The Scholarship Hunt: Part I

In Part I, I’ll be talking about those scholarships you apply for, win, and then take to the school of your choice.  Later on we’ll take a look at scholarships which are awarded to you from a particular institution for use only at that institution.

First the bad news.  In my experience, there is not a scholarship out there for everyone.  The good news though, is that there are lots of scholarships out there, and you (or your child) may qualify for one or more.  And, since most students won’t put in the time to find or apply for the right scholarships, the odds of you finding one or more are good.  The key is finding and applying for the right ones!

Many scholarships will fit a tiny slice of the overall population.  For example, many will be based on a particular disability.  Others might be reserved for those who had committed “an heroic act.”  One might be for students who plan to study mortuary science.  I know of one that is only available to students of Croatian descent.

This kind of specific focus, which tends to rule out a large percentage of the population, is common with scholarships.  While it may work against the “average” student, it may be helpful to you.  Is there some way in which you stand out?  If so, there may be a scholarship waiting for you!

Because of these narrowly focused scholarships, it’s critically important to complete the online questionnaires at and/or accurately.  (Based on limited observation I prefer Fastweb, but I would use both if I were in the market for scholarships.)

There are also many scholarships that are based on outstanding performance in academics, athletics, or areas such as music, theater, art, etc.  To earn a scholarship in these areas, you would most likely have to be truly exceptional.  You never know for sure, but in these categories you’ll probably have to be in the top 1-5% of your peers to have a decent shot.

There are also many scholarships that are based on a combination of factors.  A common description might be “academics, activities, and leadership.”  For these scholarships, a student might not have to excel to the extreme in any one area, but might have to rank in the top 10-20% of their peers in EVERY area, and be outstanding in one area.

One issue that comes up more and more often in the scholarships I see is community service.  It is not used often as the sole criteria for awarding money, but it is often used as a required part of the total picture.  While it may not be practical for every student to do volunteer work, this may be worth considering for those who are “on the fence” about whether or not to do some volunteer work.

The last category of scholarship I’ll mention is the essay contest.  Please note that many of the scholarships previously mentioned may include essays.  What sets essay scholarships apart is that they are awarded based solely on the essays involved.  What this means in practical terms is that the student who barely graduates, and ranks absolutely last in his/her class can compete for this scholarship on an equal footing with the class valedictorian.

For any student who is not in the top 10% of his/her class, or exceptional in some other way that is well matched to the particular scholarship, the essay scholarship often offers the most chance of success.  

Probably the single most important step you can take to find these scholarships it to register at  There you can search a huge database of scholarships (over 1.5 million!)  Once you’re registered, they’ll even send you notifications via email for newly posted scholarships that seem appropriate for you ( is another great site with information on 2.7 million scholarships).  As there is no charge for this, it seems like a great way to go to identify the national scholarships.  Do it now and put that part of your scholarship search on autopilot!  I'll wait.

Keep in mind though, that for some of these scholarships you’ll be competing with tens of thousands of students across the country.  That’s some stiff competition.  My students often get a greater reward for their efforts when they apply for local or regional scholarships that are a bit less high profile.

To find these types of scholarships is to simply turn on your “scholarship radar.”

  • Listen to the announcements in your school.  
  • Study bulletin boards in school and newsletters sent home.  
  • Check your school’s web site weekly.  

Most high schools receive info on locally offered scholarships throughout the year.  These are promoted in a variety of ways.  Make sure you know how your school handles that so that you don’t miss out.  Often these local scholarships have only a few applicants; as opposed to the national scholarships with may have thousands or tens of thousands of applicants.  Which odds would you rather face?

Finally, spend some time searching actively for scholarships.  Check with your parents’ employers, unions, or professional organizations.  Check with state and local organizations for the profession you hope to enter after college.  Sometimes local athletic associations or religious groups will offer scholarships.  If the dollar amounts aren't as large as some of the national scholarships offered, remember that your odds of winning may be much greater.

Let me close this section by discussing the emphasizing the idea of odds.  I don’t want anyone to approach the scholarship search with a pessimistic outlook, but some realism could be very useful.  At my school we usually have 6-12 students apply for one of the well-known national scholarships each year.  This scholarship is awarded after two rounds of screening and selection.  The first round is simply “by the numbers.”  Students selected for the final round then supply additional info, and the national winners are then selected.

To put it simply, no one here remembers when one of our students made it through the first round, let alone the second.  Do I tell my students not to bother with it?  Not unless they ask for my advice.  Do I encourage them to focus their efforts on the more regional or local scholarships?  Absolutely!

One other point about the local and regional scholarships worth mentioning is this.  Many awards are strictly “one time only” awards for college freshman.  The funny thing is though, that many of these are somehow funded for a second, third, or even fourth year.  This tends to happen when the scholarship winner makes an appropriate effort to thank the donors for the award, and then gets back to them later in the school year to report how much the award has meant.  I DO NOT mean to say that this is in any way standard practice.  It is not.  Doesn't it seem like plain good manners to express your appreciation though—even twice?

I think it does, and I've seen individuals and groups so pleased with that that they have broken their own rules or located additional funds to help an appreciative student out again.

Parents often ask me how much time their child should be spending working to get scholarships.  I never give them a straight answer.  I used to, but too often it was a case of them using my opinion—and it’s only my opinion—as some type of weapon in a battle of wills with their child.

This is a very personal matter.  If you’re the valedictorian of your class and involved in a lot of activities, I’d suggest you try and spend two or three hours a week at this, as the payoff seems likely to be worthwhile.  If you were in the bottom half of your class, I’d suggest you do the major searches I've recommended and be alert for local scholarships--especially essay contests.  Maybe complete one every week or two.  Whatever amount of time you decide on, spend it carefully on those scholarships where you have a decent shot.

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