Scholarship Deadlines: When to Apply for Scholarships
Scholarship Deadlines: When to Apply for Scholarships

College tuition prices have never been higher and climb each year. A few scholarships can go a long way in making college more affordable for any family. But how do you find scholarships for college?

We’re covering it all in this post, from when and where to look for college scholarships, to strategies for applying.

In this post:

  • Scholarships vs Grants vs FAFSA
  • What You Need to Begin Your Scholarship Search
  • When to Start Looking and Applying for Scholarships
  • Where to Look for College Scholarships
  • Typical Scholarship Application Requirements
  • Other Ways to Save Money in College

We recommend starting your college scholarship search with your school counselor. They’re going to be the most informed about opportunities available to you. Next, take to the web. There are dozens of online scholarship aggregate platforms designed to help you find the best scholarships for you.

But before you dive in, there are a few things you should know:

Scholarships vs Grants vs FAFSA

Let’s start with the basics: what is a college scholarship? How does it compare to a grant?

Both a scholarship and a grant are gifts; they do not need to be repaid. Scholarships are usually merit-based: sports, academics, arts, etc. Grants are usually distributed based on financial need (like the Federal Pell Grant).

The FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid, also distributes funds based on financial need. The government distributes grants and loans through the FAFSA. If you come from a low-income family, you should definitely fill out the FAFSA so you can be in the running for federal grants that could cover much, if not all, of your tuition costs.

You should fill out the FAFSA even if you don’t think your family will qualify for much since some scholarship applications require a submitted FAFSA for eligibility. Additionally, federal student loans have a fixed interest rate, usually lower than private loans.

What You Need to Begin Your Scholarship Search

Different scholarships are available to you depending on where you want to go to school, what your SAT or ACT scores are like, and what you are involved in in high school. Before you begin applying for scholarships, we recommend you know three things:

  1. Your SAT or ACT score (or a close estimate)
  2. A list of colleges you plan to apply to
  3. Your educational goals (are you going for a bachelor’s degree, or your doctorate?)

Your SAT or ACT Score

Some scholarships are awarded based on test scores, so knowing your score gives you the ability to apply for these scholarships. Additionally, a high SAT score may put you in the running for a National Merit Scholarship. National Merit Finalists, in particular, may get generous scholarship offers from schools around the country.

A List of Colleges

Your ACT or SAT score will also help you narrow down your list of schools and therefore, the number of school’s scholarship opportunities you need to look into. Your ACT or SAT score should fall in the upper 60% of admitted student’s scores to have the best chance of admission. (Read more about creating a college application list here.)

Your Education Goals

Finally, what are your education goals? Students who think they may get Masters and/or Doctorate degrees have a lot more school to pay for than a student who wants to complete a bachelor’s degree and call it good. If you have your heart set on an Ivy League or expensive private school, it may be wiser to go to a less-expensive, but still academically rigorous, college for your undergraduate degree and then reach for a big-name private school for graduate work.

What Kind of Student Are YOU?

I’m in the top 10% of my class, have above a 4.00 GPA, and a high SAT/ACT score.

You should be looking at merit-based opportunities from schools that you are interested in. Deadlines for merit-based opportunities come early (around December), so do your research in the early fall.

I’m a National Merit Semi-Finalist or a Finalist.

You will probably get some big offers from schools. They may not be your dream school or even one you’ve ever considered, so you’ll need to have some level of flexibility. When you get offers, take note of how long they last (one year or all four?), what they cover (just tuition, or also room and board?) and any requirements for keeping the scholarship (GPA, activity involvement, etc).

I really, really want to go to a certain school.

Contact that school’s scholarship office and ask about what they offer and when deadlines are for their scholarships.

I have a certain set of skills…

Student athletes, musicians, artists, and any number of other talented students can get scholarships for their non-academic skills.

If you’re a musician, artist, or creating a body of work in another way (maybe, writing), most of these programs require a portfolio. Portfolios can take years to complete; stay on top of yours, and know the requirements for the schools you’re interested in.

For athletes in particular, consider two questions before you accept an athletic scholarship:

  1. If you can’t play _____ at _____, will you be happy?
  2. If you get a scholarship to play _____ and get hurt and lose your scholarship can you somehow pay to go there?

Talk to your coach if you’re interested in playing sports in college. Your coach may not know your goals and therefore not know to recommend you to recruiters!

I’m a first generation student or come from a low-income family, and I get good grades and good test scores.

You could be a Questbridge candidate. This is a national program that matches kids to top schools with good scholarship options. You’ll need to have some flexibility about what schools you’re willing to attend.

I get good grades and test scores, but I don’t think my family will get any money from FAFSA.

Most schools have a counselor in charge of scholarships or even an office in charge of this affiliated with college and career services. You’ll have to put in some work to find scholarships, but it could have a big payoff.

When to Start Looking and Applying for Scholarships

We recommend beginning your scholarship search the fall of your senior year.

Starting early means you’ll have plenty of time to find scholarships, write essays, and gather letters of recommendation, along with any other requirements, before deadlines hit.

If you really want to win a lot of scholarship money, consider working two hours every weekend during your senior year finding and applying to scholarships.

Where to Look for Scholarships

Check with Your School Counselor

The first place you should check is with your school counselor. Your counselor will have the most knowledge about what scholarships are available to you nationally and in your community.

Don’t overlook smaller community scholarships; they are often less competitive. Even if the award amount is small, combine a few together and you could have a whole semester of tuition paid for!

Search the College’s Scholarship Webpage

Every school you’re applying to probably has a “scholarships” page on their website – just Google it. You’ll find scholarships available to incoming freshmen and can look ahead to scholarship opportunities for continuing students.

Find Scholarships Online

There are dozens of online scholarship finders. Though most are reputable, be careful. You should never pay to search for scholarships unless you really trust the website.

Here are a few reputable sources for finding scholarships online:

College Board Scholarship Search

  • Find scholarships, other financial aid and internships from more than 2,200 programs, totaling nearly $6 billion.
  • Can also find internships, loans, federal aid programs, and research grants


  • Find scholarships, internships, part-time jobs
  • 1.5 million scholarships searchable on the site


  • Search their directory of scholarships totaling over $11 billion in scholarship money
  • Helpful college search tool shows you average net price of attending the school vs the sticker price


  • Offers an “Easy apply” filter
  • Distributes a $1,000 scholarship every month
  • Currently offering a $2000 no-essay scholarship (ends April 30, 2020)


  • More than $10 billion available in scholarship awards
  • More than 1.9 million scholarships, grants, & fellowships on the site

Department of Labor Career One Stop

  • Federal scholarship search tool
  • Search 8,000 scholarships, fellowships, grants

Other Places to Find Scholarships

There are more out there than you’d think! Here are a few more ideas to kickstart your search:

  • Your state grant agency
  • Your library’s reference section
  • Foundations, religious or community organizations, local businesses, or civic groups
  • Organizations (including professional associations) related to your field of interest
  • Ethnicity-based organizations
  • Your employer or your parents’ employers

how to find college scholarships

Typical Scholarship Application Requirements

An Essay

Many scholarships require essays, similar to your college application essays. Remember that your essay will help you get free money, so have someone proofread it. Make sure it’s your best work!

Letters of Recommendation

Many scholarships also require letters of recommendation. Don’t ask just anyone for a letter of recommendation; think about who would be trusted and respected by the person reading your scholarship application. A teacher, coach, or boss could be a good candidate.

Additionally, talk with the adults you’re asking for a recommendation letter and make sure their letter coordinates with your application. For example, if you’re applying for a scholarship specific to the medical field, ask them to note any instances they’ve seen you thrive in a medical situation.

Other Ways to Save Money on College

Earn College Credits in High School

Are you enrolled in AP classes or dual-enrollment classes? Doing well in these classes can save you thousands in tuition dollars!

To get college credit for an AP class, you must take the exam and score at least a 3, although some schools may require a 4 or 5 to get credit for the class.

Dual-enrollment classes (taking a community college class to complete a high-school course requirement) are another way to earn college credit in high school. However, check with the schools you’re interested in to make sure your credits will transfer.

Free Community College Programs

Some states offer free community college for two years. This can be a wonderful way to earn some basic college credits, but again, check with your college to see what classes actually transfer to the four-year university you’d like to attend.

Federal Work-Study, or a Part-Time Job

Federal Work-Study provides part-time jobs for students with financial need. Jobs are available both on and off-campus. You can gain access to Federal Work-Study jobs by filling out the FAFSA.

Securing any part-time job allows you to financially contribute to your education. On-campus jobs usually have flexible hours that work around your class schedule. Off-campus jobs may be more demanding, but, particularly if you go to school in a college town, employers may be very willing to work with your class schedule.

If possible, find a job in a field related to your major. You’ll learn more about your field and if it is a good fit for you. Additionally, your job experience will be very relevant to future full-time positions.

Living Off-Campus

Living off campus can save you money on room and board. If you’re trying to pinch pennies, skip the dorm and find a place off-campus.

There’s no way around it; college is expensive. But with some concentrated effort and creative problem solving, you’ll find scholarship opportunities to help you reach your higher-education goals.

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