or need-based. Both are free money.

When’s the best time to apply for scholarships?

If you’re in high school, I want you to prioritize building up your resumé during your freshman and sophomore years. The best time to apply for scholarships is your junior and senior year. This will prepare you with valuable experiences you can share in your scholarship applications and help you stand out from other applicants. (For overachievers, some scholarships are available for students as young as five years old, but you don’t need to start applying that early.)

I want you to treat applying for scholarships like a part-time job during your junior and senior years. A few hours of applications a week could bring in thousands of dollars, so make sure to put the time in. And don’t forget, you can continue applying for scholarships all throughout college too.

Where do I find college scholarships?

You can find college scholarships in a ton of places. Here are a few places I recommend you start looking to find scholarships:

  • Federal and state agencies, like scholarships.com
  • Your college’s website
  • A targeted Google search (search “scholarship” plus your city or state, interests or areas of study)
  • Scholarship directory books, like The Ultimate Scholarship Book
  • Local foundations, businesses and religious or community groups
  • Free scholarship search websites, like Fastweb, Cappex or College Board
  • The Department of Education

How will I know if I won a scholarship?

Unfortunately, scholarship checks don’t just appear in mailboxes after the judges select a winner. If you’ve won, you’ll likely receive a phone call, email or even a letter telling you how much you’ve won and the next steps to accept the award. (For some scholarships you’ll need to confirm that you accept the award by writing a letter to the committee or filling out an online acceptance form.) Scholarship judges usually take about three months to pick a winner after the entry deadline passes, so if you don’t hear back by that time, you might want to check on your application.  

Kristina  Ellis

About the author

Kristina Ellis

Kristina Ellis is a bestselling author who believes no student should be burdened by loans. Drawing from her experience of earning over $500K in college scholarships, Kristina helps thousands of students graduate debt-free through her syndicated columns, podcast appearances, online courses and books. She’s a co-host of The Ramsey Show, the second-largest talk show in America, which reaches 18 million weekly listeners, and she appeared in the award-winning documentary Borrowed Future. Kristina has appeared on NBC News, Business Insider, Fox & Friends, USA Today and Yahoo!, where she’s shared practical, real-world strategies for going to college without debt. Learn More.

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