How to Find Scholarships and Avoid Student Loan Debt

By Paul Sisolak

Updated on February 26, 2018

Preparing yourself for the real costs of college, like tuition, books, and fees, can loom large over your finances. It’s easy to overlook all that available free money.

Scholarships can be a great way to lessen the number of student loans you need to borrow. Though there are thousands of scholarships available, knowing how to find scholarships is no simple task.

If you’re a prospective or current student looking to minimize your out-of-pocket cost, knowing how to find scholarships for college becomes clearer when you learn where to look. Many scholarships are within reach of the resources you already have access to, so use some of these tips to start your search.

How to find scholarships

1. Scholarships through school

Don’t let senioritis get the better of you in your last year of high school. This should be your time for applying to colleges, touring campuses, and most of all, having a money conversation with your parents.

Your school’s guidance office or bulletin board (online or in-school) should have a number of scholarship resources to choose from, like listings, fliers, or financial aid nights, as well as those for the potential colleges you’re considering.

2. Local organizations

Plenty of community clubs, groups, or organizations sponsor college scholarships. Like your scholarship search at school, check your library’s board or website for any scholarship listings they may have.

Rotary or Kiwanis clubs will often sponsor scholarships for local students and have information on how to apply. Additionally, churches, synagogues, or local nonprofit organizations are also good resources for finding higher-ed scholarships.

You might even look at the local newspaper to see if there are any contests, sweepstakes, or competitions to win a full or partial scholarship.

3. Online

There are many helpful scholarship search engines. Try some of these sites to search and apply for scholarships:

  • is one of the biggest scholarship databases on the Internet. Along with an accompanying app to search for tuition funding, the site is one of the original student scholarship resources, listing more than 3.7 million local, state, and national scholarships.
  • Fastweb is another popular scholarship website with a database purporting 1.5 million scholarships. Once you set up a profile, you’ll also be able to apply, research colleges, and obtain helpful career advice.
  • The online portal for Peterson’s boasts more than 1.5 million different undergraduate and graduate scholarships, grants, and other awards programs, which you can easily search and apply for. The site’s search page also features some highlighted scholarships that might interest certain applicants.
  • Niche is a multi-faceted site that even offers an apartment search function for off-campus students. For scholarships, you can search or be matched with the appropriate funding you’re most likely to be approved for based on your GPA, state of residence, interests, and major.
  • Scholly is the scholarship app that’s been generating a buzz and hooking up folks with over $70 million in awards. When you search and apply for a scholarship, you can use the app or log into the desktop site to track deadlines and your application status. We like Scholly for its streamlined, quick platform and accurate scholarship matching capabilities. But it does come with a $2.99 monthly charge when you sign up.

4. Your job

Many companies help employees during repayment of their student loans. Other employers, including Starbucks and Chipotle, might be able to help connect you with tuition money if you’re headed for the prestigious halls of college.

If you work a part-time job that employs many high school- or college-aged peers, check to see if they provide resources for obtaining scholarships. Or, check with your parents, a sibling, or another relative if their place of employment can be of aid.

Now that you know how to find college scholarships, consider the following tips to make the process even more seamless.

Start applying for scholarships as soon as possible

If you’re currently enrolled in college, there’s no need to wait to apply for next year’s financial aid if you’ve got some scholarships in mind. FastWeb recommends spending at least 30 minutes per day or a few hours a week on scholarship applications if you’re serious about saving on college costs.

Put in as much effort as you can

You can spend as much time as you like searching for scholarships, but how many should you be applying to? Like college applications, sending out a handful here or there isn’t doing you or your academic future justice.

Cast your net as wide as possible. Scour the resources above for as many scholarships as you can find; apply for dozens, if not hundreds, across different scholarship categories and see which ones you may win over the competition.

Get letters of recommendation

Some words of praise from a teacher, professor, or employer can be a major asset in winning a scholarship.

Many scholarship opportunities require at least one to two letters of recommendation, so give the person you’d like to write a recommendation ample lead time. Ask them to emphasize the skills or qualities that make you an ideal scholarship candidate. Always follow up with a thank-you letter, whether you’ve been granted or denied the award.

Don’t overlook smaller award amounts

It’s rare for most students to receive a full-ride scholarship covering your entire tuition — only the lucky valedictorians, Ivy League-bound scholars, or future pro athletes may qualify for those.

That doesn’t mean you should turn down smaller scholarship awards. To the contrary, if you win a bunch of awards amounting to a few hundred dollars each, they may total as much (or more) than that one large, big-ticket scholarship.

Remember other sources of funding

Relying on scholarships as your sole source of financial aid is like gambling all your money on one hand of poker. Apply optimistically, but exhaust other avenues, too.

Fill out your FAFSA each year; this will cover your bases to see if you qualify for school- or state-based financial aid, grants, or other monetary help.

Examine your federal and private student loan choices, and make a budgetdetermining how much tuition money you’ll likely be borrowing, what your interest rates are, repayment terms, and the amount you may owe.

It goes without saying that the key to qualifying for that prestigious, unique, or important scholarship tailored to your academic pursuits is to keep your grades up as high as possible. With hard work, diligence, and the knowledge of how to find scholarships for college, you can lessen your out-of-pocket expenses.

Andrew Pentis contributed to this report.

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