How Do College Scholarships Work?

College Finance
December 3, 2019
Finding College Scholarships Is An Essential Part Of Planning For College...

The fact that scholarship aid doesn’t need to be repaid is one thing that most students understand and are excited about. However, many students may be unaware of the important distinctions between types of college scholarships. Fortunately, understanding these differences will make finding aid that matches each student’s needs a breeze!

Learning how college scholarships work can lead to wasting less time searching for scholarships you don’t qualify for and more time securing the aid you need to pay for your college education.

There are two main categories that scholarships are divided into: need based aid and merit based aid.

Qualifying for one type of aid does not necessarily prevent you from qualifying for the other. Many students use a combination of both types of scholarships to pay for their education.


What Are College Scholarships?

College scholarships are a type of aid that students do not need to repay, making them an excellent source of funding for your college education. The application process, deadlines, and eligibility requirements vary from scholarship to scholarship. Students can qualify for a variety of scholarships to help pay for the costs of college without taking on debt.

The average bachelor degree holder is burdened by $29,000 worth of student loan debt, and scholarships are an essential part of avoiding this high level of college debt.

Scholarships are offered by a variety of organizations, from state governments to private organizations. Many scholarships, especially merit based aid, depend on students maintaining grades or meeting other requirements. Scholarships have a variety of structures, with one-time payouts being just as common as yearly scholarships.

There are a wide variety of structures and funding sources of scholarships as well. Students applying for scholarships, even art and sport scholarships, will have to submit a variety of applications. However, students should never pay to apply for a scholarship, or pay fees related to the scholarship process. This is a scam that is unfortunately all too common and not only loses you money, but the precious time spent applying that could’ve been spent on a legitimate scholarship.

To help you navigate the world of college scholarships safely and effectively, let’s look closer at the types of scholarships you’ll be applying for!

Merit Based Versus Need Based Scholarships

Scholarships are often categorized in two ways: merit based aid and need based aid. These distinct categories allow students to more easily find and apply for the scholarships that match their circumstances and needs.


Merit based scholarships are awarded based on a student’s merits, such as their academic performance, involvement in the community, or display of talent. Many merit based scholarships find their funding from private sources or colleges themselves. The application for merit based scholarships will vary depending on the institution offering the aid and may include writing essays or creating a portfolio of art or other media.

Students should consider looking for merit based scholarships if they’ve accomplished any of the following during high school:


Scholarships categorized as need based take a student’s financial needs into account. A vast majority of need based scholarships come from state and federal funding. Therefore, students can access most need based scholarships by completing the FASFA. This financial aid system is designed to match students with the need based aid they’re looking for through a single application.

The amount of need based aid you receive also depends on the college you plan on attending and when you submit the FASFA. Students should complete the FASFA as early as possible each year. Many states disperse aid beginning with the first FASFA applications, so it pays to submit your application early. In addition, students are not allowed to receive aid that would exceed the total cost of attendance.

Private sources of need based scholarships do exist, and students who apply to these will need to follow the application process and rules of each individual scholarship. These private scholarships can help cover the costs of college not already covered by your aid received through the FASFA.

How To Find College Scholarships

Finding college scholarships can be an extensive task. Because there are so many different types of scholarships out there, each with their own funding and rules, it can take time to narrow down the scholarships that are relevant to you.

However, this task is essential if you’re hoping to avoid taking on student loan debt during college. Finding college scholarships via your counselors, the Internet, and colleges themselves is a simple task once you know where to look.


There are many ways to find merit based aid that matches your skills and achievements. Even if you plan to pay for college using mostly merit based aid, you should still begin your search for aid by filling out the FASFA. This ensures you receive any need based aid you’re eligible for, even if you don’t realize it! Who knows; you may not even have to pursue merit based scholarships, depending on your financial situation.

Because of this, you should always begin your college scholarship search with the FAFSA.

Counselors, teachers, and coaches also make a great starting point for your search for merit based scholarships. Often, they will have been involved in helping students before you find scholarships as well. Even if these mentors don’t know of any applicable merit based aid for you, they will be able to point you in the right direction.

Your next step should be to turn to your favorite search engine and search: ‘scholarships for X’ with X being the type of merit aid you’re looking for. For example, ‘scholarships for a 4.0 GPA’ will bring up a laundry list of potential scholarships to apply for. Some of these scholarships, however, may be school specific.

Many colleges offer merit scholarships to admitted students with high grades or standardized test scores. Additionally, colleges across the country offer a variety of sports scholarships that allow students to pay for their education while playing the sport they love. Colleges with humanities or liberal arts focus often award arts scholarships to talented students as well. If you already know what college you have your heart set on, look for any merit based scholarships they specifically offer, and consider contacting their admissions department with any questions you have!


Students looking at their need based scholarship options should take an in-depth look at the FASFA and complete it as soon as possible. Completing the FASFA allows you to be considered for a large array of state and federal need based aid.

After filling out the FAFSA, talking to your college counselor about your specific financial needs allows them to guide you toward additional need based scholarships. In addition to government aid, there is a variety of need based aid funded by private organizations. Working individually and with your college counselor to narrow down the need based aid that matches your circumstances helps simplify your search for college funding.

Additionally, one of the best ways to locate need based aid outside of the FASFA is to contact the colleges you’re interested in attending yourself. Many well-known colleges, including Ivy Leagues, offer need based aid to admitted students. Make a habit of asking about financial aid during college fairs and visits so you’re aware of how each college awards need based aid.

Why You Should Take College Scholarships Seriously

College is regarded as one of the best investments you can make in your future. In fact, the numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics speak for themselves: those with a bachelor’s degree bring home nearly $500 per week more than those with only a high school diploma.

Of course, to make the most of your investment in a college education, you should focus on making it through college while taking on as little debt as possible. That’s where scholarships come in. As the costs of college continue to rise, students turn to scholarship opportunities to help pay for their essential college education. 31% of college costs in the 2018 - 2019 semester were covered by scholarships. With an average college cost of $26,226, scholarships and grant money play a significant role in paying for college for the average student.

As such, both merit based and need based scholarships are essential parts of any plan to pay for college without going into debt. The more costs students can cover with need based aid, the less merit based aid they have to apply for. When a student can cover a large amount of their overall costs with scholarships, they can take out fewer student loans as well.

If that sounds like a lot of moving parts to consider, our WeAdmit counselors are well versed in all types of financial aid, and we’re eager to help. We work with our students throughout the entire college application process, and that includes helping students identify the colleges that will be most likely to award them with scholarships.

With an experienced team of college counselors by your side, you’ll feel more confident in applying for scholarships and securing the financial aid you need to attend your dream college!

So, Let’s Start Searching For Scholarships!



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