Scholarship Search Toolkit Part 1: Keys to Success

Part 1: Keys to Success
Part 2: Scholarship Search Website Review
Part 3: State and More Scholarship Resources

Key and dollar sign keyhole representing key to scholarship searchThe Scholarship Search Toolkit contains everything you need to begin searching for scholarships. Ultimately, you may decide to buy a book to help you out or find more a more useful resource than one listed here. But this is the ideal way to stop wondering what to do about scholarships and just get started.

It’s a lot of information. I’ve been revising this now for four years to make sure it includes the latest information so you can search in the way best for your situation. Therefore, I’ve divided it up into three sections to make it easier to read on the web.

Keys to a Successful Scholarship Search

If you’re serious about trying to pay for college by applying for scholarships, you need to understand that this will require researching hundreds of scholarships and actually submitting applications for dozens. In other words, it will be a lot work.

You can’t expect to apply for just a few scholarships and win enough money to make a significant dent in the cost of college. The cost to attend public flagship universities is over $25,000 a year and there are 100 private colleges charging more than $60,000 to attend. Most private scholarships are for a $1,000 or less and are only for a year.

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Like I said, this is going to be a lot of work. Kevin Ladd, founder of, told

“I say if you’re really good you might win one out of every six scholarships you apply for. If you’re average you might get one out of ten. If your circumstance is unusual you might get a higher ratio, but typically if you want to win ten scholarships to pay for 90% of your need, you’re going to have to apply to five to ten times that many to win them.

That means if you’re “good” you’re going to have to apply to at least 60 $1,000 scholarships just to win $10,000. This is less than the average institutional award at most private colleges.

The fact is that few students will actually win full-ride scholarships because with the exception of scholarships from the colleges themselves, they are very rare. Therefore, you need to be prepared to apply to a lot of private scholarships to generate a meaningful amount of funding. Before you start your search, read 7 Things You Need to Know When Looking for College Scholarships, and make sure you understand the following.

1.    Use an EFC Calculator first.

(Don’t know what EFC stands for? Start here before going on.) This is important for two reasons. The first is it will give an idea of the minimum of how much you’ll be expected to pay for college. For some, this will be the incentive to get started on the scholarship search.

The second reason is because if your EFC is low, chances are that any scholarships your student wins will simply result in a reduction in your student’s need award. Most colleges have a policy that will allow students to use a certain amount of outside scholarships before they start reducing the need based award. This is usually in the few thousand dollars range.

Essentially, the colleges are treating these scholarships as student income as they are required to do by law. And yes, you do have to report outside scholarships to the financial aid office. Knowing your EFC will help you decide how much effort, if any, your family should devote to outside scholarships.

2.    Protect your personal information.

No longer do families have to pay for a college scholarship search service in cash with all the free scholarship search websites. But chances are that they’ll be paying for it in the form of student information. The reality is that the free scholarship search websites have to make money somehow. Some will do it with ads. Others will sell your information.

This is why you need to be sure to pay attention to the Privacy Policy and Terms of Use. Consider using a separate email just for the scholarship search. If you decide to use a website that requires you to provide a lot of personal information that they will sell, make sure your getting good results for your cost.

3.    Consider the competition when applying.

It’s a lot easier to win a scholarship when only 25 other people are applying than one with 1,000s of applicants. Of course, it would be nice to win a $10,000 scholarship. But given the competition, you’ll have better luck with smaller scholarships that don’t necessarily get picked up by the college scholarship websites.

These are the ones that come through your counselor’s office or show up at the local library. Besides less competition, they’re likely to require less effort than more prominent one’s. Put your effort into the scholarship where the odds are more in your favor.

4.    Use a combination of scholarship websites.

And a paid membership website should be your last choice. Here’s why. There are basically only a half dozen or so scholarship databases. Most scholarship websites are just paying to use one of these so they can sell advertising or information. The major differences (besides how much information you have to give up) will be how easy they make it for you find scholarships.

I paid for a membership to a college search website. Of the first 10 scholarships that are listed with close deadlines, nine showed up in a Google Search as being listed on multiple other websites. Of the ten that were supposed to be the closest “match”, again, nine could be found on multiple websites. The tenth was also listed in a Google Search but not on the major websites.

Granted, the one scholarship in each case probably qualified as a lower competition type scholarship. So there may be some value in paying for the service if you’re serious about applying to as many viable scholarships as possible. But check out the results of the free websites first.

5.    Start early.

For many scholarships, there’s no requirement that you start college in the next year. I know most students don’t seriously start looking for scholarships until they receive a disappointing financial aid award but you can start much sooner. If you start applying to the “no application” scholarships monthly as a freshman, you can improve your odds of winning.

6.    Make the scholarship search a partnership.

This is where parents can do a significant amount of the work without crossing ethical or “over-parenting” lines. Researching possible scholarships takes a lot of time and who knows your kid’s capabilities better than you?

However, this needs to be a true partnership.

The student needs to agree to the partnership and follow through on her responsibilities without constant nagging. After the parent has invested significant amount of time finding the most appropriate scholarships, the student should be prepared to write the essays and complete the applications. Otherwise, it’s not a partnership and isn’t likely to have the same results.

7.    Go for quantity over quality.

There’s a lot of scholarships out there and they have a wide range of requirements. It only makes sense to prioritize those that minimize effort on your part. Carefully consider those that require letters of recommendations. There are only so many times you can ask someone to take the time to write a meaningful letter of recommendation. Make sure the scholarship is worth it.

Remember, you need to apply to apply to as many scholarships as possible. So, look for those that allow you to write short essays or where you could potentially just modify something you’ve already written.

Then there are those “no application scholarships.” These are essentially just monthly or quarterly drawings where students submit personal information in exchange for a chance of winning. If you consider the exchange a fair one, then make sure you schedule time to regularly submit for a chance to win.

Just keep in mind as go for quantity, you’re also increasing the competition factor I talked about in number three. It’s a balancing act you’ll have to perform throughout the college scholarship search process.


7 Keys to a successful scholarship search. Essential tips on how to find scholarships and a review of scholarship search website sites.

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