In any given year, private scholarships account for only 4% of the grants given to U.S. college students. The majority of money comes from the federal government (44%) and the schools themselves (36%). State governments and employers account for 9% and 7% of college grants, respectively. Although private scholarships are the smallest source of financial aid, there are also many different ones available. Since it’s free to apply, the reward has the potential to be quite large. Who doesn’t like free money?


Who offers private scholarships?

Many corporations, nonprofits, religious or fraternal organizations, national societies, and research institutions offer scholarships to students to help them pay for college. Some private scholarships are even funded by individuals who believe in higher education and want to make a difference in a student’s life.

There are plenty of private scholarships available to all types of students. Most of them are competitive. Often, you will be required to submit your high school transcripts and a supplementary essay, but the requirements vary. Start your research early so you understand the eligibility requirements and deadlines well before you need to apply. Remember, your chances of receiving a scholarship increase every time you fill out an application, so get to work!

What types of private scholarships are available?

Full-ride scholarships are rare. There are about 250 private full-ride scholarships available in the United States. Only about 0.3% of students get a full-ride from any one source. However, smaller scholarships can add up fast, and any chunk of change will still put a dent into your college costs. The amount of aid distributed in the form of private scholarships totals about $3.3 billion annually. This is much less than the U.S. Department of Education, but it is still a lot of money. It is available to motivated students who apply, apply, apply!

Students may receive private scholarships based on any number of criteria, including, but not limited to, the following:

  • Academic performance
  • Athletic performance
  • Artistic pursuit
  • Community service
  • Status as a minority student
  • Status as an LGBT+ student
  • Status as a female student
  • Unique attributes (left-handed students, students with a certain last name, specific ancestry, etc.)
  • Being a corporate employee or the child of an employee
  • Religious affiliation
  • Membership in an organization (Daughters of the American Republic, Girl Scouts, etc.)

Who gets private scholarships?

While some go to students based on academic merit and require a minimum GPA and standardized test scores, others are awarded to students for community service, athletic performance, and artistic pursuits. There are scholarships for minorities, women, and (believe it or not) left-handed students. This is just a short list. Considering all your unique qualities, passions, accomplishments, and talents, it’s likely that you will find a scholarship to match.

How do I find a private scholarship?

  • On paper: Books aren’t outdated, and in fact, some can even help you decode financial aid.
  • Online: There are a variety of websites that offer scholarship searches to interested students.
    • The U.S. Department of Labor has a free scholarship search tool that allows prospective students to search by award type and state. The website links to further information about who qualifies, the award amount, and how to apply.
    • You can also fill out a scholarship profile with information about your age and current level in school at Chegg, FastWeb, and Scholarships.com. They will send personalized scholarship matches straight to your inbox!
    • The College Board hosts a scholarship search that asks you to input information about your age, current level in school, academic interests, military status, and membership in organizations. It will immediately return a list of every scholarship for which you may qualify.
  • In person: Never underestimate the power of networking! It is great that there is so much information available online, but some people are actually trained to help students get into college and figure out financial aid.
    • Talk to your high school guidance counselor.
    • Get help and more information about available scholarships from the financial aid office at the colleges you are considering.
    • Some large corporations offer scholarships to their employees and employees’ children, so inquire with your part-time employer (if you have one) or ask your parents to speak to a human resources representative at work.
    • If you belong to a particular religious or community organization, check to see if it awards scholarships to qualified applicants.

How can I increase my chances of getting a scholarship?

  • Watch out for scams. You will never have to pay a fee to apply for a scholarship. If you get to a point in the application where you are required to pay a fee, turn around and run the other direction. They should be giving you money, not the other way around.
  • Apply every year. It’s never too early or too late to start your scholarship search. You can apply for scholarships starting your freshman year all the way through graduate school! Just because you’re already in college doesn’t mean you should give up on finding money to pay for your education.
  • Remember, small amounts add up. Don’t overlook the smaller or local scholarships. They generally receive fewer applicants, so you’re more likely to beat out the competition.
  • Look for essays. Scholarship applications that include an essay receive fewer applicants than those without because they take more time to complete. Show off your writing skills and take a unique angle to increase your chances of selection.
  • Find scholarships that appreciate things other than grades. As mentioned above, there are plenty of scholarships for all types of students. While it’s important to strive to be a great student, you don’t have to have superior grades in every subject to win a scholarship. Consider your unique qualities, passions, and talents. Play to your strengths. Most likely, you’ll find a scholarship to match.
  • Volunteer. Scholarships love students who give back to their communities. Get started volunteering with an organization early on in high school and stick with it. Even just a couple of hours a week increases your chances of getting a scholarship. It also looks great on a college application.
  • Be aware. Outside scholarships can reduce your federal financial aid package, since colleges are required to consider outside sources of aid. You cannot receive more aid than the cost of attendance at a school.

Page last updated: 03/2017