7 tips for how to get a full college scholarship

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Paying for college without student loans is challenging, to say the least. The good news is that many colleges and universities offer full-tuition and full-ride scholarships to eligible students. Full-tuition scholarships cover tuition and fees, while full-ride scholarships often include tuition and fees, textbooks, room and board and other expenses. Here are some tips to help you get a scholarship that will cover most, if not all, of your educational expenses.

7 tips for getting a full-ride scholarship

Whether you aim for a full-ride or full-tuition scholarship, you could save yourself from taking out tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt. Here are some steps you can take to improve your chances of getting one.

1. Start preparing early

All of the tips below can help you get a scholarship that covers most or all of your college expenses, but for the most part, they’re not things you can do at the last minute.

Working to obtain a full-tuition or full-ride scholarship can take years of dedication, so it’s important to start early in high school instead of waiting until your last year or two. If you’re a parent, work with your child and help them understand the steps they’ll need to take to set themselves up for college success.

2. Perform well in high school academically

Getting good grades and test scores in high school is key to qualifying for the best scholarships colleges and universities have to offer.

Unfortunately, schools typically don’t set minimums for GPAs and test scores to earn a full-ride or full-tuition scholarship, so it’s in your best interest to do as best as you can to be competitive against other incoming students.

3. Take challenging classes

While your grades and test scores are important, colleges typically look beyond those indicators to see the types of classes you took. If your senior year was full of easy classes, you might get passed up for a full-tuition or full-ride scholarship in favor of a student who took Advanced Placement (AP), honors, college prep and international baccalaureate (IB) courses.

In addition to boosting your chances for a scholarship, these courses can also help prepare you for the rigors of college and possibly even give you college credit.

4. Excel in extracurricular activities

If you’re hoping to attend a prestigious university, chances are that good grades and test scores alone won’t make you stand out in the crowd of applications. One way to set yourself apart is to engage in leadership positions and community service.

Also, many colleges offer full-ride and full-tuition scholarships to students who excel in certain sports and other activities. While this option can be difficult to pursue unless you’re already on that track, it could help you determine whether or not to stay on the team or continue mastering a skill.

5. Apply for admission at multiple schools

The more colleges you apply for, the better your chances of getting admitted, and the same goes for scholarship opportunities. While you may have your sights set on a specific school, expand your options by applying for admission at several schools.

Even if a certain school is second or third on your list, if it’s willing to give you a full-tuition or full-ride scholarship and your top choice isn’t, that could tip the scale in favor of the school that won’t require you to go into debt.

6. Develop relationships with teachers and counselors

Some scholarship applications require you to provide letters of recommendation from one or more of your teachers or your guidance counselor. While most teachers are willing to write letters for students who have performed well academically, the quality of the recommendation can improve considerably if you’ve established a good rapport with the writer.

You can build these relationships by regularly participating in class discussions, showing respect, offering to be a teaching assistant and visiting your counselor to get advice.

7. Submit a stellar application

You may think that your credentials speak for themselves, but that’s not always the case. Take your time on the application, especially with the essays or personal statements. Consider asking a teacher, guidance counselor or parent to proofread your essay and provide feedback on how to improve it.

And don’t hold back, either. Some high school students may have difficulty talking about themselves, but it’s important to highlight why you should receive the full scholarship over someone else; holding back about your accomplishments or qualifications could cause you to lose your opportunity.

Other ways to pay for college

Getting a full-tuition or full-ride scholarship directly from your school is a major accomplishment, but it’s not guaranteed, even if you stand out among your peers. If you’re looking for other ways to pay for college, here are some of the top options.

Private scholarships

There are many private organizations that offer scholarships, including full-tuition and full-ride scholarships. Do some research to find out if you’re eligible for such scholarships based on your experience, heritage or interests.

You may also choose to use scholarship search engines to find other scholarships that can add up to cover the total cost of your education. Some of these are easy scholarships to apply for, and while they may only cover a few thousand dollars, earning multiple will help you chip away at your education costs.

Grants

Like scholarships, grants are a form of financial aid that you typically don’t have to repay. There are free government money programs that offer grants and also private organizations that offer them.

To apply for federal grants, you typically just need to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), but some may require an additional form. Requirements for private grants can vary, so take your time and do your due diligence to find the ones you may qualify for.

College savings plans

If your parents have saved up money in a 529 plan or other financial account, you can use that money to pay for qualified educational expenses on a tax-free basis. Talk to your parents to see if this is an option for you.

Employment

While juggling college classes with a part- or full-time job can be stressful, it can save you a lot of money in the long run. Look for opportunities on campus and nearby to see if you can find a job that fits with your course schedule.

Also plan to work during the summer when you’re not in school to help cover some of your costs throughout the school year.

Federal student loans

If you’ve exhausted all of your other options to pay for school without debt, it’s usually best to apply for federal student loans before private student loans.

That’s because federal student loans typically offer more benefits, such as access to loan forgiveness programs and income-driven repayment plans. Also, if you’re an undergraduate student, you’ll typically get a lower interest rate, and you don’t have to have a credit history to get approved.

Just keep in mind that there are limits to how much you can borrow with federal student loans. You can find out which federal student loans you qualify for by filling out the FAFSA.

Private student loans

If you’ve exhausted your allotment of federal student loans and still fall short, private student loans can help fill the gap. If you can’t get approved on your own, ask a parent to apply as a co-signer — with some lenders, co-signers are a requirement for undergraduates.

Take your time with private student loans, though. Each lender has its own set of eligibility criteria and formula for how it determines interest rates, so shopping around is key to ensuring that you get the best deal possible.

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Written by
Ben Luthi
Contributing writer
Ben Luthi is a personal finance and travel writer who loves helping people learn how to live life more fully. His work has appeared in several publications, including U.S. News & World Report, USA Today, Yahoo! Finance and more.
Edited by
Student loans editor