Here’s How Hard It Is to Get a Scholarship for College

Some graduating high school kids worry about not getting accepted into their dream schools. Others worry about not being able to afford college — any college. Although scholarships are available, students coming from low-income backgrounds fear that it would not be easy to win one, and any winnings might not be enough to cover all college costs.

Applying for a scholarship is easy. Getting a scholarship, on the other hand, is hard. As a matter of fact, only about one out of eight college students wins a scholarship, says a 2020 Forbes report. The media company adds that less than one percent of college students win $25,000 or more per year.

Planning to count on either your intelligence or your family’s low income to make college affordable? Read on.

This article will introduce you to the different types of scholarships for college students. After checking this out, you will have a much better idea of which of them suits you best, thus allowing you to apply for one (or two or more) you are eligible for and avoid wasting precious resources on those whose various criteria you don’t meet.


Need-Based vs. Merit-Based: What’s the Difference?

The name says it all — need-based scholarships are financial aid given to students on the basis of financial need. Merit-based scholarships, on the other hand, are financial aid awarded on the basis of academic, artistic, or athletic merit. Some merit aids also take financial need into account.

Both need-based and merit-based scholarships aim to make higher education more accessible. While they share the same goal, these types of financial aid are geared toward different types of students.

The most common type of aid awarded to college students in the US is a need-based scholarship.

As a matter of fact, the Federal Student Aid (FSA), which is an office of the US Department of Education (DE) and the largest provider of student financial aid in the US, awards over 13 million college students with the financial assistance of almost $150 billion in the form grants, loans, and work-study funds.

Related Article: How Is a Student Loan Different from a Scholarship?

Just because you feel you will not qualify for a need-based scholarship doesn’t mean that you should not fill out the FAFSA form. Most incoming first-year students, regardless of economic background, should complete and submit the FAFSA form before the deadline in order to know whether or not they are eligible for some government assistance.

Unfortunately, around one-third of all college students do not file the FAFSA form.

We stated earlier that a need-based scholarship is the most common financial assistance college students receive. And among the need-based aids awarded, Federal Pell Grants are some of the most common.

The majority of Federal Pell Grants go to undergraduate students from families that make less than $20,000 per year in total. Some students whose families generate less than $50,000 per year in total, however, also qualify. For the academic year 2021 to 2022, the maximum Federal Pell Grant award amounts to $6,495.

It’s also possible, by the way, for need-based scholarships to come from sources other than the US government.

Many colleges and universities offer financial aid to students who are in need of financial assistance. As a matter of fact, some of the most competitive need-based scholarships tend to come from competitive institutions.

For instance, Columbia University and Brown University students whose families make less than $60,000 a year do not have to pay for tuition, fees, and room and board — the school will take care of these!

Think again if you believe that your family should be making a very small amount of money annually in order to be eligible for a need-based scholarship at a prestigious school.

Yale University, for instance, has aid for students whose families generate up to $200,000 a year. Some of those who earn over $200,000 annually could still be eligible.

At Dartmouth College, families making over $100,000 yearly could qualify, too, depending on their unique situation.

Meanwhile, a merit-based scholarship is something that is awarded to a college student based on academic performance or extracurricular achievement instead of one’s financial need.

If need-based scholarships primarily come from the US government, merit-based scholarships, on the other hand, can come from many different sources. Besides the colleges and universities themselves, they can also be awarded by various organizations, businesses and other entities.

We will delve into this matter in a few, so don’t stop reading now!

Instead of the amount of money a student’s family makes every year, the members of a merit-based scholarship committee usually take a look at the high school GPA, standardized test score, extracurricular activities and talents of the student in order to be able to determine whether or not he or she is deserving of the award.

Refrain from assuming that you are out of the woods in terms of college costs after qualifying for a merit-based scholarship.

That’s because you will have to keep on meeting the various criteria for eligibility to continue receiving funds throughout college. For instance, it’s not unlikely that you will have to maintain a certain GPA to stay qualified.

According to scholarship statistics available on the web, only 14% of US college students receive merit-based scholarships. On the other hand, up to 37% of college students in the country receive need-based scholarships.

Related Article: How Do You Get a Scholarship in High School?

How Do You Apply for a Scholarship?

The steps to applying for a scholarship vary depending on the type. Applying for Federal Pell Grants, for instance, requires students to complete the FAFSA form. At some colleges and universities, students do not even have to apply for certain scholarship types as they are automatically considered.

According to the College Board, the best time for high school students to start applying to colleges and universities is in the summer before their senior year. This gives them plenty of time to prepare and spring into action, too.

Well, it’s also the perfect time for college-bound teens to start applying for scholarships.


As a matter of fact, the FSA says that if you have the time and energy to apply earlier, the better! The goal is for you to be able to come across as many scholarships as you want, apply to as many of them as you can, and get your hands on as many awards as possible so that you don’t have to worry that much about the steep cost of college.

Different scholarships have different application deadlines. Some of them even require students to submit their applications up to a year before starting college.

For instance, you can fill out the FAFSA form starting October 1, which is the date when the application for federal financial aid starts. It’s recommended that you file yours as close to October 1 as possible, and it’s for a few reasons:

  • To increase your chances of getting about twice as much financial aid, on average, than students who file their FAFSA form at a much later date — some aids are on a first-come, first-served basis.
  • To make sure that you will have plenty of time to gather all the necessary information, thus allowing you to submit your correctly completed FAFSA form before the deadline, which is June 30.
  • To allow you to focus on other equally important tasks associated with the college application process, including applying for other financial aid programs to increase your chances of receiving awards.

Speaking of deadlines, there are three FAFSA deadlines every high schooler needs to know. Being acquainted with all of them helps fend off missed opportunities to keep earning a degree from leaving the family’s financial situation in shambles. The different deadlines for the filing of the FAFSA form are as follow:

Federal deadline

As mentioned earlier, the last day of June is the deadline for the submission of the FAFSA form. After this date, the FAFSA form will disappear from To be able to apply for federal financial aid again, you will have to wait for October 1 the following year to arrive.

State deadline

Many states have limited aid funds. Because of this, make sure that you submit your FAFSA form without much delay. If your state says that you should submit it as soon as possible after October 1, submit yours ASAP. Some states have fixed-date deadlines, while others suggest certain dates in order to obtain priority consideration.

College deadline

In most instances, the earliest due dates for the submission of the FAFSA form come from the schools themselves. Deadlines tend to vary from institution to institution. However, they usually come way before the academic year starts. See to it that you check the deadline for each college you will apply to.

Besides filling out the FAFSA form, sometimes, you will also have to submit what’s called the CSS Profile.

Short for the College Scholarship Service Profile, it’s an online application just like the FAFSA. However, it is maintained by the College Board — the same organization that administers the SAT. Simply put, students bound for college who would like to apply for non-federal financial aid are the ones who need to submit the CSS Profile.

More than 200 US colleges and universities require applicants to submit both the FAFSA form and CSS Profile before they will determine how much money students can be awarded with.

Some of them include Caltech, Carnegie Mellon, Dartmouth, Johns Hopkins, Pomona, Scripps, Stanford, Vanderbilt, and Vassar.

However, you can go ahead and get an idea of the Expected Family Contribution (EFC), which is an index number used to determine one’s eligibility for federal student financial aid, earlier before you hear back from the college. You can do this by using the Net Price Calculator on a school’s website — colleges and universities are required to have one.

Before you start submitting the CSS Profile, there are a couple of important things about it you need to know:

  • Submitting it doesn’t come free of charge, unlike the FAFSA. As of this writing, the cost of submitting it to one institution or scholarship program is $25. Additional reports amount to $16 each. But the good news is that there are fee waivers available for students from low-income backgrounds.
  • The CSS Profile requires pretty much the same information as the FAFSA. And just like the FAFSA form, it becomes available on October 1. It takes most students to complete the FAFSA form in under an hour. On the other hand, the CSS Profile can take anywhere from 45 minutes to two hours to complete.

But before you fill out any form, it’s a good idea to inquire with the school’s financial aid office. This will allow you to learn whether or not you will also have to complete and submit supplementary forms other than the FAFSA and/or CSS Profile. Sometimes, you will also have to meet other requirements, such as writing an essay or having an interview.

Paying the financial aid office of the institution a visit will also let you know which scholarship programs are available for you — some are open to only certain types of students.

And, more importantly, it will enable you to know the various application deadlines.

Related Article: Nine Scholarship Types Nobody Applies For

How Do You Find Available Scholarships?

College-bound students can find scholarships in many ways, such as visiting a college’s financial aid office and consulting the high school counselor. A free scholarship tool is available from the US Department of Labor. Scholarships are available from organizations, foundations, businesses, etc.

In some instances, enrolling at a college or university alone is enough for you to be considered for financial aid. This is true whether it is a need-based scholarship or merit-based scholarship you are qualified for.

Needless to say, there are no applications to fill out and submit before a set deadline.

However, most of the time, you will have to determine which scholarships you could apply for. And, as discussed earlier, it all starts with filing the FAFSA form and/or CSS Profile. To avoid wasting precious resources, make sure that you get in touch with the financial aid office of the college or university you plan to attend.

But before you do that, it’s important to note that not all kinds of scholarships, in particular institutional ones, are available at the schools on your college list.

While many colleges and universities offer both need-based scholarships and merit-based scholarships, some offer only one kind. For instance, some of the most selective institutions in the land do not offer aid according to academic, artistic or athletic merit. As a matter of fact, the Ivy Leagues do not offer merit-based financial assistance.

However, competitive schools offering need-based scholarships only tend to be generous. Here are 10 of the country’s top institutions known to have some of the highest average need-based aid:

Yale UniversityNew Haven, Connecticut$59,150
Pomona CollegeClaremont, California$55,082
Washington UniversitySt. Louis, Missouri$53,553
Princeton UniversityPrinceton, New Jersey$52,438
Vanderbilt UniversityNashville, Tennessee$52,242
Haverford CollegeHaverford, Pennsylvania$52,104
Williams CollegeWilliamstown, Massachusetts$51,521
Vassar CollegePoughkeepsie, New York$50,451
CaltechPasadena, California$49,806
Grinnell CollegeGrinnell, Iowa$45,266

Besides the scholarships from the US government and colleges and universities, there are also those that are from third parties. And it’s exactly for this reason why they are referred to as third-party scholarships. You may also hear some people calling them outside scholarships or private scholarships.

There are many different sources of third-party scholarships. You can look for them in your community by inquiring at local businesses, church groups, non-profit organizations, charitable institutions, etc. You can also go online to look for them — there are many websites that help students going to college on a budget find third-party scholarships, such as:


Since different third-party scholarships have different eligibility and application requirements, it’s a must that you carefully read the website of the provider of your choice in order to avoid wasting your time and missing opportunities to have some of your college expenses covered.

Just Before You Apply for a Scholarship

There are all sorts of scholarships for all kinds of college students out there. They help cover some college costs or, in extremely rare instances, every single expense associated with earning a degree.

In order to make attending college easier on the pocket with the help of scholarships, you will have to first win one or a few scholarships — yes, you can have multiple ones as there is no limit to the number of scholarships you can apply for and receive. While applying is almost effortless, unfortunately, winning is not as easy as it seems.

Above, we talked about the different types of scholarships to choose from.

It’s not a smart move to apply to just about any scholarship that you come across. Before you fill out any form and hope for the best, see to it that you are eligible for the financial aid you are eyeing. Otherwise, applying to one whose criteria you don’t match up with will only lead to unnecessary anxiety and frustration.

Needless to say, take your time when shopping around for scholarships. But, although haste definitely makes waste, don’t take too long as there are scholarship applications deadlines to beat!

Read Also: How Do College Scholarships Work?

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the College Reality Check.

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