All of Your Questions About Scholarships, Answered!

Scholarships FAQ
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    Introduction: Scholarships Q&A

    Let’s get real for a sec. 

    Navigating the world of scholarships can be confusing! 

    Whether you’re a first-time applicant or a seasoned searcher, there are always questions to be asked about everything in the name of scholarships. 

    While many of our blog posts do make a point to answer many of the most common questions related to scholarships, having a singular informative and regularly updated page to refer back to with all of your scholarship queries can’t hurt! 

    So, without further ado, keep scrolling to learn all about scholarships!

    General questions about scholarships

    What is a scholarship?

    A scholarship is free money that you can earn or win to put towards paying for your higher education. Money that you win from applying to scholarships is, objectively, the best form of financial aid out there, because it does not need to be repaid, ever (if you come across a scholarship that indicates it does need to be repaid, then you have been tricked, and it’s not legit!).

    There are scholarships out there for students pursuing all types of degrees. Some scholarships are open to community college students, others are for students going after four-year undergraduate degrees, and others are created specifically for graduate students.

    What is a merit scholarship?

    A merit scholarship is one specific type of scholarship that you can apply for. When we’re talking about scholarships, the term ‘merit’ just means that the scholarship is taking into account your academic profile, achievements and abilities, as opposed to your level of financial need. 

    Most opportunities fall into one of the following three categories:

    • Merit scholarships (what I just mentioned above) 
    • Need-based scholarships - take into account your family income and your level of financial need (aka, how much do you NEED this scholarship to help you pay for school?) 
    • A mix of both - some scholarships (like The Gates Scholarship) take both merit and need into consideration when narrowing down and selecting applicants

    How do scholarships work?

    The process of searching and applying for scholarships is in some ways very similar to the college application process.

    Let’s walk through the steps...

    1. Start by getting organized - download my Scholarship Tracker spreadsheet to get started!
    2. Once you have your ducks in a row, you can brainstorm and conduct research to see what opportunities are out there that you’re eligible to apply for. A few common places to search for scholarships include: 
      1. Your school’s website - if you’re in high school, check out your counselor page; if you’re in college, head to your school’s financial aid page or website for more information
      2. Scholarship search engines like ours
      3. Google - If you’re going to search on Google, I recommend being as specific as possible!
      4. Social media - follow scholarships accounts and hashtags such as #highschoolscholarships or #payingforcollege on Instagram
      5. Think local - reach out to small businesses, family, friends, sports coaches, religious leaders, and other people in your area to inquire about local opportunities
    3. You’ve done your searching, so now you have a list of scholarships that you’re eligible for. Time to get applying! This often means filling out a scholarship application, which is similar to a college application. Depending on the scholarship, you might also have to upload or fill in with a few extra materials, like one or more essays, letters of recommendation, school transcript, proof of FAFSA completion, a video or portfolio, etc.
    4. While you wait to hear back, cross your fingers and keep applying for more scholarships!

    How is a student loan different from a scholarship?

    Student loans (another way to pay for college) are VERY different from scholarships, for one reason and one reason only: money that you receive through student loans is money that you borrow, and must repay with interest.

    This is in complete contrast with scholarships, which do not need to be repaid ever!

    Are scholarships taxable?

    According to the IRS, scholarships are not taxable if you meet both of the following conditions:

    1. You're a candidate for a degree at an educational institution that maintains a regular faculty and curriculum and normally has a regularly enrolled body of students in attendance at the place where it carries on its educational activities; and, 
    2. The amounts you receive are used to pay for tuition and fees required for enrollment or attendance at the educational institution, or for fees, books, supplies, and equipment required for courses at the educational institution.”

    On the other hand, scholarships are technically taxable (aka, must be included in your gross income) if the money is used or put towards education-related expenses such as room and board, travel, or optional equipment.

    What are some common scholarship scams out there, and how can I avoid them?

    In one of the earlier questions’ answers, I mentioned that if an opportunity claims to be a scholarship but makes any mention of having to pay back the winnings, then it’s not a scholarship - it’s a scam!

    That is one of the main indicators of a scholarship scam, but there are a few more that you should be aware of as you embark on your scholarship journey. 

    A scholarship is MOST LIKELY a scam if it…

    • Requires an application fee (note: this is different from a membership fee to an organization)
    • Asks for your credit card information or other unrelated financial information 
    • Guarantees that you will win if you apply - nothing in life is guaranteed! 

    In general, if you come across a scholarship that seems promising but something just looks ~off~, don’t be afraid to do some investigating into the opportunity before you take the leap and apply. 

    A few things to look for that scream “I am in fact a legitimate opportunity!” are:

    • You can see previous winners on the application page for the scholarship (check out our $1,000 scholarship page for an example)
    • All of the spelling and grammar on the application page is correct
    • The provider’s website (and the application page) have clearly been updated in recent weeks or months

    “How to” questions about scholarships

    How to get a scholarship?

    It’s one thing to apply for scholarships, but winning them is a whole different story. Getting a scholarship means you not only found an opportunity that you’re a good fit for, but you also clearly met/exceeded the minimum requirements and proved to the committee through your submissions that you are deserving of the funds. 

    At the end of the day, applying ≠ winning. Here are a few ways that you can make yourself a competitive applicant, all of which will hopefully lead to you winning some scholarships:

    • Make sure you at least meet all of the minimum eligibility requirements. If the scholarship says that you need a 3.5 GPA to apply, and you have a 3.46, do not apply, because you will not be selected!
    • Keep your grades up. As you go through your journey with scholarships, you’ll find that most of the big money opportunities will ask you to upload a copy of your transcript. While grades aren’t everything, being able to show a scholarship committee that you are excelling academically (bonus points if you are doing so while taking rigorous courses) is a plus. 
    • Get your resume in tip-top shape. While not all opportunities will require you to upload one, some do! So, if your resume could use some updating, get it done
    • Do not skimp out on the essays/additional submissions. When you apply to college, your essays are often the only opportunity that you have to give the admissions committee real insight into who you are as a person. The same thing goes with scholarship essays, which is why it’s crucial that you put the time and effort into them that they deserve.

    How to apply for scholarships?

    Earlier on in this post, I outlined the 4 key steps in applying for scholarships. If you missed it, scroll up! 

    How to get a full ride scholarship?

    Winning a full-ride scholarship is no walk in the park, with the primary reason being that these scholarships are worth a LOT of money! 

    To be honest, my advice on how to get a full-ride scholarship is not much different from my advice on how to win any other scholarship. Here are the two exceptions.

    Some, but not all, full-ride scholarships have some element of financial need involved. This means that you can be more likely to expect an additional essay question along the lines of “Why do you deserve this scholarship?”. If you come across this prompt, make sure you know the right way to answer it (hint: DON’T start your essay with “I deserve this scholarship because…”). 

    Second, many full-ride scholarships will require finalists to interview with the scholarship committee before being officially selected or not selected for an award. When you apply for full-ride opportunities, be prepared for the interviews.

    How to write a scholarship essay?

    While the answer to this question largely depends on the question that is being asked, here are a few general tips for writing winning scholarship essays:

    1. Answer all of the questions being asked. Unless otherwise stated, there is no reason to cherry pick (aka, only answer the questions you want to answer!) 
    2. Do your research on the scholarship and the organization offering it. This can help you to get a better idea of what type of essay they might prefer (some organizations will clearly state that they want a straightforward response, whereas others might allow more room for creativity) 
    3. Don’t be afraid to go outside your comfort zone in terms of the way that you start your essay, or how you make your point. Uniqueness, if done correctly, can definitely be rewarded here.
    4. While creativity and uniqueness is important, don’t lose sight of the basic essay-writing guidelines. This means using proper formatting, checking for spelling and grammar, and organizing your essay in a way that flows/is easy to read. 

    How to write a thank you letter for a scholarship?

    If you’ve been lucky enough to have been chosen for a scholarship, congrats!

    Now that you’ve won some money, the last thing on your to-do list (at least, it should be on your to-do list) is to write the organization/committee a thank-you letter.

    Plymouth State University offers a great resource featuring templates for such letters. Check it out once you’ve won a scholarship, or even before you’ve won one - after all, we’re all about manifesting success over here!

    Ready to start searching and applying for scholarships?

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