College Scholarships for High School Seniors: Your All-Inclusive Guide

scholarships for high school seniors

What’s one of the most popular things on a high school senior’s wish list? One likely possibility is getting a college scholarship.

But searching for scholarships can feel like a full-time job — and high school seniors don’t exactly have much free time. Still, a search for scholarships for high school seniors doesn’t have to be all-consuming.

Below is a guide to help you plot out a strategic path to searching and applying for these scholarships.

Where you can find college scholarships for high school seniors

Here’s a list of five great places to start your quest for college scholarships for high school seniors:

1. 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 free 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 you fill out. It’s available every year at the beginning of October.

2. 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 free money for college. This form is available in early October; is first-come, first-served; and might be easiest done in conjunction with the FAFSA.

3. 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.

4. CareerOneStop

This website from 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.

5. 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 department of education to see what kind of grants might be available for students where you live.

Top nationwide scholarships for high school seniors

Below are some of the highest-paying college scholarships for high school seniors available nationwide:

  • Live Más Scholarship: “Innovators, creators, and dreamers” can showcase their skills to earn $5,000-$25,000 in scholarships from Taco Bell.

The scholarships on the list above are available to all, regardless of major and other personal factors. For specifically targeted scholarships — including those for Latino, black, or LGBTQ students, students from your home state, or countless other groups — check out the scholarship search engines listed in the previous section.

How to apply for these scholarships and still have a life

This list might seem overwhelming, but if you tackle it strategically, you can still have time to 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

Try streamlining your process by writing a master document to use both in your scholarship search and in any essays you might need to write for scholarship applications.

Consider this a personal branding exercise. What’s your “elevator pitch”? In other words, how can you describe yourself and what 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 about how? 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 to write essays for your scholarship applications — and even your college applications as well.

Just remember to write a new essay for each scholarship. Copying and pasting one essay into every application might help you get through the process quickly, but it won’t help you win the scholarship.

2. Prioritize scholarship applications by deadline

Once you have a list of scholarships you want to apply for, order that list by upcoming deadlines. 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, link, and due date of each scholarship you want to apply for. Then filter by the date, and mark it off when you’re finished.

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 free money towards 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 count. 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.

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 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 non-profits 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 — usually 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.

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