Are you getting ready to head to college? If so, you might be wondering how do scholarships work?

When it comes to understanding how scholarships work, it’s important that you know where scholarship money comes from as well as how many scholarships a university might award. Also known as “free money,” scholarships aren’t the only kinds of financial aid that students can find and apply for – and you don’t always have to be going to college to get scholarships or financial aid, either.

In fact, many career school programs or trade schools offer scholarship opportunities and student aid, too.

Whatever your reason for going to college and wherever you choose to go, it’s important to take advantage of every scholarship opportunity out there. Here is everything you need to know to apply for scholarships – and to understand how scholarships work in the first place. 

Girl Studying for scholarship

What Is A University Or College Scholarship?

In brief, scholarships are financial aid awards that are meant to help students pay for their degrees. Although there are some graduate programs that are similar to this, most scholarships are designed to pay for undergraduate, or bachelor’s degree, expenses. 

Usually a one-time check, there are some scholarships that are renewable and offer money for students for every school year or even every semester. Some are paid directly to the student while others are mailed to the college. Some college scholarships have stipulations that the awards can only be used for things like tuition, room, board, and books, while others can be used for transportation and personal expenses, too. 

University Scholars

Where Do Scholarships Come From?

Scholarship funds can come from a variety of different sources. Some of the most common include:

  • Colleges
  • Endowment funds
  • Charities
  • Organizations
  • Clubs
  • Foundations
  • Businesses
  • The government
  • Individuals 

Colleges and universities often offer financial aid in the form of merit scholarships, too, so be sure to check in with the school to which you’re applying to see if you might qualify.

Scholarship Grant

Who Gets Scholarships?

There’s a common misconception out there that you have to have perfect grades in order to qualify for a scholarship. While that’s true in some cases, keep in mind that all scholarships have different criteria for how they are awarded some are awarded based on need while for others, you must be a  member of a certain organization or be majoring in a certain field in order to qualify. 

There are scholarships to just about everyone – so don’t rule yourself out of this kind of free money before you even get started!

Scholarship For Students

What Are Other Sources Of Scholarships?

While colleges and universities tend to be the most common sources of scholarship funds, there are plenty of other places you can turn to. It’s important to leave no stone unturned when it comes to finding scholarships for college. Many thousands of dollars in financial aid goes unawarded each year – simply because nobody took the time to apply for a scholarship. 

Here are some of the most common types of scholarships for you to consider.

Merit Scholarships 

Typically awarded by colleges and universities (though not always – many trade schools and high schools also offer merit scholarships to incoming or graduating students), merit scholarships are awarded on the basis of – you guessed it – merit! 

That usually refers to academic merit, with most merit-based scholarships having some sort of prerequisite minimum GPA that is required. However, that’s not always the case. Some merit scholarships use test scores to determine academic readiness, while others look at factors besides academics entirely.

In fact, there are all kinds of merit scholarships based on your readiness for a certain field of study. For example, if you attend a trade school, you might be awarded a merit scholarship because you have excelled in a certain field of study – even if your high school grades overall weren’t the hottest. 

Merit Scholarships For Students

Athletic Scholarships

Were you a star on the soccer pitch? Perhaps a leader on the basketball court? Although athletic scholarships are rare and typically reserved for only the most competitive players on the country’s most competitive sports teams, there are some athletic scholarships that might be worth your time, too.

Athletic scholarships are generally awarded by schools that offer D1, or Division 1, athletics – you [probably aren’t going to get an athletic scholarship for playing intramural ultimate frisbee, no matter how awesome that would be. 

And don’t think that you can let your grades slide if you’re gearing up for an athletics scholarship, either – most of these have strings tied. Namely, you’ll be tasked with keeping your grades at a certain level in order to qualify. 

Student Athlete Scholarship

Career-Based Scholarship Opportunities

There are also scholarships you can apply for that are geared toward a specific career or field of study. If you’re interested in attending college for nursing, for example, you may be able to find a scholarship offered by a nursing organization or hospital in your area. Thinking about becoming a teacher? Many teachers’ unions offer awards, too. 

Scholarship Opportunities From Employers, Community Organizations, Religious, And Civic Groups

The largest category of scholarships to consider are those offered by outside organizations. This is where it can get tricky when it comes to applying for a scholarship, since there are so many potential places to look! You may want to check in with your parents’ employers (or your employer, if you are already working) to see if they offer scholarships or even tuition remission plans.

Plenty of community, civic, and religious groups offer scholarships, too. Some examples include the Boy Scouts of America, the Elks Lodge, and the Kiwanis. You can often find scholarships by doing a quick Google search for q qualifications, checking in with your guidance counselor, or using scholarship search engines like Cappex or Fastweb. 

How Are Scholarships Awarded?

Scholarships are awarded based on their qualifications. For example, if it’s a merit scholarship that is based strictly on academics, you’ll likely have to submit copies of your grades and you’ll be evaluated based on that criterion alone.

Scholarship winners are usually chosen by a panel of judges who will pick a winner based on who is most suited for this scholarship award. Then, a notification will be sent out to the lucky winner. 

Can You Keep Extra Scholarship Money?

That depends on how the money can be spent.

An easy way to tell if you’ll need to return unused scholarship money is to look at the stipulations and rules of the award. Also, consider how the award was paid out. If a scholarship check was made out in your name, it’s usually a good sign that you can use the money on anything you want.

Our recommendation? Don’t treat it as free money and go on an all-expenses-paid shopping spree. Instead, save the money and use it on school expenses like tuition, supplies, food, and housing. If you still have extra leftover, why not put it in a savings account for next year? You never know when college costs are going to go up (but here’s a hint – they almost always do!). 

How Do You Know If You Won A Scholarship? 

Don’t worry  – the panel of judges will let you know! In most cases, scholarship boards will send an email to the winner letting them know that they will be recipients. Sometimes you will also get a notification if you didn’t win, but this can vary. 

Often, these messages are tailored to the specific winner, but sometimes they are generic messages that may ask you for more information. If you won a college scholarship, you may get a letter in the mail or see the scholarship listed as part of your financial aid package.

In the case of more locally-focused scholarships, you may receive a phone call or a personal visit from a scholarship committee member letting you know you won the award. Your guidance counselor, teacher, or principal may also receive this information.

Other Types Of Financial Aid

It’s not just scholarships that you need to consider as you’re trying to figure out how to pay for college – there are other types of financial aid to look into, too.

Grants are some of the most common. Grants are also “free money,” that, like scholarships, do not have to be paid back. These usually require some sort of financial need, so you’ll have to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

Another type of federal student aid to consider is work-study. Again, you’ll usually need to have some sort of financial need in order to qualify for work-study, which consists of a paid position that you will complete on campus while you are taking your classes.

One final option – and one that has received its fair share of criticism! – is student loans. Student loans do, unfortunately, need to be paid back. However, they can help you pay for college when there are no other funding opportunities available. 

How To Apply For Scholarships

Ready to apply for some free money? Fortunately, many college aid offices will consider you automatically for merit-based scholarships and federal student aid, just based on your application and the student aid information you provided in the FAFSA.

However, it’s important to keep track of scholarship deadlines and scholarship application requirements for yourself, too. Do some research as to what is required for each scholarship (transcripts? An essay? Letters of recommendation?) and make sure all of your materials get to the college or scholarship committee by the application deadline. You don’t want to miss out!

Look into all potential opportunities when it comes to paying for college. College can be expensive, but it doesn’t have to be – not when you understand how scholarships work and how you can take full advantage of them!

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