Show Me The Money: How to Apply for Scholarships 

With college tuition costs over the past decade increasing by an average of 20%, the pricetag on higher education can be pretty daunting. 

Despite financial aid calculators and advising services, universities are typically vague about their scholarship offer amounts, scholarship selection processes, and percentage of students who receive scholarships. As a college applicant, this makes it difficult to get a clear read on how much cash you’ll have to fork over for your future degree.


While many students use need-based loans and grants from the government to help pay for college, for most, this assistance isn’t enough to cover the majority of their costs. And taking on too many loans may be unwise! When you know what to look for and where to look for it, you can significantly boost your chances of experiencing college free from the burden of overwhelming student debt. 

In this article, we’ll be focusing on scholarships – free money that you never have to pay back. Scholarships can be Institutional (meaning they come directly from the school you’re applying to), or Private (meaning they come from an individual donor, a foundation, or a philanthropic organization). Here is our guide for how to apply to each one:

Institutional Scholarships 

While many students think of scholarships as a gift from a third party, the heftiest scholarships usually come from colleges themselves. There are two kinds of scholarships awarded by institutions: Need-Based and Merit-Based.

Need-Based scholarship eligibility is determined primarily by your family’s household income, reported on the FAFSA and/or the CSS Profile. Even if you think you won’t be eligible for need-based aid, be sure to fill out *both of these applications; some schools require them for scholarship consideration.

* Note: Only fill out the FAFSA if you’re a U.S. Citizen; see more information for International applicants below. 

Merit-Based scholarship eligibility is determined by a holistic review of your entire application – GPA, test scores, transcripts, class rank, recommendation letters, résumé, and essays. 

  • Colleges with a more generous scholarship policy will use your regular application materials to consider you for scholarships automatically. That means a lot less work for you! 

  • Interest- and achievement-based competitive scholarships often require additional application materials (such as essays, recommendation letters, and interviews). 

  • Colleges with a Scholarship Deadline will give you priority consideration for scholarship money if you apply by this date. If you apply later, the school may have already awarded most of their available scholarship funds, and you may miss out on big money.

Private Scholarships

You’ll have to do some digging to find the ones you’re eligible for based on your achievements, identity, or nationality. There are several databases you can search, such as College Board’s, but that’s just a start–you’ll want to research thoroughly to find organizations that match your unique interests. For example, we had one student who received a scholarship from a private organization based on her achievements in cybersecurity. Get creative!

  • Start early! Unlike institutional scholarships, private scholarships can have deadlines as early as freshman year, and they often require additional essays, interviews, and/or recommendation letters.
  • International Students may be interested in private scholarships, as they’re at a disadvantage when it comes to Institutional scholarship eligibility, and ineligible for federal aid entirely. The International Education Financial Aid database is a great place to start searching!

Final Tips

  • Prioritize your scholarship plans carefully. Since Private/Third Party scholarships are typically more competitive (and offer smaller awards on average) than Institutional scholarships, we always recommend students prioritize them last, behind college admissions applications (which often double as automatic scholarship applications) and additional Institutional scholarship applications.

  • Never pay to apply for a scholarship, unless it’s part of a legitimate program that involves a meaningful experience like a career-building opportunity, conference, or symposium that would make a meaningful addition to your résumé regardless of whether you’re selected for the scholarship.

Here at Vanguard, a large component of our College Counseling process involves working closely with students and parents to determine how important financial aid and scholarships are in their overall college plans. Accordingly, we create a personally-tailored course of action including school choices, major choices, and deadline choices. For students applying to interest- and achievement-based competitive scholarships, we offer additional scholarship matching, essay mentorship, and interview prep services. If you’d like to learn more about our services, click here

-Madison B.

College Counselor

Washington University in St. Louis (Full-Tuition Merit-Based Scholarship Recipient)

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