Many students have only just finished applying to college, but it’s never too early to start looking for scholarships. There are several options out there, from college-sponsored funds to scholarships from private organizations at the national and local levels. However, with so many available, searching for appropriate scholarships and staying organized with applications and deadlines can be almost as intimidating as applying to college in the first place. In this article, we’ve broken down the different kinds of scholarships available and explained how to find them, with an emphasis on local or community scholarships--an often overlooked resource.
It’s worth noting that most scholarship money comes from the colleges themselves in the form of merit aid—based on achievement, not financial need—rather than private scholarships from outside organizations. So, if finding additional funds for college is critical, then the most effective thing to do is research schools that will be generous with merit and/or need-based aid prior to applying. For more information on applying for financial aid, please see Carolyn's recent article.
National vs. local scholarships
Aside from the scholarships granted by colleges themselves, which are often given out to entice admitted students to enroll, most college scholarships fall into one of two categories. National scholarships, such as the National Merit Scholarship Program, or scholarships sponsored by large organizations typically have very large applicant pools and are fewer in number. Some of these scholarships can be great opportunities, but many place restrictions and requirements on applicants and it can be hard to find ones for which you might qualify.
Many students find local scholarships more accessible than the national ones. Local scholarships are often offered by community organizations, such as local businesses, clubs, or foundations, for students in a specific area. Other scholarships are specific to a high school and offered either by the school itself or an organization like the PTA or a family or memorial fund. Some scholarships offered by regional alumni/alumnae networks for a particular college also fall into this category.
Local scholarships frequently have fewer applicants than larger scholarship programs; thus, applicants have a higher probability of receiving a local scholarship. By focusing on a specific school or region, the student may find it easier to connect their experiences and interests to the qualities and accomplishments that the scholarship committee is looking for. For scholarships awarded to students at a particular high school, students are able to speak directly to their interactions with a community they know well. For these reasons, many students find that local or community scholarships can be a good financial resource.
Once you’ve decided to apply for scholarships, the next step is finding them. Luckily, the application periods for many smaller scholarships are at the end of the school year. This makes it easier for seniors so they don’t have to divide their attention between scholarship applications and college applications. However, deadlines can fall earlier in the year, so make sure to start your research early so you don’t miss one.
High schools counseling offices are usually the best resource for finding scholarship information and applications. Counseling offices will often post information about scholarships on their websites with deadlines and requirements. You can also ask your high school counselors if they know of any local scholarships that they would recommend for you. Also, check the websites of the counseling offices at your neighboring high schools; they might have information about local scholarships you would be eligible for but that your high school may not have mentioned.
Some businesses offer college scholarships to employees and their family members. If you have a parent, grandparent, aunt or uncle, or any other close relative who works for a medium-to-large business, you could ask if they know about any scholarships that you would be eligible to apply for. The same is also true if your family has membership in a civic organization, such as Rotary, or social or cultural organization.
Once you’ve determined where you’re going to college, you might be able to apply for a scholarship through the university.* Some colleges, including most UCs, will automatically consider you for scholarships as they review your application for admission. However, for some colleges, you have to apply separately for their scholarships during the admissions process or after you’ve been admitted and enrolled. Go to your college’s website to see if they offer this kind of scholarship and, if so, what the requirements are.
* These scholarships are not the same as financial aid; for more information, please see our recent financial aid article.
As you identify scholarship opportunities that are a good fit, add them to a spreadsheet that tracks deadlines and requirements; be sure to include links to the websites. Above all else, start your applications early because they may require documents and information that others have to provide, such as letters of recommendation or transcripts. Some scholarship applications have an interview component, so you’ll want to allow plenty of time for them to set up a meeting.
Make sure that you follow the scholarship’s directions exactly and include all required documents. Many scholarships ask for at least two letters of recommendation from teachers, counselors, or community members. You can usually ask the same teachers who wrote your college recommendations if they’d be willing to tweak their original letters a bit to fit the scholarship application.
Letters of recommendation
Most teachers will be happy to do this. It's critical to ask them for their recommendation early so they’ll have plenty of time and you won’t have to rush when it’s time to send in the application.
For local scholarships where the funding organizations are already very familiar with your high school, it’s a good idea to give your extracurriculars a lot of emphasis in the application. If you’re part of any community organizations or service clubs that the scholarship committee is familiar with, describing these activities will make your application stand out.
And lastly, don’t forget to send thank you notes—to your interviewer shortly after your interview and to the selection committee, if selected for the scholarship. It’s important to show gratitude to both for taking the time to evaluate you. In many cases, scholarship interviewers and selection committees are volunteers, such as alumni or community members, whose only motivation is to help young people succeed in college. Thanking them for their time shows gratitude, reflects well on you, and will benefit future applicants from your school or family by setting a good example.
There are a lot of scholarships out there, so you’ll be able to find many opportunities if you keep your eyes peeled! Above all, make sure to be diligent when you’re filling out your application and include all the required components—good luck!