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Six Myths About Scholarships — and How They Can Cost You

Some things about college scholarships are obvious – namely, that free money to help pay for college is a good thing. But for something everyone knows about, there are actually a lot of misconceptions and myths out there about how scholarships work and how students can qualify for them.

Check out these six common myths about scholarships and find out how to make these tremendous tools help you pay for your college education.

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Myth 1: You have to be a star student (or a jock, artistic virtuoso, etc.) to win scholarships

We’re not going to lie: if you’re the school valedictorian, already won a Pulitzer, and qualified for the Olympics, it’s true you’ll have an easier time getting college scholarships. But you don’t have to be any of those things to earn significant amounts of scholarship money.

All you have to be is resourceful.

Turns out, there are a lot of scholarships out there based on all sorts of criteria. While government- and school-issued scholarships usually have at least modest academic criteria for applicants, private scholarships can be based on whatever criteria the donor chooses.  

There are scholarships based on demographics such as your religion, gender, or ethnicity, hobbies, artistic pursuits, your intended career path, and many more. There are even scholarships out there for super-tall people, or those with a certain rare surname. If you look, chances are you’ll find at least a few that are a perfect fit for you.

To make that process easier, check our scholarship database that lets you search by various criteria so you can home in on the offerings that are the best match for you.

Myth 2: College scholarships are good for all for four years of school

Some scholarships are granted as four-year awards, but many are not. When you apply for a scholarship — and especially if you win it — make sure you understand if you'll need to reapply every year to continue to receive the scholarship.

You should also check to see what criteria you need to meet each year to stay eligible for the scholarship — it won't necessarily stay the same. Common ways you could become ineligible for a scholarship you’ve already won is if your grades drop, you move, or if you change majors.  

Myth 3: You have to apply in high school

While you certainly should start looking for college scholarships while you’re still in high school, you can continue to apply for scholarships for as long as you’re in school. Some scholarships are specifically aimed at students who are already enrolled in college or pursuing graduate education.

And remember: Just because you didn’t qualify for a specific scholarship in high school doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t have a chance to win it later after you’ve proven your ability in college. If you see a scholarship that you still think is a good fit, go for it!

Myth 4: It takes a ton of effort to win a scholarship

It’s true, some scholarships do take a fair amount of effort to earn, including writing an essay and gathering reference letters and other documentation. But that’s not the case for all scholarships. Tons of scholarships don’t require an essay; some take little more than a filling out a brief form. (Our scholarship is easy to apply for and your parents can apply as well.)

Where you do want to spend some effort is making sure you’ve met all the requirements for a given scholarship. The last thing you want is to miss out on free money because you sent in a form a day late or forgot to include a copy of your academic transcript.

Myth 5: Only big scholarships are worth applying for

Winning a big-name and/or big-dollar scholarship is obviously a feather in your cap as well as a way to bring down your total college costs. But here’s the downside: Any student with half a prayer of winning them is applying for them, so you face steep competition.

Smaller scholarships and those from lesser-known institutions don’t get as much fanfare, but they also tend to get far fewer applicants, so the chances of you being the chosen grantee are much better.

Think about it: Let’s say a rural county’s chamber of commerce offers three $500 scholarships to local grads. And only a few thousand kids each year graduate from high school in that county — many of whom won’t bother to apply. You could have a better than 1-in-1000 chance of snagging one of those grants, compared to some big-name scholarships where you’d be competing against tens of thousands of other students.

Now, $500 isn’t likely to mean you graduate college debt-free. But if you can win five, 10, or 20 of those smaller scholarships over the course of your college career, it can add up to thousands of dollars of free money — and a much lighter student loan burden once you graduate.

It's worth spending some time looking for all the smaller, under-the-radar scholarships that might suit you. It doesn’t have to be a full-time job — an hour or two a week to research and fill out applications could be enough to net you a significant amount of free money.

Myth 6: Scholarships are only good for tuition

A surprising number of people think scholarships only can be used for tuition or direct education expenses and that’s not necessarily the case.

Each scholarship has its own rules for how you can use scholarship funds. Some are just for tuition; some can be used broadly for living expenses and more. Some are even earmarked for certain kinds of expenses, such as a stipend to buy technology needed to pursue your education.

If and when you win a scholarship, make sure you double-check its guidelines to ensure you’re staying within the established rules.

You’re juggling a lot trying to wrap up high school and get ready for college. Looking for scholarships can feel like one more task on an already-overfilled plate. But if you can manage to squeeze in a little time to look for (and apply to) the scholarships that are the best match you might be surprised how fruitful that effort is.  To learn more, check out our scholarship guide.

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