Full-ride scholarships are the unicorns of the scholarship world.
According to financial aid expert Mark Kantrowitz, fewer than 0.6% of students receive scholarships or grants that cover the full cost of attendance. What’s more, Kantrowitz said only 200 to 300 colleges provide full-tuition scholarships to students with top grades and test scores.
Although rare, full-ride scholarships are not impossible, as Alex Haslam found out when she received one from the University of Utah in 2013. She obtained a variety of smaller scholarships to cover other college costs.
Here’s how Haslam won money for college, along with her advice for high school students eager to do the same.
1. Research full-ride scholarship options during the college application process
The University of Utah was Haslam’s first-choice school. But she never expected to see such a big prize in her financial aid package.
“At first, I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “I read the first few lines over and over trying to let it sink in. Once I realized it was real, I felt relieved and proud — relieved because I wasn’t going to have to figure out a way to pay for school and proud of all the work I had done to earn the scholarship.”
The scholarship awarded by the University of Utah was called the Honors at Entrance, which covered tuition for Haslam’s four years of school. Altogether, it saved her $40,000. And she didn’t even have to jump through any application hoops to get it.
“When you apply for admission to the University of Utah, you are also applying for the pool of merit-based institutional scholarships on offer from the university itself,” she explained. “My scholarship was awarded based on things like GPA, standardized test scores, leadership experience, [and] extracurricular involvement.”
But the university isn’t the only school that offers full-ride scholarships. Boston University and the University of Texas at Austin, for example, also cover tuition for a few deserving students.
If you’re applying to schools, check out each college’s financial aid page to learn more about its scholarships and grants, as well as how to put yourself in the running.
2. Never stop applying for scholarships
Although Haslam won a ton of money with the Honors at Entrance award, she didn’t stop there. She made it a priority to apply for other scholarships from her school.
As a student in the Entrepreneurship program at the University of Utah, Haslam qualified for awards from the business school.
“I applied as a business student and received them based on my grades and my involvement,” she said. “I did a lot of clubs and internships during school and was part of what is functionally the business school’s honors program. Most of these scholarships were for anywhere between $500 and $2,000.”
Given these scholarships, Haslam didn’t need to borrow student loans. In fact, she felt like she was making money.
“During the last few years I was in school, my university sent me checks each semester instead of the other way around,” she said. “Instead of taking out loans, I was actually making decent money just by being a student.”
3. Seek out gift aid for financial security
Not only did these scholarships put Haslam’s mind at ease, but they also gave her financial security after graduating.
“Unlike many of my classmates, I wasn’t rushing to pay off loans,” said Haslam. “This meant I could take some time to really look into places I was interested in working and find the ideal job at a company I could see myself at long term, instead of something short term just to get by.”
Today, Haslam loves her job at HowtoWatch. As a streaming expert, she informs consumers and journalists about the streaming industry through interviews, digital outreach, and guest articles. Plus, she handles the site’s media relations.
“It’s a blend of everything I love: television, writing, working with amazing people, and building something from the ground up, which is something my [bachelor’s degree] comes in handy for,” she said.
Because she wasn’t burdened by federal or private student loans, Haslam could take her time to establish a fulfilling career.
4. Get involved outside the classroom to win scholarship money
If you’re inspired to get college scholarships, Haslam recommends getting involved in extracurricular activities.
“I joined a lot of clubs and took on some leadership positions during high school,” she said. “There’s always something else to be involved in, and college applications committees love seeing diverse academic and extracurricular backgrounds.”
She also suggests trying a lot of different things so you can figure out your passions.
“Trying a lot of different clubs and activities will help you find your strengths — and, on the flip side, the things you don’t like doing — so you’ll be able to choose a school that aligns with your own needs and abilities,” she said.
Finally, Haslam recommends continuing to apply for scholarships even after a big win.
“One other big piece of advice is to not stop applying once you get a scholarship,” she said. “Even if you have a full ride, you should never stop looking for more opportunities.”
Even if your tuition is covered, additional scholarships can help you pay for other costs, including books and housing.
5. Think outside the box to find the right scholarship opportunities
There are lots of reasons you can win a scholarship for college, so don’t feel discouraged if you don’t have stellar grades or a long list of school activities.
Some are awarded for financial need, while others go to students who love to volunteer. Some are pretty random, such as the Stuck at Prom prize for students who make the best prom outfit out of duct tape.
“There are some pretty obscure scholarships out there,” said Haslam. “I remember going to school with a girl who wore high heels every day because there was a scholarship for that.”
Use scholarship search tools to find even the most random opportunities. And ask your school counselor about local prizes in your community.
Even if you don’t get a full ride, every little bit helps toward paying for college.
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