Going to college isn’t getting any cheaper. The average cost of a private four-year college is now $32,410 per year, and it doesn’t cover housing, books or fees. Scholarships are a wonderful source of college money because you don’t have to worry about repaying them after you graduate.
Actually finding scholarships for college, though, can be daunting. There are thousands of scholarships available for college students, and many require their own application process.
The good news? You don’t have to be a perfect student or a star athlete to qualify for some hefty scholarship money. But you will have to check multiple scholarship sources.
Scholarships for college students can come from a few different places, including the government, colleges, private organizations and local communities.
Complete the FAFSA
Your first step is to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The federal and state government both provide aid to college students through the FAFSA. These awards are usually based on financial need, so they're technically considered grants, not scholarships, but free college money is free college money.
Many families wrongly assume that they don’t qualify for government aid, so a lot of money gets left on the table each year. Per NerdWallet, $2.3 billion of federal Pell Grant money went unclaimed by 2018 graduates alone. Don’t make the same mistake.
Even if you truly don’t qualify, you should submit the FAFSA anyway. Many other scholarships require a completed FAFSA for eligibility.
Research Your College’s Scholarship Program
The next stop is your future college's financial aid office. Colleges offer many scholarships for enrolled students, and your awards will be bundled into the rest of your financial aid package. In 2016 to 2017, about 25 percent of total aid awarded to college students came from college grants and scholarships.
These awards vary widely in eligibility requirements. Some are based on academic performance, while others are based on financial need, demographics or other factors.
Dig deep into your college’s financial aid website for more information, and make sure to fill out applications on time. If you need help, contact a financial aid advisor.
Check Online Databases of Scholarships for College
One of the easiest ways to find scholarships is by using online search tools like Fastweb or Scholarships.com. Create a profile on two or three of these databases. Then you can sit back and receive email notifications about the scholarships that might work for you.
Many of the scholarships on these websites come from large, national or private organizations, like corporations or foundations. Examples include the Coca Cola Scholars Program or the Ford Blue Oval Scholar Scholarships. Since these are large organizations, they receive a huge number of applications each year, and the competition is intense. Still, if you win, you can win big.
Last year, for example, a whopping 95,715 high school seniors applied to the Coca Cola Scholars Program. The 150 winners, though? They each won $20,000, which for some students was enough money to pay for two entire years of tuition.
Customize Your Search
Some scholarships for college are specifically tailored to students who are following a certain career path or come from a certain demographic. If you’re a female student pursuing STEM, for example, there are a whole host of scholarships for students just like you, like the Society of Women Engineers awards. Other scholarships are only for single mothers, athletes, American Indian students or adults who are going back to school.
Many of these student-specific scholarships will pop up on online search tools like Fastweb. To receive notifications for them, though, you’ll have to make sure to fill out your profile completely. You may also have to do some sleuthing on Google yourself for relevant career associations, nonprofits or foundations.
Don’t forget that you can continue to apply for scholarships once you’re in school, too.
“Professional societies will award scholarships to current college students who are majoring in their field to promote their industry or keep qualified individuals in their field,” educational consultant Thomas Jaworski told US News.
Look in Your Own Backyard
Local scholarships are only available to those who live in a certain zip code, county, city or state. These scholarships come from a range of sources, including local businesses and regional organizations.
There’s a rumor that "millions of dollars in scholarships" go unclaimed each year. That's largely a myth. It’s the federal Pell Grant that goes unclaimed by many students each year. Most scholarships for college are snatched up quickly, and any “unclaimed” awards are quickly doled out to other applicants.
But if there is any unclaimed scholarship money out there, it’s definitely in the local category. Fewer people apply to these small awards than to large national programs because they don’t even know that they exist. The odds are much more in your favor.
Local organizations are less likely to offer you $20,000 and more likely to offer you $250. But these smaller awards add up, and you have a much better chance of actually winning them.
"Usually local scholarships are more within reach of your typical A/B student,” Fastweb publisher Mark Kantrowitz explained.
Rather than simply signing up for a database, you’ll have to do a bit more legwork here. Talk to your guidance counselor. Check the newspaper. Call local businesses to ask if they offer any scholarships for college freshmen. Lastly, use CollegeScholarships.org to search for state-specific scholarships.
Kim Wong-Shing is a writer in New Orleans. She has a Bachelor's degree in Education from Brown University and a Master's degree in Education from Bank Street College. She worked as a teacher for four years before transitioning into full-time writing. Kim has also written for Lifehacker, LittleThings, HelloGiggles, and a variety of other outlets.