April 14, 2022

hand with a pen flling out an application

Scholarships can become a key of financial support  that unlocks the door  between your financial aid and the remaining costs of your college education. Why borrow money at high interests when you can get free money instead? While the idea of applying for scholarships can seem mysterious or confusing, it is actually not that bad once you try it out (and know how to  navigate the process)!   

In this chapter, you’ll learn the basics of how scholarships work, how you can find them, and how to make sure you are in the top-notch playing field when you submit that application!

Defining scholarships

What is a scholarship, anyway? In short, scholarships’ amount to  free money that helps you pay for your education. This means that you don’t need to pay the used money back, and it also means you should not have to pay to apply for it. If you ever get a strange email, letter, or phone call about applying for a scholarship for a small fee, run the other way! It’s most likely a scam. 

Institutional v. Private

Aside from government grants (see Chapter 5), we can divide scholarships into two general categories as follows:  

  • Institutional scholarships: free money for your education that comes from an educational institution (i.e. the college you attend) 
  • Private scholarships: free money for your education that comes from entities outside your learning institution, such as non-profits, businesses, and foundations 

Renewable v. non-renewable 

In general, a scholarship can be renewable or non-renewable. Renewable scholarships allow you to continue to receive money for a certain amount of time each academic year as long as you meet certain conditions. These conditions can range from meeting a certain GPA, staying in a program of study, or partaking in a particular activity. In practice, an award of this type could look like this: a  $5,000 renewable scholarship for 2 years may look like a recipient receiving  $2,500 one academic year and $2,500 the following year, for a total of $5,000. As you might imagine, these types of scholarships are a bit more difficult to find or obtain since they fund students over longer periods of time and tend to be more generous and selective. 

Meanwhile, non-renewable scholarships are a one-time-only type of awarded scholarship. If you are chosen as a recipient, you get your awarded funding and the opportunity ends there. However, non-renewable does not necessarily mean being a one-time  applicant. Moreover , many scholarship organizations encourage past recipients to apply in following years, so you can win the same scholarship two or more times in a row if you’re selected! 

This is why it is very important for applicants to read eligibility guidelines carefully, both so your selection committee sees that you are serious about pursuing that particular opportunity but also so that you do not waste your time soliciting something that you’re not eligible for! If something is not clear, be sure to reach out to the organization funding the scholarship directly so that misunderstandings are avoided.

The timeline 

Generally, the process of applying for and receiving a scholarship award takes several months, so it is a good idea to start fishing for scholarship opportunities about a year before your tuition payment is due. Let's take a look at a rough timeline of what an application cycle may be like: 

  1. Application window opens, then closes.  
  2. Scholarships are reviewed by the selection committee. Some scholarships require an interview process.  
  3. Scholarship applicants are notified about decisions. In some cases, there is an awards ceremony involved that recipients are expected to attend.  
  4. Funds are disbursed. 

Each of the stages above can range from being several weeks to a few months long. With this in mind, planning ahead and giving yourself plenty of time to prepare your application is key for some scholarships, but not all. For example, a high school senior looking for ways to fund their Fall 2021 college tuition,  should be actively looking for scholarships as early as Fall 2020 or even Summer 2020. Ideally, this would be the beginning of an ongoing search that continues until you no longer need the extra funds for your tuition payments. Not all scholarships take tons of time to complete—some may be quick and easy to fill out—but scholarships like these usually have more applicants, meaning you have more competition. After all, unless you have a full-ride scholarship or have enough money in your bank account, your first year of college will not be the only time you could use the extra money.

Finding Institutional Scholarships 

Finding scholarships for which you are eligible can be one of the trickiest parts in this process, so it’s a good idea to start with the low-hanging fruit—institutional scholarships. 


Did you know?
Are you persuing a career in music? Do a search for "national organizations for musicians" on the internet. Are you a black woman in STEM? Try searching "national organization black women in STEM. You can try different words and combinations that pertain to scholarship options.

As we mentioned earlier, these scholarships are funded by and administered through  your college, so the opportunity to get free money may be right in front of you! Key places to start your search are your Financial Aid Department, as well as campus organizations. The “low-hanging fruit” will be scholarships by organizations that serve students like you or that are affiliated with your field of study. Your school’s financial aid office will likely have a section on their website dedicated solely to scholarship opportunities offered by your institution, and if it is not readily listed on their website, you can certainly contact them to inquire about this information. Click here to be redirected to Delgado’s Scholarship page.

In addition, college Financial Aid Offices often compile lists of scholarships available outside of their institution, so it’s a good idea to ask about those as well! Other on campus entities, such as student support centers that focus on specific populations (e.g. first-generation college students, TRiO Upward Bound programs, Veterans Offices, etc.), as well as Honors programs, might have their own scholarship programs or be able to point you in the right direction. If you are involved in an organization or club at your school, including a sports team, these are also good places to ask about scholarship opportunities. 

There is no need  to wait for your first day of school to begin asking about scholarships and applying to them. You will be  able to apply before you begin your first semester. In  fact, some universities use your admissions application, FAFSA, and/or CSS Profile to help you filter the scholarship awards you are eligible for. Competitive scholarships might include an interview process. In some cases, a separate application process for institutional scholarships remains independent of your Admissions or Financial Aid application, meaning you have to seek them out. This is exactly why you want to figure out these specific opportunities as early as the admissions application window.

Finding Private scholarships 

Aside from asking your institution about external scholarship opportunities, there are a lot of tools and platforms that may help you identify potential funding opportunities. Though certainly not exhaustive, below is a list of places where you can start your search. Look through the website and social media platforms of any place offering  scholarships you are interested in:

  • Your state’s financial aid office  
  • Educational organizations: There are many educational nonprofits  and foundations dedicated to supporting people in college, some of which may be funding scholarships! Once again, try searching the internet for a combination of terms related to things like your geographic area and college-related terms within your scope of interest. For example, if I am a prospective student in Texas, I might try an internet search for “free college preparation support Texas” or “college education non-profit Texas.” You might already know about educational non-profit organizations in your local community—those are also great places to start ! 
  • Population-specific advocacy organizations: There are many organizations that focus on supporting historically marginalized communities (i.e. groups who have faced systemic barriers throughout history) in their journey to obtaining a college degree. Are you a trans or non-binary prospective college student? Reach out to your local LGBTQIA organizations to see if they offer any scholarship opportunities. Are you an undocumented student? Start by contacting the immigrant justice organizations in your community. Are you a single parent? Were you a foster youth? Take inventory of your identity and experiences and seek out the entities that are looking to support people just like you! If they do not fund scholarship opportunities themselves, they may be able to point you in the right direction. 
  • Scholarship search engines: These are websites and applications that allow you to search through scholarships. Some of them allow you to create a profile which enables you to easily match with the scholarship’s qualifications.

Your employer or your parents’/guardians’ employer: Did you know that many companies and worker unions have their own scholarship fund to support their employees or employees’ families? It’s time to either ask your place of work or have your parents/guardians ask their place of work.

Staying Organized

If you think there is way more free money out there for you than you  initially thought. Then you are probably correct! While this  is encouraging,  it can also get overwhelming. Staying organized is key and it is a discipline that must be practiced as soon as you begin your scholarship search. You don’t want all those important links and deadlines to end up in the depths of the internet or written down in a tiny piece of paper that you never find again! 

Make a spreadsheet or table where you can keep track of the opportunities for which you are a good fit. It can look something like this:

Scholarship Name



Important notes

Link to app


Discovery Essay Contest


1000 word essay

Letter of rec

Ask a friend to make suggestions


Association of Black Engineers


500 word essay



*contact from college fair:


{Name of Scholarship}


[Name of Scholarship}


etc., etc….

Here are other helpful ways to stay organized: 

  1. Create a “Scholarships” folder in your computer or in a cloud (e.g. Google Drive, OneDrive) where you keep all your scholarship materials. You can further organize this by creating subfolders such as “Personal Statements,” “Transcripts,” “Letters of Rec,” or anything else you see appropriate. 
  2. Name all your documents in a consistent way. Do you have 28 documents in your computer named “Document1” or “Untitled”? It’s a great way to forget what you were looking for on your computer. Instead, Choose a format and stick with it, it’ll save you lots of headaches in the future! You can do “ScholarshipName-DocumentType-Date,” “DocumentType_ScholarshipName_Date,” or whatever makes sense for you.
  3. Designate a physical folder for scholarship documentation. Though a lot of things are done via technology nowadays, it doesn’t hurt to keep all your documents in one place.
  4. Put key deadlines on your calendar and set an alarm. When you find a golden opportunity, make sure it doesn’t pass you by! Put the deadline on your calendar to keep it on the horizon.

Optional: Create Bookmarks or Favorites folder in your internet browser where you save all your scholarship links. This is a quick way to make sure you don’t lose an important website when you don’t have your spreadsheet readily available or can’t fill it out immediately.

Applying for Scholarships

Preparing Your Materials 

Scholarships are not a “first come first serve” giveaway, but having time on your side can make a huge difference in your quest. The more time you give yourself to find opportunities, prepare your application, and submit your materials, the higher your chances of forgetting free money for college.

So you’ve found a few scholarship opportunities you’re eligible for. Now what? 

  1. Read the guidelines closely. This cannot be stressed enough. Trust me, you don’t want to be the person spending 6 hours on a scholarship application that you weren’t eligible for in the first place. You also don’t want to be the person who logs into the submission portal only to find out it was already due. Make sure you read the eligibility and guidelines, frequently asked questions (if available), and application instructions. If in doubt about something, call or send an email.
  2. Secure supplementary materials. It’s risky (and possibly rude) to email your instructor with an urgent request for a letter of recommendation due the next day. We are all busy and need the common courtesy of time. Whether you need to request transcripts from your school, ask for a letter of recommendation, or ask for someone to review your essays or resumes, give people adequate time to provide what you’ve asked. When asking for letters of recommendation, your request should:
    1. Use polite and formal language. 
    2. Ask at least 2 weeks in advance of the deadline. Ideally 3. (Especially if they say they can’t and you need to find someone else!)
    3. Include a brief background about the scholarship with relevant links, a few sentences about why you think they would be a good writer for you, the deadline, along with clear instructions about how to submit their letter. Your recommender should not have to play detective and write emails to find this out. You should provide this information from the beginning.
    4. If possible, include a personal statement (can be a strong draft) so that your recommender can find out more about you and why you think you’re a great candidate for this opportunity.
    5. Express gratitude for considering your request. 
  3. Write and rewrite your personal statement(s). Essay statements, long or short, are a very common and often core component of a scholarship application. People often feel intimidated by this requirement, but see it as an opportunity. We know that grades and test scores don’t tell your whole story; a personal statement is a great way for the selection committee to hear about who you truly are and all the great things about you that aren’t captured by your GPA.

It is very important that you give yourself enough time to brainstorm, draft, revise, and re-revise your statement. Especially if writing isn’t your forte or you are still developing your English language skills, make sure you get the support of a teacher, mentor, or skilled friend to provide feedback and help you make revisions to your statement. There are plenty of free resources at your school and online to help you craft a strong personal statement. As you can imagine, this all can’t take place 3 hours before your application is due, so plan ahead accordingly!

Submitting Your Materials

Every year thousands of students send scholarship applications that either get tossed aside and are never seen by the selection committee. This usually happens because directions were not followed. Think of it as a glass half full situation; by simply submitting everything as requested, you’re already ahead of many other applicants who don’t follow the directions!

If you did not get a "confirmation receipt" and 48 hours have passed, you may want to send an email to make sure that your application was received. 


Some scholarships use online software such as Google Forms to collect applications. In some cases, the settings allow for you to get a “receipt” when you submit your application, but sometimes they don’t. What if you fill out everything only to find out much later that your application didn’t go through? What if you write an excellent response to one of the essay questions but now you’ll never see it again? To avoid any of these issues, it’s a good idea to keep a separate document where you copy and paste the final responses you put in your application. You can also do screenshots of the online application form once to fill everything out. Or both! Just make sure you have your own record of your submission.


If you haven’t already, be sure to drop a thank you note (or even an old fashioned thank you card!) to your recommenders or essay reviewers. 

It is customary for scholarship programs to give a timeline of when finalists will be notified about the award. If this date passes and you still have not heard about the status of your application, it is okay to ask politely about the committee’s decision. Whether you are selected or not, it is also good manners to thank the scholarship program for the opportunity. Unfortunately, scholarship committees almost always receive way more competitive applications than they can award, so don’t get discouraged!

If you are notified that you were not selected, it is perfectly okay to respond with a thank you and a request for how you could make your application stronger. This will not only show the organization that you are serious and will go the extra mile to reach your goals, but it will make sure that your next scholarship application will be stronger.

Getting an award

Can I use the money for anything?

Some scholarships are awarded with particular stipulations regarding how the funds can be spent, while others have no limitations. 


Put in your resume! Scholarships are true feathers in your cap, so don't forget to add them to your "awards" section on your resume.

For example, a bookstore might award a book scholarship that only gives out credits at their own bookstore, which means it cannot be spent on paying for transportation costs. Meanwhile, many institutional scholarships will simply apply the funding to the student’s account to cover tuition costs, rather than send the student a check in the mail. In other cases, a scholarship funds may come in the form of a check but in the name of the student’s education institution, not in the name of the student. 

Of course, there are some scholarships that will simply give the awardee a check with their name on it for them to spend as they deem necessary. Once again, reading eligibility guidelines and the small print makes all the difference. If it is not clearly stated or you have questions, be sure to ask ahead of time so there are no unpleasant surprises!

Do I need to report my award?

The IRS and your specific institution have specific guidelines as to when and how to report scholarship awards. Check with your school for more information. In addition, look at the resources in the Toolbox at the end of this chapter for insight on how scholarship awards may need to be reported on your income tax return. 

Thank you!

Lastly, if you are awarded, be sure to thank the organization and notify the people that supported you in that search. Your recommenders and support system will be happy to hear about your success! Then it’s time to celebrate. Any scholarship win, no matter the amount, is a major accomplishment.

Last tips and advice

  1. Create a Scholarship Support Team: Having a top-notch application takes work, which means having a team of support is sure to help you along the way! Make sure your team has:
    1. 1-2 essay reviewers: Have one or two people with strong writing skills  who are willing and ready to give you feedback on your personal statements. This can be a teacher, former instructor, mentor, tutor, or friend. If your scholarship requires a personal statement or more, it’s because they’ll be reading closely!
    2. Recommenders: A list of 3-5 people who could write you a great letter of recommendation. Different scholarships look for different skills and values, so your youth pastor cannot talk about your discipline as a track-and-field athlete the way your coach can; your best friend may know you well but it does not mean they are best to write a professional letter about you.
    3. Get an accountability buddy: Team up with someone else who is also applying to scholarships. Help each other stay motivated and meet deadlines!
  2. Be patient. Remember that a scholarship process from beginning to end takes several months.
  3. Stay organized. Yes, we are saying it again.
  4. Be persevering. Scholarships are a competitive sport. Keep practicing and applying as a way to increase your chances of winning.


  • Essay writing resources:
    • Purdue Online Writing Lab, Essay Writing:
    • How to Write a Scholarship Essay:
    • College Essay Guy’s personal statement guides: