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2022 Guide to Scholarships

Written By: Seph Anderson

Published: 6/29/2022

In 2021, the average annual cost of attendance at a four-year college or university in the US was more than $35,000. As the cost of a college education continues to rise, so does the demand for scholarships. In fact, there are an estimated 1.7 million scholarships available to college students in the US, totaling more than $7 billion.

I worked in the financial aid office at The University of Mississippi for over a decade, helping students and families learn how to take advantage of every possible financial aid and scholarship opportunity. To help answer your scholarship questions, I want to share everything I've learned throughout the years, so you can maximize your scholarship earnings potential. With the right information and understanding, you can transform confusion into confidence.

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Key Insights:

  • The term "financial aid" includes any and all types of student financial assistance for college, including grants, loans, scholarships, etc., whereas the term "scholarships" is specific to gift-based financial assistance that students do not have to pay back after college.
  • Merit-based scholarships are awarded based upon academic achievement, involvement, and other personal superlatives. In contrast, need-based scholarships are awarded based on financial need determined by the FAFSA.
  • The more scholarships you apply for, the better your chances of receiving one. Check with your college or university’s financial aid or scholarship office to determine what scholarship applications you need to complete to be considered for everything you possibly can. In terms of private scholarships, look far and wide, as thousands of college scholarships are offered by different organizations every single year.

What Scholarships Are Available for College Students?

What are the types of scholarships? This is undeniably one of the most commonly asked questions by current and aspiring college students — and rightfully so. Prepare to take notes, because understanding the different types of college scholarships can potentially pay dividends in the end — no pun intended. With that in mind, let’s get started.

Grants vs. Scholarships

Both grants and scholarships are known as gift aid, which simply refers to financial assistance for college that students don't have to repay. However, whereas grant eligibility is predominately based on financial need, scholarship eligibility can be based upon merit, financial need, or a combination of both. Individual scholarships have different eligibility requirements.

Whereas grant eligibility is predominately based on financial need, scholarship eligibility can be based upon merit, financial need, or a combination of both.

The majority of college grants are awarded through federal and state governments. To see if you qualify for federal and state grants, you will need to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) as well as your state’s student financial aid application, if applicable in your state.

Financial Aid vs. Scholarships

The greatest misnomer in understanding financial assistance for college is the idea that financial aid and scholarships are two entirely distinct types of college funding. The term “financial aid” technically means grants, loans, scholarships, and any other form of college financial assistance. On the other hand, grants are strictly need-based college aid and do not include student loans or other aid that must be repaid after college.

Therefore, grants and scholarships are both “financial aid.” While some colleges and universities have separate financial aid and scholarship offices, others just have a financial aid office that covers all types of aid.

Merit-Based vs. Need-Based Scholarships

Understanding what separates merit-based scholarships from need-based scholarships can enable you to more effectively and efficiently focus your scholarship hunt, and this will likely save you a great deal of time.

Merit scholarships are awarded based upon academic achievement, community involvement, and other personal superlatives. In contrast, need-based scholarships are specifically tied to “financial need.” And while the difference between the two types of scholarships is easy to comprehend, the concept of financial need is a bit more challenging. In fact, "financial need" is one of the most misunderstood aspects when it comes to scholarships for college students.

To understand financial need as it relates to need-based scholarships (as well as need-based financial aid), it’s important to know who calculates the number, how it’s calculated, and the dollar figure’s ultimate impact on your eligibility for need-based scholarships.

How Is Need-Based Scholarship Eligibility Determined?

Financial need is calculated by subtracting your Expected Family Contribution (EFC), as determined from your FAFSA, from your institutional cost of attendance.

For example, if your EFC from the FAFSA is $4,750 and your cost of attendance is $30,750, then your financial need is $26,000 (making you eligible for need-based scholarships and financial aid). Alternatively, if your EFC were $32,750 and cost of attendance $30,750, the resulting financial need of -$2,000 would make you ineligible for any need-based scholarships or financial aid.

Institutional Scholarships

One of the most recognizable types of scholarships, institutional scholarships are awarded by institutions and can be need-based, merit-based, or both.

Institutional scholarships vary greatly from one school to another and from one scholarship to another. Institutional scholarships are unique in terms of the types, numbers, amounts, and durations of each, eligibility and application requirements, processes, timelines, etcetera.

The best places to find information on scholarships offered by your institution are the financial and scholarship office web page and that of your respective academic department. In addition to browsing online, you can meet with an advisor who can provide additional information about scholarships, such as eligibility criteria, application processes, timelines, and deadlines.

Private Scholarships

In addition to scholarships offered by colleges and universities, there are thousands of private college scholarships awarded every year by companies large and small, including national, regional, local, civic, religious and professional organizations, as well as affinity groups, employers, and more.

The particular types of private scholarships available to college students are highly varied. While many private scholarships are awarded based on academic achievement, extracurricular activities, and underrepresentation — similar to how colleges and universities award aid — others have entirely different eligibility criteria. For example, private scholarships are awarded for writing poetry and essays; performing theater, music, and dance; producing works of art; demonstrating success at recreational sports, hobbies, and places of employment; and much more.

In terms of application processes, some private scholarship applications are simple and straightforward, while others are much more detailed and time-consuming, like creative writing contests.

College Scholarships for High School Students and Transfer Students

While different institutions have different scholarships for continuing students, the vast majority of institutional scholarships are only available to the incoming, first-year students and transfer students at an institution.

Colleges and universities use scholarships as recruiting tools.

Colleges and universities use scholarships as recruiting tools. In other words, institutions offer scholarships to first-year students as a way to help grow enrollment and consequently, revenue.

As mentioned earlier, institutional scholarships typically fall into one of two categories: need-based and merit-based. However, eligibility requirements merge for certain scholarships, with eligibility determined by both need and merit. That being said, don’t expect names of scholarships to help you distinguish between the two. Instead, that information should be available within individual scholarship descriptions.

Scholarships for Current College Students

While the bulk of institutional scholarships tends to be for new students, most colleges and universities also offer scholarship opportunities to continuing students. Therefore, if you’re a continuing student, be sure to research what scholarships might be available at your school. Unfortunately, because continuing scholarships are often not as publicly promoted as incoming student scholarships, current students can inadvertently miss out on great scholarships.

If you’re a continuing student looking for institutional scholarships, make time to meet with a financial aid or scholarship advisor. In addition to being able to tell you about any institution-wide scholarship opportunities, your advisor can let you know about separate major or departmental scholarships that might be available.

One thing to note is that whereas many first-time student scholarships are need-based, merit-based, or a combination of the two, continuing student scholarships are generally based more upon merit. It usually concerns what you’ve achieved academically while you’ve been at your current institution, as opposed to what you accomplished in high school or at your previous college or university.

Scholarships for Underrepresented Populations

In addition to the previously mentioned academic, merit-based, and need-based scholarships for first-year and continuing students, most institutions offer scholarships to historically underrepresented populations to help increase access, equity, and educational opportunity.

Among underrepresented student groups are low-income, minorities, first-generation, and LGBTQ. To be considered low-income for scholarship purposes, a student’s family must earn roughly less than $40,000 per year. 

While underrepresented students may be automatically considered for some scholarships, they may have to submit separate applications for others. The vast majority of colleges and universities have scholarships for underrepresented student groups. Eligibility and application requirements vary from one institution to another. That’s why it’s so important to thoroughly read through your institution’s financial aid and scholarship information online as well as make time to connect with an advisor.

Read our College Guides for LGBTQ, Black, and Latinx students to learn about how you can overcome some of the common barriers in higher education. 

College Scholarships for Hispanic Students

As we mentioned above, a number of college scholarships are available to help increase access and affordability for historically underrepresented minorities in higher education, such as Hispanic and Latinx students. In fact, the majority of higher education institutions in the US offer scholarship opportunities to Hispanic, Latino, and Latinx students, so be sure to speak with an advisor to see what you may qualify to receive. 

Hispanic and Latinx students are identified as being part of one of the specific categories listed on the decennial census questionnaire and various Census Bureau survey questionnaires. Among the categories — all of which are associated with predominantly Spanish-speaking countries — are Mexican, Mexican American, Chicano, Puerto Rican, and Cuban.

Additionally, some scholarships may only be available specifically to students identifying as Latinx, meaning their family comes from a country in Latin America, South America, Mesoamerica, or the Caribbean. If you’re unsure whether or not you qualify for a particular scholarship, whether labeled as Hispanic, Latino, or Latinx, contact the scholarship administrator for additional information.

In addition to institutional scholarship opportunities, there are private scholarship opportunities available from various organizations. While certainly not an exhaustive list, here’s a sample of some of the private scholarship opportunities for Hispanic, Latino, and Latinx students:

The Hispanic Scholarship Fund provides scholarships of up to $5,000 for qualifying students.

The Hispanic Heritage Foundation, in partnership with Colgate-Palmolive, offers financial assistance to help reduce college costs for Hispanic students. Awarded based on academic excellence, community involvement, and demonstrated leadership, $1,000 Make The U Scholarships are awarded to 100 deserving students.

Latino and Hispanic students studying in a STEM field are eligible to apply for one of 100 Latinos in Technology Scholarships made possible by The Hispanic Foundation of Silicon Valley. Scholarships may be awarded for a maximum of $30,000 across a three-year period. Eligible students must have graduated high school from one of 11 designated counties in Northern California, or they must attend college in one of the listed counties.

The McDonald’s HACER National Scholarship Program awards 30 scholarships to outstanding Hispanic students based on academic achievement, community involvement, and financial need. Scholarship award amounts are based on tiers with tier 1 recipients receiving $100,000, $50,000 or $25,000, tier 2 recipients receiving $10,000 or $20,000, and tier 3 recipients receiving $5,000.

NBCUniversal offers ten $5,000 scholarships to rising sophomore and junior Latino students interested in the media and entertainment industry. The $5,000 non-renewable scholarship will be divided into two equal disbursements of $2,500 made in the fall and spring.

How You Can Stand Out When Applying for Scholarships

While it’s great to understand the basics of scholarships for college students, what’s more important is knowing how to make your scholarship application stand out and rise to the top.

To help you achieve that goal and maximize your odds of being selected for different scholarships, we’ve provided a list of scholarship application tips and tricks below:

Invest the time and energy to search & apply

Most students will visit a college or university website to learn about scholarship possibilities and google something along the lines of “scholarships for college students.”

While great places to start the scholarship hunt, they’re just that, places to begin. To maximize your chances of winning institutional and private scholarships, you’ve got to commit time and energy to search near and far before submitting the strongest applications possible.

Cast a WIDE net at your college or university (then cast it even wider)

Don’t limit yourself by simply completing an institution’s general scholarship application. Although many colleges and universities use a single scholarship application to consider students for a number of different scholarships, don’t limit yourself by stopping there. Ask financial aid and scholarship advisors what additional scholarships are available, such as those for your specific major. Also, you can inquire with different student clubs and organizations

In essence, you want to tap into and apply for any and every possible scholarship opportunity. The wider you cast your net, the more you’re likely to catch.

Get up close & personal with “private scholarships”

There are an infinite amount of private scholarships for college students. Some are easy 

to find, while others are the opposite. However, they’re just waiting to be found. Talk to businesses in your community and ask about scholarship opportunities. Speak with your employer, if applicable, and have your parents check with theirs. In your online searches, try using different terms, keywords, and phrases for potential opportunities.

Keep your eyes and ears open.

Know a scholarship's awarding criteria & eligibility requirements before applying

 Doing your homework ahead of time can save you time and potentially boost your odds of landing one or more of those coveted scholarships. What you don’t want to do is fill out a scholarship application and hit submit without knowing whether or not you’re actually eligible. Take the time to find out for sure. 

Once you know you’re eligible to apply, read through every shred of text you can find about the specific scholarship. Specifically, you want to find the scholarship awarding criteria. If letters of recommendation are required, learn how many you need to get and who you need to ask. If there’s an essay required, don’t just read the prompt and immediately begin writing. 

In general, take time to learn more about a particular scholarship, why it’s awarded, who awards it, and what the awarding committee looks for in potential scholarship recipients. It may be helpful to look at who received the scholarship in the past.

10 Important Scholarship Questions to Ask Your Advisor

As extra credit for reading through the guide from start to finish, here are 10 important questions to ask financial aid and scholarship advisors at your college or university:


What, if any, scholarships am I automatically considered for upon applying?


Are there certain scholarships all eligible applicants receive?


Do you know of a single online application that would allow me to be considered for all scholarships?


If not, where can I find out which scholarships require individual applications?


Concerning need-based scholarships, is there a separate institutional financial aid application I need to complete in addition to the FAFSA?


What is the priority deadline to submit scholarship applications?


When are scholarship recipients notified of awards?


What is the official deadline to accept scholarships?


Are there additional opportunities for scholarships after the accept/decline deadline has passed? For example, if students who have been offered a scholarship do not end up accepting it, are those scholarships then made available to other students?


Is there an appeals process for scholarships you received yet failed to maintain?

Frequently Asked Questions About College Scholarships

What’s the Difference Between a Merit-based Scholarship and a Need-based Scholarship?

Merit scholarships are awarded to students who demonstrate academic, athletic, or artistic success; community engagement; and other exceptional feats. Need-based scholarships, however, are awarded based on “financial need,” as determined by the FAFSA.

Do Grants and Scholarships Have To Be Repaid After You Graduate?

No, grants and scholarships are known as gift-aid, and students do not have to repay these.

Are There College Scholarships for Students Already Enrolled in College?

Yes, if you’re a current or continuing college student, you should check with your institution’s financial aid or scholarship office to see what opportunities might be available based on your academic program and year in college.

What’s the Difference Between Institutional Scholarships and Private Scholarships?

Institutional scholarships are those offered through your college or university. On the other hand, private scholarships are provided by entities other than your college or university, such as a private company. For example, our team at Optimal offers regular private, needs-based scholarships for college students.

Can You Receive Multiple Scholarships in the Same Academic Year?

Yes, you can. As long as you stay within your institutional cost of attendance as determined by the financial aid office, scholarships are stackable unless otherwise noted.

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