How Do Scholarships Work?

Abigail EndsleyFeb 10th, 2018


Every high schooler hears the same old speech. "No money for college? Scholarships are your golden ticket!"

But don’t you have to be some kind of high school super genius to get a scholarship? Not necessarily. There are literally millions of scholarships available for up-and-coming college students, and almost as many ways to earn them. It just takes time and effort to find them, which is exactly want to help you with.


What is a Scholarship?

The short answer: money awarded to a student for the purpose of academic study. At first glance, scholarships, grants, and financial aid sound pretty similar. However, they have a few key differences:

Financial aid is the blanket term for any financial assistance a student may need for college—whether that help comes in the form of a grant, loan, or scholarship.

Grants are “free money” typically awarded based on the student’s financial needs. They don’t need to be paid back. Student loans are borrowed money that is basically freely available to anyone, and they do need to be paid back. With interest.

Scholarships fall into neither of these categories. Scholarships are privately-funded, free gifts of money. They’re not just given to anyone, but unlike grants, scholarships must be earned.

Types of Scholarships

When I was a student considering scholarship application, I imagined getting a full ride to whichever college wanted me most. While this kind of scholarship does exist, it’s by no means the only kind you can win. (Which is good… because it’s really hard to get one of those.)

The full spectrum of scholarships range from just a couple hundred bucks to thousands and thousands of dollars, and it’s not just colleges who award them. Communities, religious institutions, and even private citizens all want you to earn your degree. And they’ll help you out a lot, if you can prove you deserve it.

Here are your basic scholarship categories:

  • Academic Scholarships - awarded based on academic performance throughout high school

  • Athletic Scholarships - awarded based on performance in a sport

  • Minority Scholarships - awarded to students who ethnically represent a minority

  • Women Scholarships - awarded to women (typically career-minded ones)

  • Creative Scholarships - awarded to students of the arts based on artistic performance

  • Community Service Scholarships - awarded based on leadership or involvement in the community

  • Competition Scholarships - awarded based on performance in a competition

  • Unusual Scholarships - awarded for literally anything else... like your ability to make a killer duck call or write a good essay about fire sprinklers. (Yes, those are both real scholarships. Google them.)

How to Find and Apply for Scholarships

Okay, so understanding scholarships isn’t that difficult. What about actually landing one? Since I’m not a scholarship expert, I decided to get advice from someone who is.

Rebecca Decker, one of our Academic Counselors, has helped thousands of students navigate the “how do I pay for college” question for over 7 years. She’s coached hundreds of students through the scholarship application process, so I figured she’d be the perfect person to ask for advice.

Rebecca recommended a simple, 3-step process that will not only ensure you’re covering all your bases, but it’ll also remove the giant ball of stress churning in your stomach.

1. Have a Plan of Attack

Rebecca recommends starting the application process the summer after your Junior year of high school. However, it’s not as simple as just starting.

Applying for scholarship after scholarship can be long and grueling, and the worst part is every scholarship is a little different. Most require essays, many require letters of recommendation, and some require even more work beyond even that.

If earning a college scholarship is important to you and your future, you can’t go in blind. You need a plan.

Unfortunately, predicting how many scholarships you’ll actually earn is nigh impossible. But you can at least decide how much effort you’ll be putting into the application process.

You can choose how much time to invest, how many scholarships you’ll apply for, etc.

When she was a student, Rebecca’s personal goal was to apply for 3 scholarships every Friday night. She treated it like a job. No matter how long it took, her responsibility was to apply for 3 scholarships every Friday night.

Once you’ve created your plan of attack, share it with your parents. Not only can they help keep you accountable, but this will also set firm expectations of how much effort you’re putting into this process. No one should be left resenting your “lack of effort” when the tuition bills start rolling in.

2. Sign Up With a Search Engine

The best way for the modern student to apply for scholarships is to use any of the million and one scholarship search engines that populate the web.

Some students think it’s advantageous to set up and manage profiles on multiple engines, but the truth is each engine typically searches the same pool of available scholarships. So save yourself the headache by sticking with just one or two.

When I asked Rebecca which scholarship search engine she recommended, she didn’t hesitate for a second: This site has you complete a general questionnaire when you set up your profile. Based on your answers, it will filter your view of the 1.5 million scholarships available, giving you easy access to every scholarship you’re eligible for.

Setting up the account is easy. But remember it doesn’t actually submit the applications for you—that’s your job.

3. Make It Happen

You couldn’t apply for a scholarship because someone hasn’t finished a reference letter? That’s not a good excuse. Remember, finding scholarships is 100% your project, and it’s up to you to make sure it happens on time.

Your teachers and friends are busy people, and they may not have the time or brain space to write five reference letters for you.

Take the lead and make the process easy for everyone: ask your reference-givers to each write a single letter and give them a deadline (nicely). Get permission to mass-produce it and then print out multiple copies with a note at the bottom stating you were given permission to mass-produce. Once you’ve printed out as many letters as you think you’ll need, bring the stack back to the author, so they can sign the copies all at once.

Winning scholarships takes effort, but with good leadership and creative organization, you can make the whole process easier on everyone involved.

If you really want to earn that money, leave your excuses behind and make things happen.

Beyond Scholarships

I wish I could tell you exactly what to apply for and how to write a winning essay. But the fact is, since the scholarship pool is so varied, the best thing you can do is follow the steps outlined above and just jump in.

However, I can leave you with one final piece of advice: while scholarships are a great way to pay for college, they may not be the best way.

Applying for scholarships is a lot of work, often for very little reward. Pushing for a free ride to a $40,000 a year school may simply be unfeasible. So in addition to earning scholarship money, consider lowering your overall college costs in other ways.

Saving money on college is our specialty here at Accelerated Pathways. With our help, most Accelerated Pathways students end up cutting their college costs in half. And they don’t have to file out a single scholarship application to do it. If you’re interested in making your bachelor’s degree affordable without bothering with the whole scholarship thing, we can help.

Either way, good luck on your college journey!

Enjoyed this post? You might also like How Does Financial Aid Work?

Abigail Endsley

A former student counselor and Accelerated Pathways student, Abigail is now a writer and Accelerated Pathways Content Manger who's passionate about empowering others to achieve their goals. When she’s not hard at work, you can find her reading, baking cupcakes, or singing Broadway songs. Loudly.