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Top 9 Scholarship Secrets You Can Use to Secure College Funding

Want to get more scholarships but aren't confident that you have what it takes? We spoke with a scholarship expert to get the scoop on how to land more of that sweet free money for college.

After applying for federal financial aid through the FAFSA, you should have a pretty good idea of how much tuition you'll still have to pay. From there, you can start seeking out scholarship opportunities to help reduce the total costs — or maybe even attend school for free. But first, you need to understand how to get a college scholarship. 

Let's discuss our top tips and secrets that you can use to get more scholarships:

How do you find college scholarships you're eligible for?

There are so many types of scholarship resources out there it can be overwhelming to just sort through them all — let alone fill out all the scholarship applications. But it's worth the effort. The time you spend now — whether you're still a high school student or already in college — can save you a lot of money in the long run. Remember: Every scholarship dollar you earn now is a dollar plus interest that you don't have to pay back as a loan later. 

If your GPA isn't stellar, you may have assumed that your scholarship opportunities are limited, but that's not the case. In fact, there are scholarships for students of every level of academic achievement.

Besides state- and college-sponsored scholarships, there are many private scholarships offered by non-profits, community groups, and more. Those scholarships often focus less on academic achievement and more on values or qualities that are important to the organization. Once you start looking, you'll be surprised how many scholarships you can find that are based on other characteristics such as religion, ethnicity, community service, your planned field of study, and even your hobbies. 

Fortunately, there are a lot of great — and free — scholarship resources out there to help you find new scholarships you may qualify for. Nitro has a database of scholarship opportunities you can use to search for good matches based on filters like your state, field of study, and more. Another option is scholarships.com, which offers a free scholarship search with several filters based on your eligibility. 

With private scholarships, you'll often need a letter of recommendation and/or to write an essay in order to qualify — that's especially true for scholarships aimed at current high school students. 

Top 9 secrets to secure college scholarships

As you begin your scholarship search, there are a few things you should know to give yourself the best possible edge. While every college scholarship has its own unique set of criteria, there are some common things they tend to look for. And there are things you can do as part of your research and application process to improve your odds of actually landing as many scholarships as possible. 

Some of the tips that can help you secure college scholarships are: 

  1. Get leadership experience

  2. Tell your story

  3. Commit to the work

  4. Look for local scholarships

  5. Do the essays first

  6. Follow the directions carefully

  7. Know what they want to hear

  8. Search using specifics

  9. Connect your experiences to the application

We'll discuss all of these in more detail below. So keep reading to give yourself the best shot at securing as much funding as possible for your college education.  

1. Get leadership experience

Many scholarship programs are looking for someone who shows leadership qualities —and not just in school. When it comes to scholarships, your extracurricular activities can be as important as your academic standings.

The best way to get that leadership experience is through volunteering. We encourage students to focus on the quality of the experience, not quantity. High school seniors and college students should be seeking out volunteer opportunities if you're looking to apply for a variety of different scholarships.

2. Tell your story

Let's say you have two great students, both applying for a scholarship solely based on grades: it's basically a lottery at that point. How can you make sure you stand out and improve your chances of winning the award? Through the scholarship essay.

Be authentic and share your story. There's an old writing rule that says to show, not tell. What that means in short is to provide details, examples, and other information that demonstrates your qualities instead of simply stating that you have leadership experience. Here's an example: Let's say you're a student-athlete applying for a leadership scholarship. You could share 'we lost this game, but this is how I encouraged my team for the next one...' or 'someone got hurt in the middle of the game and this is how we handled it...' Explain how you are a leader through your own personal experiences.

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3. Commit to the work

When it comes to applying to college scholarships, it can feel like a lot of work. However, if you decide to spend your free time during your senior year researching and seeking out scholarship money to pay for school, you can save tons of money in the long run and potentially avoid student loans.

Think of it like this: If it took you four hours to find and apply for a scholarship worth $1,000 and you won, you just made $250 an hour! That's a great hourly rate! But you're not going to win every one. If you only apply for one or two, it’s a dangerous assumption that you're going to even one of them, let alone both. View this like a job and be committed to putting in the time needed.

4. Look for local scholarships

Many people exclusively look at national scholarships during their search. Oftentimes, the reward is bigger, but so is the applicant pool. If you dedicate time to searching for local scholarships, you may be able to find more funding for your college planning. 

Start with your school — the school counselors and website resources — and also check with the local Chamber of Commerce. You should also check for local businesses that offer scholarships. Another possible source: Even if you don't plan to go to a local college, go to the financial aid section on their website and look for external scholarships. You don't necessarily have to attend that school to be eligible for external scholarships.

5. Do the essays first

A lot of students dread applying for scholarships that require essays and often skip them. That's a huge mistake because that essay is your chance to stand out from the rest of the pack. If you're only applying for scholarships where you just fill out your name — it's a lottery pick and you're competing with thousands of students. That doesn't mean those low-effort scholarships aren't worth trying for — someone wins them, after all. But you should apply for everything with essays first and only once you're done with that, use what time you have to go to those lottery-style scholarships.

6. Follow directions carefully

It may sound like common sense, but there are plenty of students who fail to follow the application directions and disqualify themselves from running for a scholarship. You should ensure you're carefully following the application directions when applying for college scholarships.

7. Know what they want to hear

Be mindful of what you're completing. For example, people want to know where they can find full-ride scholarships from colleges. To find that, first you have to know what that college is looking for in terms of its student profile — what kind of grades, activities, etc. Usually that's available on the admissions section of the college website. When you know what they're looking for, you can better present your case. That doesn't mean pretending to be something you aren't — that's never a good idea. But you can highlight or downplay certain aspects to better fit what a given college is looking for. 

8. Search using specifics

Students often jump into a scholarship search without a strategy or plan. But if you just put "scholarship" into a Google search, you're going to get a lot of stuff. Some of it won't fit, some of it might be a good fit. If you live in Rhode Island, scholarships for residents of Utah aren't helpful. Make sure you're looking for scholarships that are a good fit for you. 

For example, if you don't have a high GPA, you may not want to apply for merit scholarships. If you didn't have a successful athletic career throughout high school, you shouldn't apply for athletic scholarships. 

There are scholarships on the market for just about anything  from ethnicity, to certain hobbies, or even your hair color. You should only spend your time researching and applying for scholarships for which you meet the eligibility requirements.

9. Connect your experiences to the application

It's important to dig deep into your answers on college scholarship applications. Because the applicant pool is so large, you'll need to stand out. Finding something specific that can connect your experiences to the application will do that.

Instead of providing generic answers, really find a connection that resonates with you and your life experiences. Don't just say you want to 'make the world a better place'  because hundreds of applicants will say the same thing. Instead, should find a connection to your life experiences to explain why you want to make the world a better place or how you think you can do that.

Start your scholarship search ASAP

There are thousands of scholarships available for college students that can be narrowed down based on background, major, and financial need. Use our guide to sort through scholarship opportunities based on eligibility and check out our resources for more information on how to pay for college.

Make sure you're meeting application deadlines for your specific academic year so you can ensure you'll have the funding before the semester starts. And don't forget that scholarships are not just for high school students. College students and graduate students are both eligible to apply scholarships to their tuition costs.

Alternate ways to save money on college tuition

For most students, even if you have a great academic career and a careful strategy for finding college scholarships, you won't win enough scholarships to pay for your entire college education. If you did, congrats — you can stop reading and go celebrate! For the rest of you, we have some alternatives you can check out to help bridge the gap in your college funding.  

Student loans serve a great purpose, but as a rule, you don't want to take out any more in loans than you absolutely have to. Scholarships are one way to reduce your reliance on student loans, but there are other options, including: 

  • Filling out the FAFSA (Free Application For Federal Student Aid): The FAFSA is the most important way you can secure college funding. The federal government as well as your state and your school's financial aid office will look at your FAFSA application to determine how much aid you can get for college. This could be in the form of federal student loans, undergraduate scholarships, or grants. If you don't fill out the FAFSA, it's almost guaranteed you're leaving some money on the table. 

  • Look into community colleges: Many community colleges offer lower tuition costs compared to many four-year universities. It can be a great way to save money on tuition (and likely room and board) without using student loans. 

  • Find a work-study program: Many colleges and universities will allow full-time students to enroll in work-study programs. You can get an on-campus job for a few hours per week to help pay for your day-to-day expenses.

Figuring out how you can pay for college is stressful and can often feel overwhelming, but you have multiple options to help defray those costs. 

Learn more smart ways to finance your college career with Nitro

There's a lot that goes into college planning, and figuring out how to pay for it is one of the biggest and most stressful. The best way to cover those costs is with college scholarships. Making sure you do the footwork to find suitable scholarship opportunities and spending the time to send in award-worthy applications that meet all the specifications can go a long way to cutting your overall college costs. 

At Nitro, our whole goal is to help you find the resources you need to learn the ins and outs of all your available college funding resources. That includes private student loans as well as our own no-essay $2,000 Nitro scholarship!

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