When Should High School Students Apply For Scholarships

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    A scholarship is money you apply for to help cover college expenses. It is separate from financial aid and does not need to be paid back. There is no shortage of scholarships you can apply to and the earlier you start your research, the more opportunities there will be available to you!

    While you will be eligible to apply to scholarships each year you are in high school, there are a significantly greater number of scholarships you can apply to in the second half of your junior year and your senior year. That said, you can start applying for college scholarship money as early as your freshman year. Our best advice is to begin your scholarship search early so you don’t miss out on any good opportunities. 

    Scholarships are often a crucial part of the college application process, especially for low-income students. This is why it’s important to know where to find scholarships and when high schoolers should apply for scholarships. In this article, we will discuss who can apply for scholarships, how to find local scholarships, where to apply for scholarships online, and more. 

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    Understanding the different types of scholarships

    To start off, you might be wondering: Are scholarships financial aid? And are scholarships free? Although scholarships may be included in your financial aid award letter, scholarships are separate from financial aid and do not need to be paid back. 

    Scholarships are funded by community organizations, businesses, religious organizations, and individuals. There are two broad categories of scholarships: those awarded by the school you are attending (these are the scholarships that may be included in your award letter) and all other scholarships. Let’s call the first category “institutional scholarships” and the latter category “external scholarships”. 

    External scholarships

    External scholarships are awarded at local, regional, and national levels. 

    • Local scholarships are smaller, less competitive scholarships that are offered through local-level community organizations, businesses, and religious organizations. Local scholarships restrict who can apply to them based on the city of residence. Ask your high school guidance counselor how to apply for local scholarships. 
    • Regional scholarships are offered to residents of a given region. This may mean residents of a particular state county or group of counties. You may be able to find more information on these types of scholarships on your state’s department of education website. 
    • National scholarships are the most competitive because they accept applications from students living anywhere in the country. We’ll review several notable national scholarships later in this article. 

    Alongside geographic restrictions or lack thereof, external scholarships determine eligibility based on one or more of the following: citizenship status, class year, achievements, identities, and/or family relations. Depending on the scholarship, your extracurricular activities and volunteer hours may be important factors as well. 

    Institutional scholarships

    In addition to external scholarships, you may be eligible for scholarships offered by individual colleges and universities. These “institutional scholarships” may be need-based, merit-based, or a combination of the two. Some of these scholarships will require specific applications, while others may be automatically considered upon submitting your college application. 

    You may need to send in a separate application for some institutional scholarships. This is why it’s important to check college websites to determine whether there are specific scholarships you are eligible for and should apply to. As with external scholarships, institutional scholarship deadlines will vary. This is why it is best to check institutional scholarship availability at the start of your college application process so you can prioritize applying. 

    How to find scholarships

    Your high school counselor is a good person to ask about scholarships, particularly local and regional scholarships. While there is a lot of information and guidance online about popular national scholarships, you may not find the same amount of information about more localized scholarships. This is why your high school guidance counselor and high school teachers are great resources to turn to when trying to figure out how to apply for local scholarships.

    Additionally, there are several websites where you can create a profile that will filter out and recommend scholarships you may be eligible for. Some of these websites include Fastweb, Unigo, Cappex, and Niche. This can be a great way to apply for multiple scholarships at once. 

    Curious about how to apply for scholarships through Common App? According to its website

    Common App has made it easy for applicants to access scholarship opportunities directly through your admissions application. We’ve partnered with College Board’s Big Future Scholarship Search to give you the option to connect your information with Scholarship Search — saving all your hard work to reuse on the next application! Scholarship Search makes it easier for students to apply for scholarships by allowing you to apply to multiple scholarships without having to re-enter your information each time.

    Common App partners with many scholarship providers. You can view a full list of their partnerships here

    Full scholarships for low-income students

    There are thousands of scholarships you may be eligible to apply for. Some scholarships offer more money and benefits than others. In general, the more money a scholarship offers, the more competitive the scholarship. In addition to asking your high school counselor about scholarship opportunities, building a profile on a scholarship search website, and doing some of your own research, you should also consider applying to some of the following competitive national scholarships if you are eligible. 

    There are a couple of national scholarship programs that you can apply to as a low-income student that cover your full cost of attendance for four years at a given college or university. You might consider checking out the following competitive scholarship programs for low-income students:

    • The Gates Scholarship is awarded to exceptional low-income, minority, high school seniors with demonstrated leadership. The scholarship covers the full cost of attendance (tuition + costs of living + fees) at a four-year college or university. The initial deadline is in mid-September of your senior year. 
    • The QuestBridge Scholarship is awarded to low-income, high-achieving high school seniors. The scholarship covers the full cost of attendance at a four-year college or university. The QuestBridge Scholarship is unique in the sense that students who apply and receive the scholarship are matched to a particular college or university to attend based on their ranked preferences. The initial deadline is in late September of your senior year. 

    If you have a strong history of leadership at school or in your volunteer and extracurricular activities, you might look into getting nominated for the POSSE Scholarship. The POSSE Scholarship is awarded to high-achieving high school seniors with demonstrated leadership in certain areas of the United States. You can be nominated for POSSE if you live in one of the following areas: Atlanta, the Bay Area, Boston, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New Orleans, New York, or Washington, D.C. Those who win the scholarship are awarded a full-tuition scholarship to attend one of POSSE’s partner schools

    Florida’s Bright Futures scholarship

    If you are a Florida resident considering colleges in Florida, you should have your eye on a Bright Futures Scholarship. See our past blog post on the Bright Futures Scholarship here. All college-bound Florida residents upon meeting certain eligibility requirements can receive a Bright Futures Scholarship. The scholarship amount varies based on students’ achievements and whether they hope to apply their winnings to a Florida public or private college. The Bright Futures Scholarship is an incredible opportunity: it can be applied to all Florida public and private colleges! For a full list of Florida schools that accept the award, see this list

    Completing your scholarship applications

    College can be expensive. Many students and families rely on federal financial aid, external and institutional scholarships, and loans to afford a college education. Check out our post on college financial planning for more on these payment strategies. 

    As you apply for scholarships, it is important that you remain organized and motivated. Write important deadlines in your planner and keep track of all of your application materials in an organized list or spreadsheet. Leave yourself plenty of time to thoughtfully complete the required essays. You may even want to read up on how to write an essay for scholarships so that you’ll feel more prepared. If scholarships require letters of recommendation, make sure you allot plenty of time for your references to write and submit their letters. 

    Try to apply to a combination of external scholarships and institutional scholarships. Seek out schools that have a good track record of awarding admitted students with need-based and/or merit-based scholarships. And, most importantly, do not be discouraged by rejections. If you are applying for enough scholarships, you are bound to receive them.

    Key takeaways and moving forward

    In addition to understanding your financial aid package, it’s important to know how to apply for merit scholarships. If you began reading this article with questions such as: Can you apply for scholarships as a junior? Is it too late to apply for scholarships? And what are the best ways to apply for scholarships?, hopefully you’ve gained some important insights.

    Begin your scholarship research as early as possible, especially if you are a low-income student. Some scholarship applications are more intensive than others, so you want to make sure you have plenty of time to prepare. You’ll also want to make sure that you are familiar with everything you need to know about FAFSA. If you have more questions about how to apply for scholarships as a senior or how to apply for scholarships online, reach out to learn more about our services. Our team members have all the resources to make sure you are on track. 

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