When Should High School Students Apply For Scholarships

A scholarship is money you apply for to help you cover college expenses that your other financial aid may not cover. It does not need to be paid back. There is no shortage of scholarships you can apply to throughout high school. You can start applying for college scholarship money as early as your freshman year of high school and as late as the spring semester of your senior year. The earlier you start, the more opportunities you’ll have available to you! 

Types of scholarships 

Scholarships are funded by community organizations, businesses, religious organizations, and individuals. There are two broad categories of scholarships: those awarded by specific schools to those attending said school and all other scholarships. Let us call the first category “institutional scholarships” and the latter category “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. Like local scholarships, regional scholarships are those that are offered to residents of a given region. This may mean residents of a particular state county or group of counties. National scholarships are the most competitive given that they have a wider pool of those eligible to apply. Students will not be restricted from applying to national scholarships based on their geographic place of residence.

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 relation. 

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. It is best that you begin your search early so you don’t miss out on any good scholarships. 

Your high school counselor is a good person to ask about scholarships for which you may be eligible, 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. Additionally, there are several websites where you can create a profile that will filter out and recommend those scholarships you may be eligible for. Some of these websites include Fastweb, Unigo, Cappex, Niche, as well as the College Board

In addition to external scholarships, you may also be eligible for scholarships offered by individual colleges and universities. These “institutional scholarships” may be need-based, merit-based, or some combination of the two. Some will require applications, while others you may be automatically considered for once you apply to the college/university or, if required, submit your CSS Profile. The CSS Profile is an application used by some private schools to determine how to award institutional aid. 

Since some schools require you to submit a separate scholarship application upon submitting your general application, be sure to check the websites of the colleges you are applying to or have been admitted to and determine whether there are specific scholarships for which you can apply. As with external scholarships, institutional scholarship deadlines will vary. It is best to check institutional scholarship availability at the start of your college application process. 

Notable scholarships to check out

There are thousands upon thousands of scholarships for which you may be eligible to apply. 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 covers 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 those 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

If you are a Florida resident considering applying to and attending college within Florida, you should definitely 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 and many students and families are able to afford it by applying a combination of federal financial aid, external and institutional sc{“type”:”block”,”srcIndex”:1,”srcClientId”:”cd398fda-c531-48de-ad8c-75f9fccd59c7″,”srcRootClientId”:””}holarships, loans, and paying out of pocket. Check out our post on college financial planning for more on these payment strategies. 

As you work on applying for scholarships, it is important that you remain organized and motivated. Write all 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 any required essays. 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 to enough scholarships, you are bound to receive them. Learn more here!

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