How to Pay for College: Scholarships

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You may have wanted to skip this chapter on scholarships because you believed that you weren’t “special” enough to merit a scholarship. Luckily, you’re here now because scholarships go to all different kinds of students for all kinds of reasons.

Every single unique fact about you could represent a scholarship opportunity. Think African American writer from upstate New York or daughter of a Filipino soldier majoring in law or comic book collector whose ancestors came over on the Mayflower. It’s the combination of these things that make you scholarship-worthy.

There are certainly scholarships for those who get good grades and those who are gifted athletes or musicians, but there are also scholarships for people with an interesting ethnic background, those who are majoring in particular subjects or going into specific careers, and even those who hail from a particular region of the country or state in the union.


Tips: The Bigger They Are

Don’t fall for the “bigger is better” idea when it comes to scholarships. Sure, $5,000 or $10,000 for school would come in handy. However, you can get that same amount by zeroing in on scholarships that RENEW each year.

A $2,500-per-year scholarship can add up to $10,000 over the course of your studies. And there may be fewer students vying for that smaller scholarship, too. —based on information from The Ultimate Scholarship Guide 2010 by Gen and Kelly Tanabe.

Scholarships only go to athletes, musicians, or class valedictorians. I don’t have a chance against people like that.

Truth: Scholarships come in all shapes and sizes. You can win a scholarship for writing a prize essay, for example, but you can also win one by being in a special-interest group—for instance, an Armenian dental student in Ohio. Before you decide that you couldn’t possibly win a scholarship, start looking around at all the available options. You may be surprised to find that you are unique in several different ways that could spell scholarship winner for you. —based on information from The Ultimate Scholarship Guide 2010 by Gen and Kelly Tanabe

For Instance: Unique Scholarships for Unique People

I fell into getting a scholarship for college because my English teacher told me about this essay contest. I wrote the essay only because I wanted to get published. Not only did my essay get published, but the sponsors of the contest, The Soroptimist Club, gave me $500 for college—every year. And they even sponsored a dinner in my honor, so I could meet the rest of the members. They introduced me as if I was Secretary General of the U.N., and I’ve never forgotten them or their unlooked-for help. That $500 bought my books every year. —Heather Z. Hutchins, freelance writer and blogger at

Mandy Scott’s aunt, Patricia Cottinger, was determined that the girl get a scholarship to help her parents pay for college.

“I asked at the local library about scholarships for journalism students,” Cottinger says. “I never thought there were scholarships specifically for gay students.”

What Cottinger found was the Messenger-Anderson Journalist Scholarship and Internship Program. The Messenger-Anderson Program offers several $10,000 scholarships and internships to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered students who are studying journalism.

“Mandy’s already filled out the application,” Cottinger adds. “Now she’s working on the essay. Next, we’ve got a mock interview planned. I want to give her every chance to win.”

Personal Inventory

Start by filling out the College Personal Inventory (PDF). Answering all of the questions will assure you that you have left no stone unturned in order to get free money for school.

Remember, you may have to do a little digging (most of it online) to get a scholarship, but you don’t have to pay the money back after graduation. Spending the time now is a better use of your time and your future earning potential.

Information about your parents and grandparents

While it may not seem clear on the face of it, checking out the jobs, careers, professional organizations, volunteer activities, and hobbies of your parents and grandparents can yield big rewards in the scholarship category.

Many corporations have in-house foundations that give scholarships to the children and grandchildren of employees. In addition, most professional organizations (think International Association of Engineers or the Association of Realtors) also give scholarships. These can often be for those related to their members or for those going into the profession.

Also, volunteer community organizations such as the Kiwanis, Rotary, and Shriners do charitable work and often have nice big foundations of their own. That’s why you want to quiz your relatives about what they belong to and who they know.

School and out-of-school activities

International knitters’ guilds, comic book collectors organizations, and a whole host of other groups give scholarships based on hobby interests and school activities. Moreover, some scholarships are more interested in your out-of-school activities than your schoolwork because they value a well-rounded individual and will put their scholarship money where their beliefs are.

So, carefully consider all the questions, especially the ones that seem silly at the outset. You may be surprised about who gives scholarships and what they are looking for.

About the student

Although some of the questions are personal (especially the ones about your sexual orientation and your religious beliefs), there are groups out there that give scholarships based on both of these facts. Answering the questions will help you to find scholarships that your classmates aren’t qualified to apply for.


The Outside Scholarship and Your Financial Aid Package

While you may be reading this chapter just to figure out how to find, apply for, and win a scholarship, you also need to consider the ramifications of winning additional money for school.

An outside scholarship is a scholarship that does not come from the college itself. So, for example, if you win a $2,500 renewable scholarship award from your local newspaper, any college you apply to will consider this an outside award.

The financial aid office of your college has a great deal of leeway in handling this money. Some schools will use the scholarship to lessen any student loans in your financial aid package. Other schools use the scholarship to lessen any grants that you would have gotten from the college.

The salient point is that your college will SUBTRACT the outside scholarship monies from your financial aid package from the school. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t seek out scholarships. Scholarship money doesn’t have to be paid back, so it’s exactly the kind of financial aid that you want.

However, you need to talk to the financial aid office at your school (or look at the school’s website) to figure out how the school deals with outside scholarships. If possible, you want the financial aid office to use the award instead of student loans. At worst, you want to know if the scholarship will replace other “free” money from grants in your financial aid package.


Best in Show: The Best Websites For Winning Scholarships

The U.S. Department of Education has a nice micro website about how to find, apply for, and win scholarships.

The College Board has some useful information about filling out applications and keeping track of your progress. has an excellent guide to winning a merit scholarship on their website.


The Bottom Line on Scholarship Search Engines did some research about scholarship databases, and they judged to be the biggest, the fastest, and the most accurate. (Full disclosure: and are both part of the same corporate entity run by Mark Kantrowitz.)

However, you may be surprised at the accuracy level of the other scholarship search engines and their speed. To find out everything you ever wanted to know on the subject, go to

Best in Show: The Best Books to Help You Find and Get Scholarships

The Ultimate Scholarship Guide 2011 (published every year)
Gen and Kelly Tanabe have written an excellent resource for anyone looking for scholarships. Their listing of scholarships is good, but their advice about finding and pursuing scholarships is brilliant. From personal experience, they tell you exactly how to position yourself to win. Buy this book. If you can’t afford it, borrow it from your local library.

Scholarship Handbook 2011
The College Board has put together a really useful tool to find the right scholarships for you. There are 1.7 million students who win scholarship awards every year, and you can be one of them if you buy this book or borrow it from the library.


This article is one in a series adapted from the book How to Pay for College: A Library How-To Handbook.

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book cover: How to Pay for College: A Library How-To Handbook How to Pay for College: A Library How-To Handbook by Editors of the American Library Association published by ALA Editions.





Photo credit: NoncommercialShare Alike University of San Francisco Graduation Commencement May 2010 by Shawn Calhoun.

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