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Cash for class: unlocking scholarships to pay for college

Updated: Jul 11

The cost of college is staggeringly high: “in 2023, the average full time student at a four-year college spent nearly $31,000 on their tuition fees, room and board for the year,” which is more than double the amount students paid in the 1960s, adjusted for inflation.

As a result, paying for college is top of mind. While there are many sources of capital – federal financial aid, college need-based aid, federal and private loans, savings, student jobs and summer internships – scholarships are perhaps the most overlooked.

Individual Colleges are Typically Students’ Biggest Source of Merit-Based Scholarships, so Perfecting Applications is Key

Students will likely end up getting most of their merit-based scholarships from the colleges that they apply to. For some of these scholarships, students don’t have to do any extra work to apply beyond submitting their admissions application. In fact, many students won’t even realize they were eligible for a merit-based scholarship until it shows up in their acceptance letter of financial aid award.

That being said, because colleges use applications to make merit-based scholarship decisions – in addition to acceptance decisions – applications hold even more weight, so investing time and energy can pay off many times over.

In addition, some scholarships – even those which require no additional application materials beyond an admission application – can still have special requirements, so it’s critical to do the research for each school. For example, Boston University’s Presidential Scholarship offers selected students $25,000, renewable for four years, and requires no materials in addition to students’ admission applications, but does require applying by December 1, which is even before the admissions deadline!

Furthermore, many programs do require additional material. For example, Vanderbilt applicants receive an invitation to log into MyAppVU after they submit their college application, and in their portal, they can provide necessary materials, such as essays, to apply to several scholarships, such as the Ingram Scholars Program, which “sponsors students who demonstrate a willingness and ability to combine a successful career with a lifelong commitment to developing solutions to critical societal programs.”

Notably, while colleges are often the greatest source of merit aid for many students, they require students and families to make sure they understand individual deadlines and requirements through individual colleges’ admissions and financial aid websites.

By staying ahead of the game, students and families can make sure they’re maximizing their scholarship applications!

Students can Maximize Merit-Aid by Applying to Private Scholarships

While individual colleges are often students’ biggest source of merit scholarships, the majority of scholarships are private, meaning they are offered by organizations, companies, or individuals separate from an individual college. As a result, students apply to them separately from their college applications, and each scholarship has its own application procedures, deadlines, and selection criteria.

Students can typically find private scholarships through their high-schools, athletic programs, and extracurricular activities. Asking guidance counselors is a great place to start. In addition, students can search for and apply to scholarships using search engines like Big Future from the College Board, ScholarshipOwl, and fastweb.

Niche Scholarships offer Better Odds

There are many different types of scholarships, meaning there is something for every student. Students should think about their strengths and passions – academics, community service, writing, creative arts – as well as special groups that they are a part of – ethnicity, LGBTQ+, disabilities, gender, gender – which may offer access to different scholarships.

Scholarships range from narrow eligibility criteria – the Timothy S. and Palmer W. Bigelow, Jr. Scholarship for New England students pursuing horticulture, for example – to broad – the Unigo scholarship, which asks students to write a 250 word essay choosing between being funny or smart.

It’s important for students to keep in mind that the more niche the scholarship, the better their chances, if they qualify! From making a duct-tape prom outfit to pursuing beef advocacy – there are loads of quirky scholarships out there, and they can be worth applying to!

Small Scholarships Add up

Scholarships also vary widely in the total amount of cash they offer. The Coca Cola Scholars program, for example, offers scholarship recipients $20,000, the Jack Kent Cooke Scholarship offers up to $55,000 annually, and the Gates Millennium Scholars program promises full financial aid.

But while large scholarships are the most tempting, they’re also extremely competitive. Of 103,000 Coca Cola Scholars applicants, only 150 will be chosen as finalists to receive $20,000. By applying to smaller and often less competitive scholarships – between $500 and $5,000, for example – students can increase their odds of success.

In conclusion, scholarships serve as invaluable resources for students grappling with the soaring costs of higher education. While various funding avenues exist, scholarships, both college-specific and private, offer crucial financial support. As students work on their college admissions materials – from capstone independent projects to community service to personal essays – we encourage them to use hard-earned material not just for admissions, but also for scholarships. By doing so, their efforts and investments can pay off several times over!

Still not sure about your next steps?



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