Paying for College with Scholarships

It costs nothing to apply for a scholarship. Learn the basics and build your game plan. 

College student researching options to pay for college using scholarships.

College is a major investment in your future. It’s also a major financial investment. That’s one reason it’s important to think through the full range of funding sources. Scholarships are one of the best options because they don’t cost you any money. It does, however, cost you time to research scholarship opportunities, fill out forms, write essays and more.

The first few steps of the process involve learning some scholarship basics, finding opportunities that are a good match for you and planning about how to proceed. We’ve got three important questions—and answers—to get you started.

Question 1: What kinds of scholarships are out there?

Many scholarships are need-based, merit-based or a combination. Need-based scholarships are available to students who can demonstrate that college costs create financial hardship for them or their family. These scholarships often require applicants to share proof of their financial situation by submitting copies of tax returns or bank statements. Merit-based scholarships are awarded to students who demonstrate outstanding achievements in academics, athletics, the arts or another area.

There are also lots of scholarships designed to recognize special interests and talents, or to help support students from specific backgrounds. Your ties to an organization, a workplace or a community may also make you eligible for a scholarship. Here are few examples.

Background and heritage

Professional organizations, philanthropic foundations and other groups offer scholarships to students from ethnic and cultural groups that have been underrepresented on college campuses. When searching for scholarships, also consider other parts of your background that make you unique. Do you speak a second language? Have you or a family member served in the military? Will you be the first person in your family to attend college? Attributes like these could make you eligible for scholarships open to a select group of students.

Group membership

Chances are, you or your family belong to at least a few groups offering scholarships. Are you a Girl Scout, or is your grandfather a Moose? Does your family attend a place of worship? Do you belong to a 4-H club, a museum or a performing arts group? Any of these groups might offer scholarships.

School and workplace affiliations

Most colleges offer some scholarships to incoming students. Comb through the websites of schools you’re considering and reach out to financial aid offices for ideas. If your parents or grandparents graduated from the school you ultimately attend, you might be eligible for a legacy scholarship. Some universities also offer free or reduced tuition to their employees’ children.

Even if your parents don’t work in higher education, their employers might offer college scholarships. If you have a job, see if your employer offers these kinds of scholarships as well. Your employer’s human resources office is a good place to start this quest.

Special talents and interests

Being great at something—or simply being passionate about it—can earn you a scholarship. Do you excel at playing a sport or an instrument? A school might offer you a scholarship if you agree to play for its team or orchestra. Do you dream of inventing a solar-powered car? An engineering organization might fund part of your studies. Have you volunteered at a humane society or sponsored a manatee? An animal advocacy organization might have a scholarship for you.

Question 2: Which kinds of scholarships should I pursue?

Consider your level of financial need, as well as your commitments to others, when deciding which scholarships to pursue. Some scholarship applications are fast and relatively easy, while others can take hours of work.

Finding scholarships that closely match your background, skills and interests is one way to narrow down the list. You might want to prioritize scholarships limited to students from your school or community, as well as scholarships that would cover a significant portion of your school expenses.

When building your list, consult scholarship search tools like those offered on the websites of college financial aid offices. Your school counselor may also have leads on local and national scholarships. Browse the bulletin board, then make an appointment. You’ve got nothing to lose.

Question 3: What’s the best way to apply for scholarships?

There isn’t one “right” way to apply for scholarships, but a little planning can go a long way. Once you’ve built your master list of scholarships and pared it down to your top choices, start gathering the materials each application requires. Then add deadlines to your calendar.

After that, create a detailed to-do list. Leave enough time to write essays, gather feedback from at least one other person, and then revise your work. If you need to request letters of recommendation, give your references plenty of time to write them.

Consider preparing a resume listing jobs, volunteer positions and leadership roles you’ve held, as well as important accomplishments from your studies. This can help you pull together an application quickly. It’s also a useful document to share with the people you’ve asked to recommend you for scholarships.

Free Money?

Few things in life are free—except for scholarships and grants. Both are monetary gifts students receive at no cost to further their education.

Student members of UW Credit Union can apply for the Community Values Scholarship.

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