How To Get Scholarships: Tips for a Successful Hunt

Do you need money to go to college? One of our favorite student staff writers has some hard-won advice. He’s managed to raise thousands of dollars to fund his education. Here’s Johnny…

Attending college has been a rewarding experience for me, but it has not been without its challenges. One of the biggest obstacles I faced – all too familiar for many – was figuring out how to pay for my education.

I didn’t follow a traditional path to college, and finding money to pay for school has, at times, been difficult. But after years of navigating the vast financial aid landscape, I finally figured out how to do this well. Here are my tips to get the most money for college.


Take Your Time. Make a Plan for College

I started college later than many students. After graduating from high school, I worked for a few years in retail, manual labor, and food service before I decided to return to school.

Over that time, I figured out exactly what I wanted to major in, not based on what majors were in demand or what friends and family suggested, but on what I was passionate about and good at: writing and music.

I took the time to research schools and programs that were best for me, both academically and financially. To save some money, I earned a two-year degree in English at my local community college before transferring to The New School in New York City, where I am today.

I am grateful that I took the time to figure out what program works best for me. I am not sure I would have made the best decision fresh out of high school.

Going straight to college after high school is not for everyone. Neither is attending college full-time. Talk to your school counselors, family members, program directors, and friends to get different perspectives. Ultimately, you need to decide what path and timing is best for you. Make sure school is worth it!


Find Yourself First. Then Look for Scholarship Opportunities

One thing I’ve learned on my hunt for scholarships is that there are opportunities for everyone. It is important to focus your scholarship search on your interests, strengths, experiences, and background.

Start with your aspirations. One of the best ways to get started is to find funding in your field of study or that’s aligned to your work experience. What are your current or past jobs? What is your major? What specific things do you hope to study? What are your passions?

I am a double major in jazz guitar and journalism. Believe it or not, there is considerable funding for the arts – both fine arts and liberal arts. Instead of looking for general music-related scholarships and grants, I searched for ones specific to jazz musicians. I even found scholarships for guitar players.

Instead of doing a broad search for journalism, I dug deeper to find funding opportunities for arts journalists and investigative journalists. Be as specific as possible.

Not interested in music or journalism? There are plenty of scholarships, grants, and fellowships in all kinds of fields. There’s money in farming. There’s money for information technology. There’s money for environmental justice. Cast a wide net, and then dig deeper.


Get Creative. Don’t Limit Yourself to Scholarship Websites

Scholarship websites are a good place to start, but be sure to look further. Here are a few examples:

  • Nonprofits can be helpful. I looked at jazz and writing organizations that provide opportunities that weren’t listed in scholarship databases or search engines.


  • Check to see if your employer offers college tuition help. Larger companies such as Apple, Home Depot, Starbucks, and Target offer various forms of tuition reimbursement or assistance.


  • Maybe you have some talent you hadn’t considered. As a former self-employed worker, I have applied for grants for young entrepreneurs.


  • Don’t forget to think about your personal background. Many organizations offer grants and scholarships based on students’ race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, and gender identity. I was awarded a grant from the Asian & Pacific Islander Scholarship Fund based on my Japanese heritage, grades, and career goals.


Last but not least, look for merit-based scholarships. Merit aid is typically awarded based on academics. But there are other types of merit as well. Think about your specific accomplishments, such as an outstanding record of community service.

Most colleges offer some form of merit aid. Some schools award merit aid automatically based on a student’s transcript. Others may require you to submit an application. Make sure to research the funding opportunities for each school you apply to.


Play the Long Game. Look Constantly for Opportunities

Finding funding is an ongoing process. Most students are in college for two to five years or more, which means you’ll need to search and apply for funding for each year you’re in school. Did you miss a scholarship opportunity this year? You will probably be able to apply for it next year. Keep track of important dates and application requirements.

And new opportunities are always opening up. Keep searching for funding opportunities on scholarship websites and through your school.

If you’re in high school, check in regularly with your counselor and make sure you’re signed up for any email updates or newsletters that may include scholarship opportunities. If you’re currently in college, keep checking in with the financial aid office. If you applied for a scholarship or grant in prior year, check it out again!


Appeal, Appeal and Appeal for More College Aid

While we are mostly talking about private scholarships, remember that it is your college that is likely to give you the most aid. Schools rely on your FAFSA to determine how much federal aid you are eligible for. They also offer need and merit-based grants funded through their endowments.

If the financial aid package you’re offered is not enough, appeal. This is especially important if your financial circumstances have changed since the filing of the taxes that your current FAFSA looks at, or if your family incurred big expenses that the FAFSA didn’t ask about.

For example, as an independent student, the FAFSA asked that I submit proof of income through tax documents from years ago when my parents supported me. This left me ineligible for maximum funding via the Pell Grant and loans offered by the federal government. I reached out to my school’s financial aid office to discuss the matter, submitted updated documentation, and obtained $5000 more for school.

Additionally, my school allows students to appeal for merit and need-based aid on a yearly basis. The last time I did this, I received $1,000 more! If you think the school made a mistake regarding your aid eligibility, it never hurts to point this out and see if more aid might be available. Make sure to take great care when providing accurate materials and describing your situation for the best chance of success.



This is perhaps the most important tip I can give you when searching for educational funding.

So I will say it again: DON’T BE AFRAID TO ASK FOR HELP!

Finding money for school can be confusing and overwhelming, but there are many resources and professionals available to help.

This website is a great start. School counselors and local librarians can also help. They may have access to exclusive databases and search engines. They can teach you search tips and point you toward helpful resources. And they have lots of advice on applying for college.

Also be sure to talk to friends or family members who may be able to help. When I needed to fill a gap in my tuition funding that could not be met through scholarships or traditional loans, I reached out to my extended family. My uncle stepped in to assist.

Everyone’s situation is different, and these resources are not always available, but it is important to look around and see what is possible. You may be surprised by what turns up.


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