Our Guide: How To Apply for Scholarships

Education today can be expensive. According to data, the average cost of college in the United States has more than doubled in the 21st century. The Federal Reserve estimates that students owe more than $1.77 trillion in student loan debt. Students in other countries are graduating with debt, too, while many aren’t going to school at all because of the cost. Scholarships, which are financial gifts that aren’t repaid, are a great way to cut education costs. How do they work? In this guide, we’ll discuss how to apply for scholarships, where you can find scholarships and how to identify legitimate award opportunities.

Large and small providers offer scholarships, which are financial awards you don’t need to repay. To find the best scholarships, you’ll need good research and organization. Your odds of winning increase when you apply to local scholarships and scholarships with narrower eligibility criteria.  

What are scholarships?

A scholarship is a type of financial aid given to students. Unlike a loan, scholarships are gifts that don’t need to be paid back. They’re typically awarded based on criteria like academic merit, athletic accomplishments, research experience, professional experience, financial need, and identity. Some scholarships are distributed just once as a lump sum, while others are renewable. There may also be restrictions on the scholarship’s use; some can only cover tuition, while others can be used for other school-related fees, textbooks and even living expenses.

How do you apply for scholarships?

Scholarships are free money, so they’re one of the best ways to fund your education. How do you start applying? Here’s our round-up of the best tips:

Start researching early

Scholarships are restricted to certain age groups (or by where you are in your schooling years), but it’s never too early to start researching! You can compile a list of scholarships you know you’ll be eligible for, as well as ones you could become eligible for depending on your academic record, extracurriculars and other factors. Doing a lot of research now will save you time in the future. Research also helps you find scholarships with early deadlines or wider age eligibility. You can apply as practice, and then if you don’t win, you can apply again the next time the scholarship opens.

Focus on good organization

Applying for scholarships requires organization and close attention to detail. It’s a good idea to create a spreadsheet or a document where you compile all the scholarships you’re applying to, their deadline dates, the eligibility criteria and other details. The College Essay Guy recommends creating a separate email just for scholarships, so when you start getting emails from databases, scholarship providers and others, everything will automatically be in one place.

Get all your materials together

All scholarships require information from you, such as essays, academic transcripts, letters of recommendation, proof of honors and so on. Scholarship providers will specify what exactly they need from you, so read each description carefully. As part of your research, always include a list of materials you’ll need for each scholarship, so you can check off each one and never forget anything. Be sure to put your materials in a convenient location, too, so when you apply to the next scholarship, you know exactly where to find your stuff.

Research local scholarships

Scholarships from large providers offer the most money, but their wider criteria mean they get the most applicants, too. It’s perfectly fine to apply to these scholarships, but you want to consider local ones, too. These are limited to students within your area and they’re less well-known, so you’re more likely to win the award. They can be harder to find, however. Start by asking your school’s financial aid office and community organizations. Scholarships360 also suggests finding the scholarships students local to your area have won.

Apply to the scholarships you have the best chance of winning first

In a perfect world, you would apply to dozens of scholarships to increase your chances, but very few people have that much time on their hands. Depending on where you are in your education, you’ll also be busy applying to schools, securing new employment, dealing with visas or managing other responsibilities. You want to be strategic with your scholarship applications. Don’t go for the ones that offer the most money first. Start with the ones you have the best shot at winning. That includes local scholarships and scholarships with very narrow criteria that you meet.

Make your essays stand out

Scholarship applications will ask you questions about yourself and why you should win the money. The Scholarship System describes 10 common essay questions, such as “How will this scholarship make a difference for you?” “Tell us about yourself,” and “Who has been your biggest inspiration or influence?” Every applicant is answering these questions, so how do you make your application stand out? Avoid generic, vague answers that could have been written by anyone. Draw from your life experiences, so your essay can’t be mistaken for anyone else’s. While you should express your personality, emotions, dreams and goals, you should still maintain a professional tone. Before sending out your application, proofread it, so it’s free from typos or grammatical issues. Once you have a great essay, you can adjust it for other scholarships.

Think outside the box

When you’re identifying scholarships you’re eligible for, you want to think about things like your academic record, aspects of your personal identity, your volunteer history, past or present employment, talents and athletic accomplishments. That said, don’t limit yourself to “normal” scholarships! GoingMerry has a list of unusual scholarships like “Stuck at Prom,” an award for students who make the best prom outfits using Duck-brand duct tape. Winners of the best dress and best tux get $10,000 apiece, while four runner-ups get $500. The stranger scholarships are often niche, which limits the candidate pool and increases your chances of winning. Always think about how much work you’ll need to do and whether the amount of money you might win is worth it.

Where can you find scholarships?

Finding scholarships can be one of the hardest steps in the application process. The first step is to see if the school you’re attending offers scholarships you qualify for. The financial aid office should have the information you need. To expand your search, we also recommend looking at online databases. There are more now than ever, such as InternationalScholarships.com, a financial aid database for students around the world. Search by award name, what you’re studying, where you’re studying and where you’re from. You’ll then get a list of applicable scholarships with eligibility information, the host country, relevant programs and the scholarship amount. Here’s a sampling of other databases to check out:


Founded in 1998, Scholarships.com is one of the leading databases for scholarship information. Using the site’s search engine, you can find awards targeted to your interests and qualifications among the 3.7 million scholarships on the database. There are resources for students, parents, educators and scholarship providers.


When members create a free profile, they get access to a database of 1.5 million college scholarships. You’ll just need to fill out a questionnaire with your contact information, schools you’re interested in and potential majors. Fastweb then matches you to scholarships you qualify for. Once you’re a member, you can add additional details to your profile, like extracurriculars, employment and more. Fastweb also helps students find internships and part-time jobs.


Based in Colorado, USA, Peterson’s hosts over 1.9 million scholarships and 4,000+ scholarship providers. Students can find scholarships, prizes, grants and fellowships to pay for a variety of educational institutions. Peterson’s also offers prep resources for high school, college, graduate school, military school and careers.


ProFellow is a leading online resource for professional and academic fellowships. To access the site’s free database of over 2,600 fellowships and fully funded graduate programs, you’ll need to create a free account. The information you provide helps the site filter awards relevant to your background and interests.

Fellowships are programs connected to academic and professional institutions. Check out our article for fellowship opportunities.


Scholars4dev, which stands for Scholarships for Development, is a list of international scholarships open to applicants from around the world. It’s designed specifically for students from developing countries interested in development-related fields. It publishes lists such as “Top 25 Foreign Government Scholarships for International Students” and “Top 10 Scholarships in France for Foreign Students.”

How do you know which scholarships are legitimate?

There are lots of scams targeting students who need funds for school. A blog from the University of South Florida explains some of the most common scams, such as scholarships for profit, which require an application fee. Companies engaged in this scam may pay out a scholarship eventually, but the amount is often very small compared to how much they’ve pocketed in application fees. Legitimate scholarships never ask for an application fee, so you should never pay one, even if it’s just a few dollars.

Companies also scam students when they “guarantee” a scholarship or offer “exclusive” scholarship databases. Legitimate scholarships never guarantee a win or hide information behind a paywall. Students should watch out for unsolicited scholarship offers, too. Winning a scholarship you never applied for is an obvious scam, but if you’re applying to a lot of scholarships at once, you may not realize you’ve encountered a scam. That’s why it’s so important to track all the scholarships you’ve applied to.

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