The Comprehensive Guide to College Scholarships of April 2024

Last Update: September 25, 2023 College Students Scholarship

Student debt has been climbing year after year. In fact, nationwide student debt tops out at over $1.5 trillion! Nobody wants to be trapped in such a situation, so students often need to look for other sources of money for school. One such source is a scholarship.

Scholarships: we’ve all heard of them, but it seems that only a few students actually get them. The most well-known scholarships are the ones that are won by the most exceptional students nationwide, such as the National Merit Scholarship or the Horatio Alger Foundation.

However, there’s a LOT of money out there for prospective students who want to go to college with as little debt as possible.

Here at ElitePersonalFinance, we’ve written a truly comprehensive guide explaining what scholarships there are, how you can get them, and how any prospective undergraduate student can take advantage of what’s available. That includes current high school students, people who graduated high school, got their GED, and military personnel.

What are Scholarships, and How Do They Work?

Scholarships are essentially money that is given to a student to be used on school expenses. This money is not a loan and does not have to be repaid. However, most scholarships come with certain conditions: typically with a GPA maintenance requirement or a requirement to attend a specific school.

Scholarships are given out by universities and colleges themselves, non-profit organizations, and private companies, as well as by individual people with scholarship funds. The universities are the biggest providers of scholarships and other financial aid forms, such as grants and bursaries.

Private universities, especially those highly ranked and very selective, are the most likely to give large amounts of financial aid to those who qualify. For example, Stanford University intends for any student whose family makes less than $120,000 a year to not pay anything toward tuition.

After being awarded a scholarship, there are two ways that the money is sent. One way is via a check or direct deposit to the student. However, this is less common for larger scholarships. The other way is through the school itself. The student must inform the school of the scholarship award and then inform the school’s scholarship awarding body that will be attended. This is done by going to the school’s Financial Aid Office or Registrar’s office before a specific deadline.

If this deadline is not met, you may be unable to register for school!

What is The FAFSA?

The FAFSA is short for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. It acts as two things: first, it acts as an application form to qualify for government loans and grants. Second, it acts as a record of what a student is eligible for. To fill out the FAFSA, you need the following information:

  • Full name, Date of Birth, SSN
  • Current and Past Addresses
  • Info of All Parents, whether or not you live with them (exception: students over the age of 26)
  • Copy of Your Tax Return (you can easily upload the information online)
  • Copy of Parents’ Tax Return(s)
  • School Information

Schools use the FAFSA information to determine what kind of need-based financial aid a student can qualify for. Generally, this is determined by the combined income of the student and their parents.

Some scholarships require that the FAFSA is filled out to claim the award. Others do not. This is in no way a legal requirement. However, schools reserve the right to ask for FAFSA information.

What Kinds of Scholarships are There and How Can I Get Them?

Scholarships are awarded by schools or external bodies such as NGOs, private companies, and individual trusts. To win scholarships, many different criteria must be satisfied. Every scholarship is different, and some require entering an essay competition, a science fair, or some athletic competition… among other things. Other scholarships are restricted by age, racial or ethnic background, state of residence, income level, or membership.

In this article, we’re going to go over the major types of scholarships in-depth and, in the end, offer some resources for applying to said scholarships.

Scholarships Awarded by Colleges and Universities

Colleges and universities offer the largest amount of scholarships to students per year. Schools have a vested interest in having the best, and the brightest students attend and graduate at whatever cost to the school. Some schools promise full rides to students who can attend the school yet cannot afford the tuition. We will go over how a student such as yourself can acquire these, no matter your situation.

Merit-Based Scholarships

Merit-based scholarships are often awarded to prospective and current students who achieve high grades, high test scores, or other academic achievement measures. Typically, a prospective student can qualify for a merit-based scholarship by being one of the highest high school achievers.

A high (1400+ critical reading and math) SAT or high (32+) ACT will generally be one of the requirements for a prospective student to earn a merit-based scholarship from a college or university, as well as a high (top 10% or better) grade point average (GPA) in their high school. Often, merit-based scholarships are awarded to the top high school performers in the entering class.

To find out what merit-based scholarships are available from your prospective university, check out their website. Failing that, give them a call!

For current students at a given college or university, the requirements for a merit-based scholarship vary. Some are given based on high grades while attending the school, while others require the student to write an essay or do some research, taking this in conjunction with high grades to determine the winner(s) of said scholarship.

Merit-based scholarships are often the best opportunity for current students to save some money in the following year’s tuition. By achieving high grades (generally, on the 4.0 scale, a 3.7+ will suffice, but this depends on the school + the award), there are many scholarships that a current student will have the opportunity to apply to.

There are two types of merit-based scholarships. The first type is automatically applied to a student’s financial aid package either upon entrance to the school or soon after the aid is awarded. Students do not have to apply for these and are instead contacted about winning the scholarship due to their grades.

The other type of merit-based scholarship is more well-known. Students apply for these scholarships and are selected based on a combination of factors. Typically, GPA and some essays explaining why they should be chosen for the award.

Sometimes, these awards are given to undergraduate students who engage in research, compete, win in a competition, or create art for the contest. These awards are often very competitive, with a lot of highly qualified students vying for the award. This does not mean you should back down. However, if you win, it could mean reducing your debt load or even going debt-free.

The school holds not all competitions. We will be going into more depth about these later on in the article.

Athletic Scholarships

It’s quite well known that a student-athlete can potentially get a full ride to a competitive university by simply committing him or herself to that university’s sports team. We are going to explain a little bit more in detail about how these scholarships work.

Typically, a student needs to be scouted for an NCAA Division I or II school attendance to qualify for an athletic scholarship. Division III schools do not offer athletic scholarships. Schools outside the NCAA can also offer athletic scholarships. However, they are rarely as large.

Another requirement for qualification is the high school academic record. The student must (1) successfully complete 14 required high school core courses and (2) meet the GPA, and SAT/ACT score requirements. Generally, the higher your GPA, the lower your SAT/ACT score is required for eligibility.

To keep an athletic scholarship, two main things must be maintained: (1) the student must continue to represent the school in the sport for which the scholarship was offered, and (2) the student must remain eligible to play, which typically requires a 2.0 GPA or higher.

The most well-known sports that student-athletes play is basketball and football. However, there are other sports that students can play to qualify for scholarships, including but not limited to: baseball, soccer, gymnastics, rowing, hockey, lacrosse, wrestling, cross country, and more.

The biggest pro to athletic scholarships is that they do not require much academic excellence and can be a way for someone who did not perform well in high school to get a college education paid for. This opens up the door to people who may not have been able to get into college by their grades or test scores.

However, there are many cons to these as well.

First, if you stop playing the sport for any reason (if you get injured and cannot play anymore), you will lose your scholarship. The scholarship often demands that you play the sport for the course of your academic tenure. Second, they are often not available to students who are not applying right out of high school. Third, they require a high athletic ability level that most people do not and cannot have.

As a student, if you can get past these barriers, then an athletic scholarship might be your ticket to a good education and a debt-free future. We might have to look at other ways of getting money for school for the rest of us.

Need-Based Scholarships

These kinds of scholarships aren’t really scholarships and typically go by other names. We’re going to go over the types of need-based aid, so you can learn a bit about how schools will pay their students to go to their school!

Grants and Bursaries

A grant is an amount of money given to a student, typically based on need. Another name for this is a bursary, which typically encompasses scholarships as well.

Grants are awarded to students based on how much money their families can provide. Some schools offer more grants than others, and some grants have some strings attached. For example, to keep a grant, you may be required to maintain a 3.0 GPA throughout school and may be required to maintain full-time enrollment.

Some grants require application forms and are only awarded to students who qualify, apply, and win the award. However, most grant money is automatically included in a student’s financial aid package, along with any merit-based aid that they may have earned.

Some schools offer a lot of grant money to their students. Ivy League universities are well known for their generous financial aid: almost as well known as their selectivity and quality of education. As a general rule, the higher a school’s endowment per student, the more likely you will get need-based aid.

A school with a large endowment, but a small student base, is likely to be very selective. However, this need not be too much of a concern, especially for older students. Those who can do well in a community college may be able to transfer into one of these colleges or universities. The transfer process is facilitated if said community college is in the same state as the target school.

How can I get a grant?

Most grants are automatically awarded in your financial aid package when you get accepted into the school. However, some grants have an application process because there’s a limited amount available. In this case, you would go through the application process, likely through the Bursar’s Office at your school.

Other Scholarships

There is a lot of money made available for students to go to college. Many organizations have put together special college funds specifically for students who want to make a future for themselves but do not have the ability to pay for school (or would rather not have to).

So, where can a student like you get some of this money?


There are some famous competitions out there that will provide scholarships for the winners. The typical competition is statewide or nationwide and requires you to be a current high school or undergraduate student. Scholarships are awarded to those in the competition, often 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place, with smaller amounts for each subsequent placing.

They come in all forms, such as science, math olympiad, spelling bees, business case competitions, invention and innovation, vocation-related challenges, trivia, musical performance, drama, art, and much much more. Chances are, if you have an interest in it, there’s a scholarship that you could win.

They will likely require travel, but some organizations will actually pay for your travel if the school cannot.

Essay Competitions

We sectioned off this part of the article simply because there are just so many to count.

Essay writing competitions are the most common types of external scholarships available. They work because a student will fill in an application, including their GPA and test scores. They will be tasked to write an essay about a specific topic related to the organization offering the award.

It’s unclear why they’re so popular. It might be because nearly any student can write essays without the need for travel on their part. Many people feel that expressing oneself in writing is a key necessity for college success, so they may decide that the student with the best essay deserves the award the most.

Essay contests are often the most disliked among students because it takes a great deal of time to construct a well-composed literary piece, and this has to be done on top of all of the other things that a high school student needs to do.

Not only this, many essay writing contests are restricted to current high school students. However, not all of them are, so do your research!

Community-Based Scholarships

Every community has its own challenges and goals. Many communities struggle to produce very many college graduates and suffer from a lack of economic opportunity. Other communities have rich traditions and wish to boost their own students.

Some scholarships are specifically for people like you: people who reside in your state, people of your ethnic background, people who grow up with a legacy of achievement, or people who live in a low-income neighborhood. Organizations, associations, and foundations have been created to help students in the community attain a college education.

Often, these awards are much smaller, rarely exceeding $2,500. However, they should not be ignored. If you win enough of these, they add up to a huge amount.

We cannot list these because we cannot know exactly where you are from or your situation. However, you are likely to be able to find a pamphlet of local scholarships at your local high school or education center. If not, you should be able to find a list online.

Government Scholarships

Both the federal and state governments offer aid to help students attend college. They tend to have lower requirements, and some are restricted to students with low family incomes.

However, there’s a lot of money out there that the government gives to students. This does not include federal student loans.

Federal Government Scholarships

The federal government does not offer much in terms of scholarships, but they offer a huge amount of student aid. We’re not going to do federal student loans here, but we will talk about some grants students can qualify for.

Pell Grant: The Pell Grant is an award given to students who qualify based on a multitude of information given on the FAFSA. The maximum award for 2015-2016 was $5,775 and is likely to be higher for 2016-2017. You may not qualify if your family makes too much money.

Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG): The FSEOG is given to students who meet their need criteria. You must fill out the FAFSA to qualify for this award.

State Government Scholarships

Many state governments offer full or partial scholarships to students who attend in-state universities and meet their criteria. Examples of this include the FSAG in Florida.

These scholarships are open only to residents of the said state who attend in-state universities. If you want to figure out if your state government has any scholarships, search on Google for “government aid scholarships [insert your state here].”

Tips for Returning or Mature Students

If you’re an older student (that is, over the age of 20) and have already completed high school or a G.E.D., you may not find many external scholarships that apply to you. However, that doesn’t mean there’s no hope for you! You CAN get through college without debt, and you CAN do it using scholarships.

So, what are some tips for an older student who wants to go back to school?

  • Start at a community college. Community college is an excellent way to get general requirements completed without spending more time at a university. Universities in your state are very likely to accept community college credit, but make sure you check in advance! Some states offer scholarships to people attending community college, allowing them to attend lower costs or even free.
  • Apply to private universities with large endowments. This requires some planning, however, because these universities are often extremely selective. You will need high SAT scores, so enroll in a prep course. You will need a convincing application essay, and you will need to provide a resume. If you did community college and got excellent grades, this will help boost your application. Here is a list of USA universities and the size of their endowments.
  • Avoid for-profit universities entirely. There are very few scholarships available for students who wish to attend for-profit universities like the University of Phoenix or Full Sail. Not only that, they are not regionally accredited and are often very expensive.

If this article helped you out, share this article on Facebook or Twitter. You can find more college students’ tips here. Send a link via e-mail to a prospective student you know. And remember: there’s lots of help out there to pay for college.

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