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Searching for Scholarships

Free money. It may sound too good to be true, but that’s exactly what scholarships provide for students looking for help paying their college education.

Several small scholarships or one large scholarship may take care of a student’s college tuition for a year or more, and, unlike student loans, scholarships don’t have to be repaid.

Some students think they must have straight A’s to be considered for scholarships, but this isn’t true. Many are not related to academic abilities or grade-point averages. Students can get scholarships based on athletic ability, artistic talent, cultural background, place of employment, religious affiliation, planned field of study, community service work and more.

The first thing students need to do is start early. Deadlines depend on the scholarship, so they should start looking at the beginning of their senior year in high school or even earlier. A good place to start is in the student’s high school counseling office. Counselors will know about opportunities available for students graduating from a particular high school, and they may even know about other scholarships.

Students also will find a good resource for available scholarships through their local library. Books about financial aid and scholarship guides are available there.

Another potential resource for scholarships is businesses. Students should talk to their parents about whether their workplace offers scholarships to the children of employees. Students who work in fast food restaurants, department stores and supermarkets also should ask their employers if they award college scholarships.

Once students get done investigating local opportunities, there are many free scholarship databases available online. Some websites offer paid searches that suggest students can get access to unlisted scholarships, but with the amount of information available for free through the Web, students should not have to pay to find what they need.

View our Scholarship Search Tools for a list of free scholarship databases.

Students need to be careful when searching for scholarships online so that they don’t get scammed. Typical scams involve application fees, guarantees of scholarships, fees for publicly available money and requests for an unusual amount of personal information.

Those who think they have become a victim of scholarship fraud should call the Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General  at (800) 447-8477 or file an online complaint through the Federal Trade Commission. Fraud also should be reported to local law enforcement agencies and the State Attorney General’s Office.

Once students have found scholarships they are interested in, they need to get some basic information together. Many scholarships will request a photo, a resume, recommendations, a high school transcript and an essay, so those items should be kept in a file so that they are easily available.

Students can save themselves time by keeping track of the organizations and activities they have participated in since ninth grade and their awards and achievements. This will make writing an academic resume that much easier.

Written recommendations should be obtained early from teachers, counselors, employers and others. These sources probably will receive multiple requests for recommendations, so it’s best for students to ask as soon as possible. Students should avoid getting recommendations from other students or relatives.

Essays are one of the most important parts of college scholarship applications. It may be possible to use one essay on multiple applications, so students should keep a copy of everything they submit. Essays can then be edited to meet the word count and formatting requirements for different scholarship applications.

Essay questions can be about a diverse range of topics including current events, personal achievements, major influences, future plans or financial need. The most important thing after writing an essay is to make sure that someone proofreads it. There is nothing that will get students kicked out of a scholarship applicant pool faster than turning in an application filled with typos and poor grammar. High school English teachers are a good source for providing guidance with essays or proofreading.

Another tip for filling out scholarship applications is to follow the instructions. While this may seem obvious, it is very important. Many applications are eliminated in an initial screening that checks for spelling errors, information left off and other criteria. Students should follow the length limit for scholarship essays and make sure to only send the materials requested. 

Students also should make photo copies of the original scholarship application and work off those copies. Once they have a final version, they can neatly print the answers on the original.

Before submitting the scholarship application, students should photo copy it for their records. It should be mailed using a delivery confirmation service so that students have proof that they submitted the application before the deadline.

The last thing to remember is that the student’s local university Financial Aid Office can be a great resource for finding out more about how to pay for a college education.

For a more detailed list of free scholarship databases available online, view our Scholarship Search Tools web page.