Top 9 Scholarship Secrets You Can Use to Secure College Funding

By Carol Katarsky Updated on March 1, 2022

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 on how much tuition you will 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 scholarships resources out there it can be overwhelming to just sort throught them all — let alone fill out all the scholarship aplications. 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 extra interest that you don't have to pay back on a loan later. 

If your GPA isn't stellar, you may have assumed that your scholarship opportunites 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 that can 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 those tips to 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 — not just in school. Your extracurricular activities are just as important to receive scholarship awards as your academic standings.

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

2. Tell your story

You have two great students, both applying for a scholarship solely based on grades: it's a lottery at that point. How can you make sure that you stand out? Through the scholarship essay. Be authentic, share your story — but do show and not just tell. Let's say a student athlete is applying for a leadership scholarship. Maybe you can share 'we lost this game, but this is what I did to encourage my team for the next one.' Or maybe 'someone got hurt in the middle of the game and this is what we did'. 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 and you were working on a scholarship worth $1,000 and you won, you just made $250 an hour! That's a great hourly rate! 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 win both. You may not. View this like a job and be committed.

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 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

I see a lot of students wanting to skip the scholarships with essays. That's a huge mistake because that essay helps you to stand out. If you are only applying for scholarships where you just fill out your name  — it's a lottery pick and you're competing with thousands of students. I'm not saying don't do it, but you should apply for everything with essays first and then when you're done with that, then go to those lottery pick 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 are carefully following the application directions when applying for college scholarships.

7. Know what they want to hear

Be mindful of what you're completing. I get this all the time: "Where can we find the full-ride scholarships from the colleges?" And I tell students that you first have to know what that college is looking for in terms of their student profile. And that should be, from what I've seen, on the admissions section of the college website. Or, with a phone call, they can give you this information.

8. Search using specifics

Students often jump into a scholarship search without a strategy or plan. The thing is, once they go into Google, you don't just put in the word scholarship. 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, and the scholarships are for Rhode Island, someone in Utah would not be eligible. Make sure the scholarship is a good fit. A lot of students don't even think about that. Make sure you meet the requirements.

For example, if you don't have a high GPA, you may not want to apply for merit scholarships. If you did have a successful athletic career throughout high school, you should not 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 be applying to scholarships that you meet the eligibility requirements for.

9. Connect your experiences to the application

It is 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 tell them that you want to 'make the world a better place' - because hundreds of applicants will say the same thing. Instead, you should find a connection to your life experiences to explain why you want to make the world a better place.

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 will 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 and your school's financial aid office will look at your FAFSA application to determine how much federal aid you can get for college. This could be in the form of federal student loans, undergraduate scholarships, or grants. 

  • 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 multuple 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 specificiations can go a long way to cutting your overall college costs. 

Getting scholarships and grants can reduce your reliance on student loans and save you a lot of money and interest in the long run.

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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Published in: Scholarships

About the Author
Carol Katarsky

Carol Katarsky is a contributing writer for Nitro. She is an award-winning journalist with extensive experience writing about both finance and education. Her corporate and non-profit clients include AIG, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, and the Project Management Institute. She lives in Philadelphia with her husband, son, and one cat more than she should. Read more by Carol Katarsky