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How to pay for college with scholarships

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Scholarships are gift aid that allow students to pay for college without the obligation of repayment. While scholarships may not cover the entire cost of your education, applying for the right scholarships can save you a significant amount of money.

To help you pay for your college education with scholarships:

  1. Apply for the right scholarships.
  2. Contact your school’s financial aid office.
  3. Use a scholarship search engine.
  4. Fill out the application correctly.
  5. Stay organized.

5 tips for paying for college with scholarships

Before taking out student loan debt, it’s important to exhaust as many scholarship opportunities as you can. Here’s how to start.

1. Apply for the right scholarships

Too many students go for quantity over quality – they apply for tons of scholarships without evaluating whether they qualify.

There are scholarships for almost anything — from doing volunteer work to being a “Star Trek” fan, and everything in between. It can be tempting to apply for every scholarship available, but the trick is finding scholarships that truly fit your experience and interests. Applying for these types of scholarships with tight restrictions will narrow the applicant pool, giving you a better chance of winning.

2. Contact your school’s financial aid office

Institutional scholarships are a huge resource that many students overlook. School-wide scholarships typically aren’t widely advertised, and they tend to be more competitive, but they’re still worth considering. These awards are usually based on your academic performance.

To see what awards are available, contact your school’s financial aid office or check its website. You can also check with your school to see what department-specific scholarships are available. These often have a smaller applicant pool and are offered only to students enrolled in specific majors.

Many colleges allow both in- and out-of-state students to apply, so if you’re paying out-of-state tuition, these awards can significantly cut the cost of attendance.

Scholarship search engines aggregate scholarships from a variety of sources and allow you to filter based on your interests, experience, major and more. These search engines save you time when it comes to finding awards that match your needs.

A few of the top scholarship search tools to help you get started are:

4. Fill out the application correctly

It may seem obvious, but a key part of paying for college with scholarships is filling out the application correctly, on time and completely. Many applications require multiple steps that have specific deadlines, and if you miss even one deadline, you won’t be considered for the award.

To ensure that you properly apply, read through the details and have the necessary documentation on hand before starting the application. You may need to supply transcripts, a birth certificate, acceptance letters or specific awards you’ve been granted. Also closely read through the requirements of any essays you need to write; as basic as it sounds, following word count limits, directly addressing the prompt and removing grammatical errors will ensure that you put your best foot forward.

5. Stay organized

Test scores, essays, a resume — all of these common prerequisites for scholarships can make the process daunting. And if you’re submitting applications for multiple awards at once, it can even be hard to remember which scholarships you’ve applied for, which ones you still have to work on and where you are in the process. That’s why it’s essential to organize your scholarship list.

Keep track of your scholarships in whatever way makes sense to you, whether it’s a paper calendar, a Google Doc or a complex system of Post-It notes. Whichever system you use, do the following:

  • Organize scholarships by status (watching, applied and won).
  • Keep track of deadlines, award amounts and entry methods for individual scholarships.
  • Set earnings goals and track progress toward those goals.
  • Remember essay topics you’ve already written for future use.

Types of scholarships

There are multiple ways to score scholarship money. Common types of scholarships are:

  • External scholarships: Funded by private groups, including individual donors, businesses, nonprofits, foundations and other organizations.
  • School-sponsored scholarships: Provided by individual colleges and universities for students of those institutions.
  • Need-based scholarships: Given to students who demonstrate financial need, usually determined after filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
  • Merit-based scholarships: Given to students who have exceptional talent in a given discipline or academic field or who participate in volunteer work.

Renewable vs. nonrenewable scholarships

Renewable scholarships award scholarship winners a certain amount of money each year they attend college (usually up to four years). Receiving these awards for multiple years is often contingent upon maintaining a certain GPA or enrolling in a certain major.

Nonrenewable scholarships provide winning students with funds for only one year – in fact, previous winners are often prohibited from applying for the same nonrenewable scholarship two years in a row.

Other types of financial aid

If you can’t cover your entire education using scholarships, you still have options. The first thing to do is to fill out the FAFSA, which will let you know what federal aid you qualify for. You can also find financial aid from private companies. Some options include:

  • Grants: Grants are like scholarships in that they don’t need to be repaid, but they can come from the government, colleges and even corporations. Federal grants, like the Pell Grant, are typically offered based on financial need, while state or private institutional grants are available based on need, merit, student demographics and more.
  • Work-study: The federal work-study program connects students with part-time jobs while in school. Students will be paid at least the minimum wage in jobs that are more flexible with class schedules, and they can put those paychecks toward education costs.
  • Loans: Student loans can come from the government, banks and private institutions. Regardless of the type, the borrower is responsible for paying back the total loan amount with interest, but loans can cover up to the full cost of attendance.

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Written by
Hanneh Bareham
Student loans reporter
Hanneh Bareham specializes in everything related to student loans and helping you finance your next educational endeavor. She aims to help others reach their collegiate and financial goals through making student loans easier to understand.
Edited by
Student loans editor