Understanding Scholarships

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average cost of tuition, fees, room and board, for undergraduate students attending 4-year degree-granting institutions, ranges from $19,488 for an in-state student attending a public institution, to $41,468 at a private institution. Financial aid is available for students who need it, but most often this comes in the form of loans, which eventually need to be repaid with interest.

What are scholarships and grants?

In its simplest form, a scholarship is a monetary gift that an organization gives to an individual based on a set of standards. The term “grant” is often used interchangeably, but generally “grant” is used to denote a need-based monetary gift which takes into account you or your family’s financial situation, whereas a scholarship award is based on merit. In this guide, we’ll cover the latter.

Scholarships vary in their distribution, though most are intended to apply directly to funding education. More stringent scholarships may come with a contingency that the award money be only used toward tuition, whereas more lenient scholarships may allow award money to be put towards books or living expenses while you are in school.

What about the “scholarship trap”?

There is a common cautionary tale that a scholarship award might actually reduce the amount of money a student will receive from the school’s own grant program. Indeed, federal rules require schools to factor in outside sources of financing—scholarships included—when determining a financial aid package. As a result, when a student wins a private scholarship from an outside source, the school could reduce the financial aid package by the amount of the award. This is usually referred to as an “over-award” by schools or “displacement” by scholarship providers.

Though you may find such policies unfair, you should not let over-awards dissuade you from applying to scholarships. Depending on the school’s policies, an over-award might be remedied by shrinking the loan portion of a student’s financial aid package, as opposed to the grant portion. You should check with your school to know what to expect.

Who is eligible for a scholarship?

Perhaps you’re worried about competing against other students who may have better grades, higher test scores, or more impressive extracurricular activities. If so, there is good news for you: merit is a broad and subjective term. Merit-based scholarships are indeed awarded to individuals who best meet given qualifications, but merit can be measured in countless ways and applied to a wide range of activities. “Meritorious” really just means “deserving;” you are “meritorious” in many ways. Your job in the application process is to identify your merits and put them on display.

Remember, scholarships generally have a narrow focus, seeking to reward certain accomplishments, fund particular projects, assist a group of people, or identify and promote specialty niches. Some common targets include:

  • Older and returning students, or adult-focused education
  • Athletes (offered by the National College Athletic Association, the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, and by individual schools, to name a few)
  • Minority groups (as in the United Negro College Fund, the American Indian College Fund, etc.)
  • People with disabilities
  • Religious groups
  • Women
  • Students of military families (offered by the Veteran’s Association or the Department of Defense)
  • Foreign students wishing to study in the U.S.
  • Domestic students wishing to study internationally (this type of scholarship is typically offered by the student’s own school)
  • Need-based or financial aid
  • Special skill or academic focus (art and music, for instance)
  • Community-based
  • Career-specific

Where can I find scholarships?

The financial aid office at your school is likely equipped with tools and resources to help you or your child apply to scholarships. It may have libraries of books, catalogs or postings of scholarships, and computers you can use to search or prepare application materials.

There are also many websites devoted solely to searching for and finding scholarships, with a vast range of features and databases. It is useful to conduct a few broad searches on large government-sponsored databases to get an idea for the types of scholarships available, but remember that the goal is to find scholarships that are looking for applicants like you. If a website or search engine offers advanced search functions, do limit your search terms, but be creative as well: think of synonyms for terms you search and try multiple combinations of words and phrases depending on your output results. (If, for example, you are looking for scholarships that give money to young equestrians, you might also try “horseback riding,” “rodeo,” and “jockey.”) It can’t hurt to consult a thesaurus for synonyms just to be thorough. You might even reveal niche scholarships you’re eligible for that you hadn’t thought of in the first place.

An often overlooked method of finding scholarships is to actually take the initiative and ask around. Member of a club or association? See if they offer any scholarships. For example, your school’s alumni association may be inclined to help those from their alma mater. How about your employer? Ask HR to see if there is a tuition assistance program in place or if the company would be inclined to sponsor your education if it benefits the company. Lastly, anyone who is familiar with your personal strengths such as an advisor, teacher, or family friend is a great source as well.

Finally, be wary of scams that you may come across in your scholarship search. Some red flags are websites that “guarantee” you’ll receive a scholarship with their aid, have scholarships with no qualification requirements, or charge you any type of fee for their services. A true scholarship-giving organization will not expect you to pay money to receive an award.

How should I organize my scholarship search?

You’ll be working with an immense amount of information and it is crucial to stay organized. By writing down important dates, deadlines, and contact information as you go, you avoid having to go back and re-gather these often tricky-to-locate little tidbits. There is no wrong or right format to use to stay organized, just be sure to choose something that works for you. Your tracking sheet should include sections for:

  • the name of the scholarship
  • application requirements
  • the preferred method of submission
  • contact information
  • deadlines
  • columns for tracking progress
  • notes or any research that you have done on the scholarship or scholarship committee

How do I apply for a scholarship?

Most scholarships will require the student to complete an application form, write an essay, or even complete an interview. Here’s what you can expect.

The Application Form

This is the easy part – if you’ve done your research, all you need to do is put in the time, and follow directions.

  • The schedule: Since the process of filling out applications can be time-consuming and possibly daunting in volume, be sure to use your centralized tracking sheet to prioritize. You should take into account the amount of effort required for each scholarship, your propensity to win, and of course, deadlines. Follow a schedule, and then concentrate on one application at a time.
  • Follow directions: This is important. As mentioned above, scholarship applications are very particular in their requirements. You must provide exactly what they ask for, or you may be disqualified and your hard work will be wasted. Remember, committees are faced with the task of choosing one or a handful of winners from a large pool of applicants, and it makes their job easier if they can eliminate entries from the slush-pile for failure to conform. It is well worth your time to read and reread directions carefully.
  • Formalize your tone: Whenever there is an opportunity to write a response to a question (as in a short answer section, apart from the main essay), mirror the tone and language of the scholarship. The reasoning for this is twofold: not only does it require you to read the application and directions thoroughly and critically, but it also conveys to the scholarship committee (if only subconsciously) that you are an applicant who fits in with the culture of the organization.
  • Answer all optional questions: If a scholarship application gives you the opportunity to present additional information about yourself, take it! By taking the time to answer questions that are “optional” you have doubled your chances at winning a scholarship compared to students who skip these questions. A scholarship committee will obviously look more highly on the applicant who takes the application seriously and puts in the extra work. Also, you have the opportunity to present a tidbit or two about yourself that would be absent from a bare minimal application.

Writing the Essay

  • Brainstorm ideas: Scholarships occasionally ask pointed essay questions, but more often the prompts are designed to allow for a broad array of acceptable responses. Students who have difficulty writing are welcome to be creative here—use whatever method you need to get your mind moving!
  • Research: Before writing, you should research the scholarship advisory board or awarding body. Go ahead and google members of the committee for personal details— it can’t hurt to know your audience. Research past winners—their essays are sometimes posted, and reading through them can give you a good idea of what the scholarship committee is looking for.
  • A Note on Conformity: It can be tempting to stand out from the crowd by crafting an untraditional essay. This is ill-advised. Your individuality should show forth in the content of your essay, and not in the structure. Wacky formats come off as gimmicky and can underscore your professionalism. Whenever possible, stick to a standard essay format (introduction, well-organized body paragraphs, and a conclusion), and reuse the essay when possible, but not without but a bit of customized tailoring.


Once you have a solid draft of your application put together, get some critical feedback. If you can recruit a friend, fellow student, co-worker, parent, or teacher to look at your application, they might catch something you didn’t—this can be as mundane as a grammatical error, or as subtle as an undesirable message you might be sending unintentionally in an essay answer. Some individuals might have great skill at proofreading, and some might offer excellent thematic or structural suggestions for your essays, but not everyone is equally skilled—it is good to have multiple opinions and to consider them critically, but trust your judgment.

The Interview

Highly competitive scholarships may include an interview as part of their application process. If you make it to this step, congratulations! You are likely a top-tier candidate. In preparing for the interview, consider the following tips.

  • Research the organization thoroughly, including its members, its mission statement, any publications it may have produced, and any recent press or media attention it may have garnished. You’ll want to incorporate some of this knowledge into your responses in order to demonstrate that you are serious about the organization and that you are in line with their values.
  • If possible, try to figure out who your interviewer or members of the interviewing team will be, so you have an idea of what to expect on the day of.
  • Practice answering interview questions. You can find commonly asked questions from various interview-prep materials, but don’t be surprised if you hear a wild card or two. Interviewers will often throw a fun or random question into the mix to gauge your reaction under pressure.
  • Prepare a few questions to ask the interviewer as well, not only to demonstrate your interest in the organization, but also to show that you’re thinking critically.
  • On the day of the interview, dress professionally and be personable.

Happy scholarship hunting! Be sure to cast a wide net and apply to as many scholarships as you feel you are reasonably qualified to receive. The results just might surprise you, and even small awards can add up to taking a big bite out of the amount you might otherwise have to borrow to pay your tuition.

iGrad offers a scholarship search tool go to their website iGrad Scholarship Search Tool.

Source: iGrad

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