How Scholarships Work (2023)

Most people already have a vague idea about what a scholarship is -- money that someone gives you to pay for school. That's actually pretty close. Basically, a scholarship (or a grant or a fellowship) is a sum of money awarded to a student in order to help him or her further his or her education. Instead of a loan, which accrues interest, or need-based financial aid, which is usually doled out by universities, scholarships are gifts that don't need to be paid back.

Scholarship money can come from any number of sources. There are scholarships provided by governments, corporations, universities or any organization with a little goodwill and some money to burn. Many famous scholarships come from stipulations in the wills of philanthropists. For instance, the Rhodes scholarship, which is one of the most prestigious scholarships in the world, is named for the diamond baron and fervent colonialist Cecil Rhodes, who founded Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Rhodes created a trust in his will that pays for a select group of exceptional students to study at the University of Oxford in England every year. Former Rhodes scholars include sportscaster Pat Haden, pundit Rachel Maddow and former president Bill Clinton.


However, though a scholarship isn't a loan, it's not just free money either. Most organizations that offer them consider them an investment rather than a gift. For that reason, scholarships usually have strings attached. Athletic scholarships come with the expectation of maintaining a certain grade point average as well as performing on the field. Scholarships may also be contingent on entering a certain career, such as medicine or library science. Others may expect certain acts of service, like Merrill Lynch's Partnership Scholars Program, which offers a $2,000 scholarship to worthy applicants in exchange for 50 hours of mentoring middle school students.

In this article, we'll take a look at some of the different types of scholarships, what it takes to get them and why just because you have a scholarship doesn't mean you'll be using it to pay tuition.



  1. Individual Scholarships
  2. Athletic Scholarships
  3. Merit Scholarships
  4. How Scholarship Money is Used
  5. Searching for Scholarships

Individual Scholarships

Not all scholarships are directed at the overachiever who's a star football player and earns a perfect SAT score. If a student can get into a college, he or she has a chance at receiving some kind of scholarship, period. One of the more common ways to get a scholarship is to apply for an individual-based program that offers scholarships that funnel applicants into specific career paths. For instance, anyone intending to be a doctor, dentist or nurse should have no trouble finding funding, provided they're willing to enter into a service obligation after they've completed their training. The National Health Service Corps gives out free ride scholarships for future health care workers in exchange for two years of clinical practice in a health care arena where there's a shortage of workers, like rural dentistry or vision care. The Army, Navy and Air Force also award this kind of funding through the ROTC program.

Even who you are can be a cause for scholarship. The Knights of Columbus offer 62 awards of $1,500 each for Catholic students who show academic potential, and the Jewish Community Center offers up to $10,000 a year to graduate students. Many scholarships are offered based on ancestry. Students of Chinese, Polish, Danish, Japanese and Italian descent (just to name a few) all have scholarships open to them. And, if you can prove you're a direct descendant of one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, you're eligible for $1,500 from the Descendants of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence Scholarship committee.


How about even more specific scholarships? The Evans Scholars Foundation offers full tuition scholarships to former golf caddies of exceptional character. The requirements for individual scholarships get even stranger, like the Fred and Mary F. Beckley Scholarship, which awards a sum of money every year to needy southpaws. Here are a few more odd duck scholarships, only one of which is actually duck-related:

  • The Klingon Language Institute offers $500 every year for one special student who's studying foreign languages.
  • The Vegetarian Resource Group Scholarship gives $10,000 for promoting the cause of vegetarianism in school and the community.
  • The Duck Brand Duct Tape Stuck at Prom Scholarship grants $6,000 to the couple that makes and wears the best prom outfits made entirely out of duct tape.
  • The Sophie Major Memorial Duck Calling Contest awards $1,500 to the finest duck call by a high school senior.
  • The OP Loftbed Scholarship offers $500 for answering a set of questions including, "What is the coolest object you've ever found?" and "Tell us your favorite story about your favorite pet." (Mentioning loft beds isn't required but is encouraged.)

Next up, we'll take a look at athletic scholarships to find out whether all that practice you did on your high school bowling team can help you pay for school.


Athletic Scholarships

How Scholarships Work (2)

Unlike the individual scholarships we just discussed, which usually come from outside sources, most money for athletic scholarships comes directly from the schools' athletic departments. Universities budget a certain amount of money for attracting top athletes, and athletic grants exist for all kinds of sports, not just basketball and football. There are literally hundreds of athletic grants for golf, for instance, plus many more for uncommon sports, such as fencing and water polo. Coppin State University in Maryland even offers a grant for weight lifting.

Athletics at the university level in the United States are divided into three divisions. Division I, which mostly includes large schools with intense sports culture, offers the most money to their athletes, but also demands the most time and commitment in return. Division II sports are mostly smaller schools with less money for a large athletics program but still playing at a highly competitive level. Division II athletes are more likely to get supplementary scholarships rather than free rides, but there's also less pressure on the field. Between Divisions I and II, 126,000 athletes in the United States receive about $1 billion every year [source: Nitardy]. Finally, Division III sports have the least funding and don't award athletics scholarships. Financial aid packages can be more generous for athletes applying at Division III schools, but in general, Division III athletes are in it for the love of the game.


The application process for a sports scholarship is a little different from other scholarships, partly because coaches are actively interested in recruiting new and talented athletes. Rather than waiting for applicants, every year coaches send out mass recruitment mailings to players who appear in all-regional rankings national lists. Many athletes get recruited just by writing a letter to a coach at the school of their choice or sending in a performance DVD.

However, there are many factors that go into the selection process for an athletic scholarship. Colleges look not only for talent on the field, but for players who will excel academically. Many incoming athletes end up having to adjust their expectations when they find they're no longer big fish in small ponds. It's not uncommon for freshman to be benched for an entire year to train while they wait for a spot to open up on the starting lineup.

Title IX

Forty years ago, only 1 in 27 girls played high school sports. College athletics for women were few and far between, not to mention athletic scholarships and funding. Title IX, which was passed in 1972, leveled the playing field by requiring that athletics money be split equally between men's and women's sports. In many cases, this meant cutting men's programs to enforce fairness, especially in Division I schools that were heavily invested in high-profile college sports like football and basketball. However, while this meant an enormous windfall for women's athletics scholarships, even today we have yet to achieve parity -- male athletes still receive $136 million more than females in NCAA college athletics scholarships [source: Title IX info].


Merit Scholarships

In order for someone to give you money for school, you must be doing at least something well. Merit scholarships are the ones that come to mind when you think of the general idea of a scholarship -- the money awarded to the girl who got a perfect SAT score, the class president who's also a virtuoso violinist or the boy who spends 30 hours per week working in a soup kitchen. These scholarships are for the leaders of tomorrow: the brilliant, the talented, the dedicated and, occasionally, the cutthroat.

There are two reasons merit-based scholarships are awarded. The first is to recognize that the most talented people aren't necessarily going to come from socioeconomic backgrounds that can afford the best education. Merit-based scholarships offer an opportunity for truly talented minds to blossom rather than to just slip through the cracks. As former Vice President Dan Quayle once famously said on the subject, "What a terrible thing it is to lose one's mind." That may not sound quite the way he meant it, but his heart was in the right place.


Merit-based scholarships also benefit the community. We all win out when the math genius is working on theorems at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology instead of mopping the floors. Wasted talent isn't just something that hurts individuals -- it hurts the community when people aren't living up to their potential. States, for instance, all offer merit-based scholarships for in-state students as a way to make sure that the talent stays at home, and businesses offer merit-based scholarships partly to foster a strong relationship with incoming talent.

There are literally tens of thousands of merit-based scholarships out there. Some measure merit more conventionally, like the National Merit Scholarship Program, which selects their recipients based on their PSAT scores. Others, like the Arts Recognition and Talent Search and Project Imagine, award money based on potential and exceptional talent in the fine arts.

Finally, there are thousands of contests that award scholarships. These, however, can be the most competitive. For example, the National Geographic Society offers a $25,000 scholarship for first place in their Geography Bee, but winners have to beat out literally millions of other applicants. Likewise, the Intel Science and Engineering Fair gives out $3 million every year for exceptional science, math and engineering projects.

But wait. How does that scholarship money actually get used? Next up is the truth behind where your scholarship money goes.


How Scholarship Money is Used

How Scholarships Work (3)

So, it's time to go to college. Your grades are tight, you've applied to your top schools, and you've just been awarded a $1,000 scholarship as a prize in the local poetry contest (it was for your brilliant "Tears of a Clownfish," a solemn aquarium meditation). Things look pretty good. Sure, you weren't lucky enough to get a free ride scholarship that pays for tuition, books and living expenses, but every little bit helps. Even a meager $500 scholarship can mean the difference between eating hot mac and cheese in the cafeteria or rummaging in dumpsters for old bagels, right?

Not quite. When they're calculating how much financial aid to award a student, most colleges count scholarships as part of a student's financial assets and offer aid accordingly, rather than allocating those funds for tuition. Say, for instance, that a semester of college costs $10,000. Five thousand dollars might come from need-based loans, while the other $5,000 is expected to be paid in full. The poetry scholarship got you a cool grand, so your out-of-pocket tuition should come to only $4,000, except that it doesn't. Financial aid is always in short supply, which means that most schools, instead of counting your scholarship toward taking a chunk out of your tuition, consider it part of your previous assets. Instead of subtracting the $1,000 from your own contribution, it gets subtracted from whatever loans or grants you may have been getting from the school according to your individual needs. And while it may mean that you'll have less to pay off in the future, you'll still need to scrape together $5,000 to pay for your tuition. You still might need those bagels after all.


But scholarships do carry some advantages. One perk is that they make students much more attractive to universities. Money that you bring in as a student means less money that your school actually has to allocate to pay for you to study and live there. These days, it's impossible for most financial aid programs to offer support for all students. Schools everywhere in this economy are strapped for cash, slashing budgets and reducing services left and right, so any extra money that comes in from scholarships takes some of the pressure off. For every student who brings in money on a scholarship, the money that would have gone to them (whether through loans or need-based financial aid) can be spent on funding other students' educations.

Next up, we'll hunt down those elusive scholarships.


Searching for Scholarships

One of the most difficult aspects of obtaining scholarships is that it's hard to find a way to track them down. It's all well and good if a benevolent billionaire is offering up a fully paid scholarship to a talented young bagpipe player and you just happen to be the fastest bagpiper west of the Mississippi, but how are you supposed to know about it?

You learn about most scholarships the same way that humans have been finding out information since the Stone Age -- by asking around. It's crude, it's blunt and it takes a little bit of effort, but walking up to a guidance counselor or coach and saying, "Hey, do you know anybody who'll give me some money for college?" works much better than waiting by the window with fingers crossed, hoping that billionaire bagpipe lover comes knocking on the door. Guidance counselors and coaches will also know more about local scholarships, the kind that are either too small or too specific to show up in financial aid handbooks or online.


Finally, scholarship-seekers can never go wrong with the Internet, and there are a few highly reliable free search sites for tracking down scholarship material:

  • The College Board -- Perhaps best known for administering the SAT, The College Board is a nonprofit organization with a search that accesses more than 2,300 sources of funding worth a total of $3 billion.
  • FastWeb -- Operated by, FastWeb offers a free scholarship search in exchange for contact information.
  • MACH25 -- MACH25 is a free search engine that matches scholarships with user profiles.
  • Paco Tomei's Scholarship List -- A bare-bones Web site and LISTSERV, Paco Tomei's Scholarship List collects upcoming fellowship and grant opportunities for students of all academic levels.

One thing that all scholarship searchers have to be on the lookout for is fake scholarships. With so much on the line, it's fairly easy to come up with a scam to lure trusting or desperate parents and students. Be wary of any organization or scholarship search service that guarantees acceptance, lacks sufficient contact information or requires suspicious fees. Awards organizations are trying to give away money, not the other way around, and it's all too easy to offer a paltry $500 scholarship in exchange for hundreds of $50 application fees.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • How College Admission Works
  • How College Rankings Work
  • How College Financial Aid Works
  • How SATs Work
  • Universities and Colleges

  • "32 Weird Scholarships Almost Anyone Can Get." College and 2009. (Dec. 21, 2009).
  • Leider, Anna and Robert. "Don't Miss Out: The Ambitious Student's Guide to Financial Aid." Octameron Associates. 2005.
  • "The Merrill Lynch Scholarship." Gear Up Chicago. 2009. (Dec. 28, 2009).
  • Nitardy, Nancy. "Get Paid to Play: Every Student Athlete's Guide to Over $1 Million in College Scholarships." Kaplan Publishing. 2007.
  • Peterson's College Money Handbook. Nelnet. 2008.
  • Title IX Info. "Athletics." 2009. (Dec. 20, 2009).


How do you answer how a scholarship will help you? ›

Your response to this question should lay out a plan for your future. Explain what or who inspired you to pursue a particular field and why. Include how this scholarship will help you on your career path and what you would like to do once you have completed college or the program.

How do you answer why I should win this scholarship? ›

You Deserve This Scholarship Because You Have Passion and Persistence. Letting your passion show through in your answer allows the committee to see your dedication. You deserve this scholarship based on your love of learning, your enjoyment of your field, or your passion for growth.

How does scholarships work? ›

You earn them by meeting or exceeding certain standards set by the scholarship-giver. Merit scholarships might be awarded based on academic achievement or on a combination of academics and a special talent, trait, or interest. Other scholarships are based on financial need.

How this scholarship will affect your life? ›

Scholarships Impact can go from reducing the financial burden of the rising costs of a college education to allowing students to find more time and energy to focus on studies rather than part-time work, scholarships are one piece in the puzzle of what creates a strong foundation for supporting students in their success ...

How will a $3000 scholarship for education make a difference in your life? ›

$3,000 is enough to make a dent in college costs. It's enough to feed a family of four for multiple months. Yet often, $3,000 will not cover one dose of cancer medication. The pharmaceutical world is racked by high costs, and for cancer patients who require frequent treatment, medication is often cripplingly expensive.

What makes you a great scholarship candidate? ›

Scholarship committees are looking for individuals who show integrity and moral character. You can show this in your everyday life by working hard, doing your best, and treating others with respect. However, you also need to show your character through your online presence.

How do you stand out in a scholarship interview? ›

Talk about the things that make you stand out - academic or athletic achievements, service or leadership experience, and special interests. These qualities and successes make you unique. If you've completed a senior research project on a topic that you're passionate about, talk about it with the interview committee!

How to win scholarships? ›

Top Tips for Winning Scholarships for College
  1. Create an accomplishments resume. ...
  2. Don't miss deadlines. ...
  3. Complete the scholarship matching profile thoroughly. ...
  4. Apply to as many scholarships as possible. ...
  5. Look for scholarship listing books. ...
  6. Find local scholarships on bulletin boards. ...
  7. Tap into family connections.

What is a good sentence for scholarship? ›

Example Sentences

She got a scholarship to Yale University. The organization is offering five $5,000 scholarships. The essay is a work of serious scholarship. The book is about his life and scholarship.

Why is scholarship important for students? ›

Scholarships teach students the value of giving back

By providing financial assistance, educational institutions give students the opportunity to reach and complete their higher education.

How much do scholarships usually give you? ›

Typically in the range of $50 to $500, they could cover a semester's worth of textbooks or lab fees. Many times, a smaller scholarship will have fewer requirements and be less competitive.

How do people get full scholarships? ›

Most students earn full ride scholarships because of their academic history, athletic prowess, leadership or merit. But other types of these scholarships can be offered by schools for different reasons, and they can be offered by the school, state or federal government or by private organizations.

How do you start a scholarship essay? ›

The best choice is to write an attention-grabbing sentence. It should be something persuading or intriguing that will make a person continue reading your essay with great interest. Avoid long explanations or introductions. Instead, this sentence should be short and clear.

How do you argue for more scholarship money? ›

Contact your school's admissions office and complete the necessary paperwork. Ask the school if it can offer more scholarship money to make your attendance more feasible. Applicants should use family circumstances as compelling reasons for the school to reconsider.

How will receiving a scholarship make a difference to you *? ›

Stories Shine a Light on Impact of Generosity

For students, receiving a scholarship can mean working two jobs instead of three, cutting back on hours working to pay the bills and investing that time into their studies, which certainly will pay dividends.

What would this scholarship mean to you? ›

This scholarship means more to me than just obtaining money; it also means that I am viewed as having potential for the future of our society. I will continuously have individuals to thank for my accomplishments, and I greatly appreciate the generous financial support I have been given to pursue my education.

How do you impress scholarship judges? ›

There are six ways to ensure your application impresses the scholarship committee judging your entry and how to win college scholarships:
  1. First Impression is KEY.
  2. Follow Directions.
  3. Essay Scholarships Must Address the Essay Topic.
  4. Showcase your uniqueness.
  5. Judges really like these qualities in applicants.

What should you not say in a scholarship interview? ›

This can be a difficult question to answer, especially because all of the other candidates are likely similarly qualified. Steer clear of talking about your GPA or extra-curriculars. Instead, focus on your work ethic, and how you are the ideal candidate for this specific scholarship.

Can I wear jeans to a scholarship interview? ›

Dress the Part

Also, if you want the scholarship, dress as you would for a professional interview. Do not wear jeans or anything in poor condition. Stick to business casual clothing such as dresses, slacks, collared shirts and skirts. The more professional you look, the more seriously your interviewer will take you!

What grades do scholarships look at? ›

Some scholarship committees only consider applicants whose GPA meets a certain threshold. Minimum requirements range from around 2.0 on the lower end to 3.75 or higher for competitive academic scholarships. Generally speaking, a 3.0 GPA or higher will give you a decent shot at qualifying for a variety of scholarships.

How hard is it to win scholarships? ›

Odds of Winning a Scholarship

Only about 1 in 8 college students wins a scholarship, and the average amount used to pay for college is about $4,200 a year. Very few students win $25,000 or more in scholarships each year (only about 0.1%). Among the students who win scholarships, 97% win $2,500 or less.

How do colleges decide who gets scholarships? ›

A merit scholarship is awarded based entirely on a student's merits, such as academics, test scores, extracurricular activities, community service and more, and it is not based on your family's need for financial aid.

How do scholarships encourage students? ›

On one hand, scholarships provide financial help to the budding players which helps to encourage them to skill their game, while on the other hand awards and felicitations help them to come into the sight of people which boosts their confidence.

How long should scholarship essays be? ›

First, consider the basic format of your essay: You will be asked to type your essay as part of your scholarship application. indicated. Your essay should be around 500 words or less.

What do I say in a scholarship essay? ›

A typical scholarship essay topic will likely ask students about their career goals and their plan to achieve those goals, Matthews says. Other essay prompts might ask students what they've done to make their community a better place or to describe a personal achievement and how they overcame challenges to reach it.

How do you write a strong scholarship application? ›

Think about what you believe your best characteristics and accomplishments are and if possible include them in your application. Respond directly to application criteria – i.e. if one of the criteria for application is leadership potential then mention your leadership skills and give an example when you have used them.

How would you describe yourself to scholarship donors? ›

Mention hobbies, experiences and goals that match what the review committee is looking for. Something unique that sets you apart from other applicants. This may be volunteer experience, career specialties, situational differences (growing up in an area that didn't encourage education), etc.

What are the advantages of scholarship? ›

Another advantage of a scholarship is that there is no need to pay back the funding. Usually, scholarships will cover more than just your fees. Scholarships also give you an opportunity to network and will boost your CV as it showcases your academic merit. However, scholarships do come with their disadvantages.

How can a scholarship applicant stand out? ›

A scholar's tips for a standout scholarship application
  1. Start early and don't rush. The best thing you can do for yourself when applying for scholarships is to take it slow. ...
  2. Be strategic. ...
  3. Be confident! ...
  4. Ask for help if you need it. ...
  5. Be authentic. ...
  6. Don't limit yourself.

How do you rock a scholarship interview? ›

How to Ace Your Scholarship Interview
  1. Do Your Homework. The most important thing to do before any interview is prepare. ...
  2. Dress the Part. Also, if you want the scholarship, dress as you would for a professional interview. ...
  3. Be Real. ...
  4. Let Your Personality Shine.


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