How To Get A Big Payoff From College Scholarships


Winning a scholarship takes effort, even to snag an award that is relatively small ($500-$1,000) compared to the cost of attendance at a state university (more than $16,000 per year). But, depending on your financial circumstances, you'll save on tuition now, and reduce the interest and principal on student loans later. And, if you can acquire multiple awards (which is easier once you land the first scholarship), you can rack up big savings. Even as an information junkie, I find sorting through the volume of information on scholarships overwhelming. So, I decided to get professional help. Here's what I learned.

I spoke with Kimberly Stezala, author of Scholarships 101: The Real-World Guide to Getting Cash for College, and Betty Wagner, Director of Admissions at Central Michigan University (CMU). Kimberly educated me on private scholarships and Betty filled me in on university-specific awards. 

Both told me that doing these things could help win college scholarships:

  • Start early as more opportunities can mean more money. Kimberly recommends “scholarship preparedness” beginning with class registration for rising high school freshmen and exploring scholarship opportunities at least by the summer before your senior year of high school. Betty recommends visiting college campuses and narrowing your choices in the summer before your junior year based on factors such as admission criteria, cost, and programs of study.
  • Take advanced-level English classes to boost your high school transcript and equip you with the writing skills you’ll need to create stellar essays. You should also take advanced-level courses in core subjects.
  • Log community service hours. Many scholarships require a certain number of service hours; and time serving the community can help you become a more experienced and compassionate person.
  • Go to summer camp. Many colleges and universities offer pre-college programs or specialty camps in areas such as music, art, theatre, media, and computers. Not only do these programs allow campers to explore interests and improve skills, they allow department heads to identify rising stars (and potential scholarship winners).
  • Get as much scholarship money as possible. More is (nearly always) better. The more money you can bring in from outside sources, the less you or your parents will have to pay. Scholarships can reduce financial aid packages but since this aid is often in the form of self-help or student loans, it is wise to offset your needs with free money as much as possible.

If you’ve narrowed your choices to 2-3 colleges early enough, you can start applying for scholarships offered by your short list of institutions in your senior year. CMU, for example, offers numerous scholarships, many based on your high school GPA and ACT score. Its Centralis program provides 20 awards covering the cost of tuition, room and board, and $500 for books and other expenses; students qualify based on high school GPA and then participate in an essay-writing competition on campus. Other awards of varying amounts designated for CMU students are also available. (See this scholarship listing for more information.)

Creating a short list of private scholarships (of which there are loads and loads) seems daunting. Kimberly offered excellent advice for managing this process though she indicated that it can, indeed, be time-consuming. She told me that the students who win scholarships tend to be entrepreneurial (they consider finding scholarship money similar to running a business), well organized, quick to respond, and persistent.

Here are some tips on managing the business of applying for scholarships:

  • Start researching scholarship opportunities prior to your senior year of high school (many opportunities are open to high school students of all ages) using search engines such as FastWeb and Some local or state scholarships may not appear on these national listings so see if you can locate a city or state scholarship search engine (such as this listing for Milwaukee). You can also scour your paper or online archives for mentions of scholarships.
  • Begin prioritizing scholarships and organizing info relevant to each scholarship. Kimberly has an excellent tool on her website that helps with this process.
  • Find out about your competition: specifically call scholarship providers and ask how many students apply and how many awards are given each year. I particularly liked this advice because I volunteer with a civic group that offers a scholarship but often has difficulty finding applicants that meet our narrow set of qualifications; if the applicant does qualify, s/he usually has a 50-100% chance of winning as there are usually 1-2 applicants.
  • Determine what you need to do to apply for the scholarship.
  • Start compiling your information: ask responsible adults for letters of recommendation, sign up for community service, begin brainstorming ideas for your essay.
  • Follow the 1-2-3 process rather than blasting out all applications at one time. Send out 1, then 2, then 3 applications; though you probably won’t have heard from the first scholarship committee and gotten feedback, you will have had some time to reflect on the process, rethink your essay, etc. and make adjustments.
  • Keep trying. After you have won your first scholarship, your credentials are validated and looked on more favorably by subsequent scholarship committees. (Some scholarships, though, may be reserved for those who have not yet won awards.)

What influences scholarship judges?

  • Anticipated payoff. A scholarship is an investment of sorts in a student. Judges want to be wise stewards of scholarship dollars so they want to make sure that their investment in you will help you to succeed. So, they often make awards to those who are self-motivated and have a strong academic record. 
  • High academic achievement, community service hours, and excellent communication skills. Scholarship committtees tend to value outstanding performance in the classroom, volunteer activities including leadership roles at school or in the community, and great writing skills. (Kimberly pointed out that most scholarship applications ask you to write an essay rather than solve a math problem. See the Art of Problem Solving website for a listing of math competitions, which may lead to cash awards or scholarships.) Being able to interact with adults (who are often scholarship judges) and articulate ideas in oral presentations are also valuable, especially for larger, more prominent awards.   
  • Differentiation. Consider and relate how you are different from your peers, Kimberly advised. Though you may have a similar academic record as your best friend or group of friends, you may have a vastly different personal life and may have faced unique challenges. (For example, there are scholarships available to students with congenital heart disease and children whose parents have had cancer.)

A $500 award that may seem small now could double in value if used to offset student loans (based on 8% interest rate, capitalization of interest while earning your degree, and 10-year loan payback-see this accrued interest calculator).

After you have begun college, you can pursue new scholarships, scholarship renewals, and scholarships pertaining to specific majors. But remember to make good grades so you can keep any scholarships that are dependent on maintaining a certain GPA.

I won a $500 Parent Teacher Organization Scholarship in high school; the committee seemed to be impressed that I had participated in the Young Life Bike Challenge, a 2-week cycling and camping trip on the Blue Ridge Parkway. 

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Guest's picture

Before you hustle too much for scholarships, realize that some colleges will reduce the amount of grant money they give you to compensate their endowments for your windfall

Guest's picture

If you are in the "scholarship minority," then I wish you luck in your search, because you will need it.

The vast majority of (non-essay) scholarships are geared towards those who are born with some sort of diverse birth background, born female, or are have grown up in poverty. This leaves a minority of students who are left with little chance for aid, at least through this route.

The essay scholarships are less likely to have absolute requirements based on how you were born, but still, the majority will still have these requirements. The ones that do not are usually very long essays.

When weighing out doing an essay, consider how long it will take you to write a 25 page research paper vs. just working for the money. 50 hours at $8/hour is $400, guaranteed, and will not be used against you for any other aid.

Julie Rains's picture

It is helpful to consider 1) your (or your parent's) personal financial circumstances  2) policies regarding scholarship winnings and 3) return on (time) investment. In my case (or my children's case) our family's expected contribution would likely exceed the cost of attendance (my kids will be attending public universities unless they receive 4-year full rides from a private college) so that any scholarship winnings would offset our contribution or private student loans.

Planning early enough can help you to plan your strategy for college funding and let you figure out if you will be receiving financial aid through grants or loans.

As far as ROI, the Centralis program, for example, is merit-based and requires an essay but it is written by students during a campus visit and takes one hour (the time allotted for the essay); awards vary from $2,500 to $80,000; that would seem to be worth a weekend visit but certainly not all scholarship requirements are equal.

Guest's picture

I think that it's always worth looking into National Merit and other test-based scholarships — there's no limitation on the basis of a family's expected contribution and many schools offer full rides for qualifying students.

I did well enough on my PSAT and SATs to receive National Merit — and my university gave me a full ride for my effort. Excellent ROI.

Guest's picture

Don't make the mistake of thinking all private colleges are more expensive than the state universities. Do your homework on all schools of any interest to the student. Lots of times scholarships are abundant in private colleges. My son is currently attending a private school that yearly rate is $34,000. We are paying around $7,500 for this year's tution, because of all the scholarships he was eligible for, next year there will be more scholarships available to him. He never wrote one essay! Had he attended our local state university which average yearly rate is $17,000 we would be paying around $11,000. And no we did not meet either of the school's "lower income status" for specail funds and grants. Checking out these colleges does take a lot of time but in the long run it saves big dollars.

Guest's picture

As a former Director and Dean of Admissions I applaud this comment. Unfortunately, the media continues to run stories about the high cost of college without mentioning the financial aid opportunities. Many privates give back more than a third of tuition revenue in institutional financial aid alone.

There are two pieces of advice to which all students exploring college options should adhere. First, do not worry about the sticker price. Most will pay far less. Second, never enroll at a college without visiting first.

Julie Rains's picture

Way to go Thursday!

Cindy, thanks for pointing out that it is the cost of attendance (private or public) and not just scholarship dollars that is important. I admit to bias for public schools as my alma mater is often ranked as a best value among public colleges and universities. My main concern is that my kids would get first-year scholarships that would make the cost seem attractive at first, and then have to pay more in later years.

Guest's picture

My parents paid tuition for a state school (through a 529). I wanted private school. My senior year in high school, I filled out 35 separate scholarship applications and don't regret a second of the time I spent. The payoff was beyond my wildest dreams: $9500 in outside scholarships.

I put filling out scholarship applications in front of studying for tests, hanging out with my boyfriend, pretty much everything except my part-time job. I kept my grades up, sure, but not at A+++ levels. My advice is to never allow any concerns about time, the number of other students applying, etc. to enter your mind. When writing essays, tell the judges why you're different from any other student who will apply. Have the confidence to essentially say that you're not like the rest, and that you will remain true to your principles even if they aren't what the judges would like to see in an ideal candidate.

Overall, be relentless, dedicated, and never lose sight of your goal.

Guest's picture

Very nice site and article

Guest's picture

My son and I found a great scholarship site that I'd like to share. It is The scholarship guide offered there helped him win so many scholarships. Times are tough and I hope I can help others by sharing that site. Mark

Guest's picture

Thanks for the great info! My son and I found a lot of scholarship help from  Just wanted to share.  Mark

Guest's picture

Really useful article for finding scholarships. I also find it useful to research grants too as there are many available besides government grants if students do enough research.

Guest's picture

Thanks for sharing.

Guest's picture

Finding for scholarships is hard when there are so many out there, but it's great to have ideas like these to help take the pressure off when applying for them!

Guest's picture

If it wasn't for scholarships, I would not have been able to finish college. It was a true life saver for me. It's bit of a hassle getting a scholarship, but it's well worth the effort.

Guest's picture

At there is a page that links to almost 60 free scholarship search data bases.

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Students can find almost 60 links to free online scholarship search sites at: