A High School Senior’s Guide to College Scholarships

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Searching for scholarships during your last year of high school may feel like a full-time job — and high school seniors don’t exactly have much free time.

The good news? There are many kinds of opportunities out there, if you can find them from awards based on merit and talent, and those that can be attained by merely filling out an application and getting lucky.

The search for scholarships for high school seniors — and lower-grade students as well — doesn’t have to be all-consuming. Below is a list of scholarships for high school seniors and their junior peers to get you started, along with where to find more and tips on how to apply.

College scholarships for high school seniors (and others)

Below are college scholarships for high school seniors (and other students) available nationwide. Some are specifically targeted for minority students, others are need-based, and there are scholarships based on merit or ambition, and some awards that only ask that you submit one action item.

  • Against the Grain Artistic Scholarship: Submit a portfolio of your artwork and win a $1,000 scholarship. Open to Asian American or Pacific Islander American students.
  • AXA Achievement Scholarship: Win $2,500-$25,000 by highlighting your “drive, determination and strong character.” The 2021 program opens in the fall 2020, so visit the website for updates.
  • Be Bold No-Essay Scholarship: Win up to $10,000 in scholarship funds if you are a student enrolled in high school or college. Applications are due Aug. 31, 2020, and interested students must sign up on the Bold.org website.
  • Cameron Impact Scholarship: Full four-year scholarships for students who excel in school, community and extracurriculars. Applications are due by Sept. 11, 2020.
  • Coca-Cola Scholars Program Scholarship: Win $1,000-$20,000 in various scholarships for both four-year and two-year colleges. Apply by Oct. 31, 2020.
  • Create-a-Greeting-Card Scholarship: Aspiring illustrators ages 14 and older who are enrolled in school or homeschooled can submit original artwork for a greeting card front and potentially earn $10,000 in scholarship funds.
  • Dr. Pepper Tuition Giveaway: A multistep application process that involves (among other steps) making a video explaining your academic dream and goals. Apply by mid-August 2020, and you could win $2,500-$100,000 for school.
  • Elks National Foundation Scholarship Program: You don’t have to be a member to win, and you could take home $4,000-$50,000 for college. Apply by Nov. 15, 2020.
  • Future Designer Scholarship (via CardsDirect.com): Design a holiday card using any form of artistic medium by Nov. 1, 2020 to qualify for $2,500 in scholarship funds. Applicants must be fully enrolled high school seniors age 17 or older.
  • Gen and Kelly Tanabe Scholarship: High school, college, graduate school students, plus adult learners are welcome to apply for this short, essay-based scholarship. The deadline is Dec. 31, 2020.
  • GE-Reagan Foundation Scholarship Program: Demonstrate “leadership, drive, integrity, and citizenship,” and you could get a renewable $10,000 scholarship. Check the website for the 2021 application deadline.
  • Horatio Alger Award: Awards of $25,000 go to high school seniors in need (gross family income must be under $55,000) who plan to go to college in the fall.
  • Jackie Robinson Foundation Scholarship: Minority high school seniors who are committed to community service, a promising academic record and leadership skills can qualify for up to $30,000 in scholarship funds for college. This is a need- and merit-based award, and the deadline is Feb. 1, 2021.
  • Jack Kent Cooke Foundation College Scholarship Program: High achievers with financial need can earn up to $40,000 per year for school. Applications are due on Oct. 30, 2020.
  • Live Más Scholarship: “Innovators, creators, and dreamers” can showcase their skills to earn $5,000-$25,000 in scholarships from Taco Bell. The date has passed for the 2020 award, but check back in the fall on the website for coming details about 2021.
  • Ron Brown Scholar Program: Four-year awards totaling $40,000 are awarded to qualified African American seniors with excellent communication and leadership skills.
  • Shout It Out Scholarship: A short-answer essay contest open to students age 13 and older, who plan to enroll in an accredited college no later than the fall of 2026. Earn $1,500 by answering the question: “If you could say one thing to the world at once, what would it be and why?” The deadline for this scholarship is the end of September.
  • Sons of the American Revolution/George S. and Stella M. Knight Essay Contest: This award is for history buffs with a focus on early America. Scholarships for between $1,000-$5,000 are available to those who can write the best 800- to 1200-word essay on specific historical topics including the American Revolution and the Declaration of Independence. There is a rolling deadline depending on the state you reside in.
  • Vegetarian Resource Group Scholarship: Calling all veggie-loving students. You can be awarded up to $10,000 if you can write an essay on vegetarianism and how to promote it in schools and communities. Deadline for the next scholarship is in Spring 2021.
  • VFW Youth Scholarships: Students with a patriotic feel can win $1,000-$30,000 for college by creating an audio essay around a specific civic theme. Deadline for this scholarship is Oct. 31, 2020.

Where to find more college scholarships and other types of aid

The scholarships above are just the tip of the iceberg. There are many, many types of awards out there, available for all students or sometimes targeting a specific group. Here are steps to take to access as many scholarship and grant programs as you can.

Fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)

You’ve probably already heard about the FAFSA for getting student loans, but did you know it can put you in the running for grants as well? Like scholarships, grants are money for school. And even beyond federal grants, some scholarship applications require you to fill out the FAFSA first to identify your financial need.

The sooner you fill out your FAFSA, the better — the federal funding for loans and grants are first come, first served. Not only that, but some schools have earlier deadlines for the FAFSA than others.

In short, you would do well to make this the first form to fill out. It’s available every year at the beginning of October.

Create a CSS Profile

The CSS Profile works similarly to the FAFSA, except for the fact that the aid you’re applying for isn’t from the federal government, but rather from a specific school. When you fill out the CSS Profile, you can list any schools you’re applying to in order to see what kind of institutional aid they might offer you.

However, the CSS Profile isn’t free. There’s a one-time $25 fee to fill out an application and send it to one school. Then there’s an additional $16 for every school you add. (There are fee waivers for students in need, though.)

When you fill out the CSS Profile, you’ll be applying for institutional aid in the form of grants and loans. Focus on the grants, as this can be another opportunity to get money for college. This form is available in early October and may be easiest done in conjunction with the FAFSA. It is also first come, first served.

Reach out to your future college

For high school seniors in search of scholarships, it’s easy to forget one of the most obvious sources: your future college.

If you already know the school (or schools) you want to go to, call their financial aid offices to see what kind of need-based scholarships they offer. And if you already have an idea of what you want to study, you can call the relevant department to ask about merit-based scholarships as well.

Check Out CareerOneStop

The U.S. Department of Labor can be used to start plotting a map to your future career. It begins with a free scholarship search tool to help you obtain funding for your education.

With this tool, you can sift through thousands of scholarships, grants and fellowships. And there are various ways to search — by keyword, location and more. Even better, you can set the filters to prioritize the scholarships with the closest deadlines.

Find free scholarship search websites

There are so many different scholarship-search websites that it can be hard to know which one to start with. And if you feel pressured to try them all, you might become too overwhelmed to even try.

Keep it simple and start with some of these popular sites to see what might be out there for you:

Up for making phone calls? You could even contact your state’s education department to see what kind of grants might be available for students where you live.

Tips for applying for scholarships while juggling senior year

This list might seem overwhelming, but if you tackle your search strategically, you can still fulfill your other senior year requirements and even have time left for fun. Here’s how:

1. Create a master document to help with applications and essays
2. Prioritize scholarship applications by deadline
3. Apply for scholarships large and small
4. Start with a small list, then expand
5. Follow the rules
6. Not a scholar or athlete? Consider outside scholarships
7. Beware of scholarship scams

1. Create a master document to help with applications and essays

Try streamlining your process by using a master document for both your scholarship search and any essays you might need to write for scholarship applications. Consider this a personal branding exercise. In other words, how can you describe yourself and what do you hope to achieve after college in one to two sentences?

If you’re not sure, consider what drives you. Is there something you feel called to work on, even if you’re not sure how to go about it? Conversely, do you have a skill that you love to utilize, but you’re not sure how it translates into a career?

Once you have this down, write out a few paragraphs and bullet points, including key phrases about it. Taking the time to do this now should make it easier to know what kind of scholarships to search for and how to better write essays for your scholarship applications — and even your college applications as well.

Make sure each essay is original. Resist the temptation to cut and paste your essay into multiple submissions.

2. Prioritize scholarship applications by deadline

Once you have a list of scholarships you want to apply for, order that list by upcoming deadlines and remind yourself to start early.

Scholarships.com COO Kevin Ladd warns that you might need more time than you think to apply for some of these scholarships (many require essays, or even videos), so there’s no time too early to start.

Try creating a master spreadsheet and add the name, lin and due date of each scholarship you want to apply for. Then filter by the date, and mark it off when you’re finished. You can use this spreadsheet in a similar way to make a master list of colleges, too.

3. Apply for scholarships large and small

If you see a few scholarships that don’t even come close to covering your tuition, don’t ignore them just because of their size. If you can win a few such scholarships, the money toward your education will start to add up.

What’s more, these small scholarships can help with some of the expenses that don’t get grouped into tuition, such as books and supplies. When it comes to the high cost of college — and all of the things that go into it — every little bit of help counts. Plus, there could be less competition for these awards.

4. Start with a small list, then expand

Although it might be tempting to make a huge list of scholarships and think you can get them all in before winter break, you might want to think more strategically. Feel free to ask your high school advisor or counselor for help.

Ladd suggests starting with a list of 10 scholarships (again, ordering them by due date, with the first due on top). Work your way through that list, he says, and then go back to add 10 more, and then another 10 more.

Starting small will enable you to get to know the process without becoming overwhelmed. And as you build momentum, you’ll start to build confidence as well. With this strategy, you can learn how to efficiently and effectively apply without completely derailing your schedule.

5. Follow the rules

Ladd, who has also been a judge for scholarship applications, stresses the importance of following the applications’ rules. If you miss even one, you could come off as lacking attention to detail at best — and potentially disrespectful at worst.

You might not think it’s a big deal to go a few words over a word count or to slightly veer off-track on a video. Or you might choose to do these things to stand out. Don’t — following the rules is one of the most important things you can do on scholarship applications.

6. Not a scholar or athlete? Consider outside scholarships

Yes, playing three varsity sports while doing community service, having a side job and earning straight A’s can help you win a scholarship. But these expectations aren’t realistic for most, nor should they be a baseline requirement to deserve a scholarship.

According to Ladd, if you look at brands geared to young people (Taco Bell and Dr. Pepper, for example), you’ll find scholarships that give you a chance to step outside of the box to show your work ethic and creativity.

And if you enjoy giving back to your community, your work can earn you scholarships from nonprofits and community-based organizations.

Either way, don’t discount yourself as a solid scholarship applicant just because your face isn’t on the local sports page every weekend or you’re not at the top of your class. Keep searching and you’ll find scholarship opportunities that enable you to highlight what you have to offer.

7. Beware of scholarship scams

It’s unfortunate that there are websites that might want to scam students looking for scholarships, but it’s a reality nonetheless. Federal Student Aid, which is part of the U.S. Department of Education, offers some advice to help you avoid getting taken:

  • Remember that the FAFSA is free — any company offering to do it for you for a fee is a scam. And although the CSS Profile isn’t free, filling it out is very similar to the FAFSA, so there’s no need to pay someone to do this for you.
  • Ignore any company or website that claims to guarantee you a scholarship or grant.
  • Keep in mind that there are plenty of free scholarship search engines — you don’t need to pay for access to scholarships.

Spend some time on your search now, and reap the rewards in college

So why go to all this trouble to find a scholarship when you could just get loans?

Because you have to repay student loans — potentially with significant interest costs — that number you borrowed at the beginning will grow significantly over the course of the loan.

To be sure, finding college scholarships for high school seniors is a lot of work, but you’ll thank yourself for years to come if you can graduate with less debt. And in the meantime, look at it this way: This is a chance to practice the time-management skills you’ll need once you get started on your college career.

Maya Dollarhide contributed to this report.

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