Scholarships are free money to help you pay for college. They do not need to be repaid. Some grants and scholarships are based on financial need (the difference between the total cost of college and ability to pay), some are based on academic, artistic or athletic merit, and others are based on unusual criteria, such as creating a prom costume out of duct tape, a scholarship for left-handed students or a scholarship for a student with a last name of Zolp.
There are scholarships available for older, independent students in addition to scholarships for traditional students who enter college immediately after graduating from high school. Most scholarships and other forms of financial aid do not discriminate based on age. A few are available only to college students who have not yet earned a Bachelor's degree.
It is easy to find scholarships using a scholarship matching service like Fastweb. Fastweb is a free service. It takes about half an hour to complete a personal profile of your background, such as your grades, test scores, interests, hobbies and activities. This profile is matched against a very large database of scholarships, and you get an immediate list of all the scholarships that match your profile. You will see only those scholarships for which you are qualified.
The Fastweb database is updated daily. Whenever a new scholarship is added that matches your background profile, you will get an email message to tell you about it. The web site also has a lot of news, information and practical advice about planning and paying for college.
Your local public library or bookstore may include several popular scholarship listing books. While sites like FastWeb provide you with targeted information, books are better for random exploration. But before you use any book, check the copyright date. If the book is more than a year or two old, it may be too old to be useful, as many scholarships change important information every year. Also, be sure to apply only for scholarships for which you are eligible. Scholarship sponsors receive enough applications from qualified students that they will not consider any application that does not satisfy their selection criteria.
You can also find information about smaller local scholarships on bulletin boards in your local public library, high school guidance counselor's office and college financial aid office. Some guidance counselors and college financial aid administrators will publicize scholarships in the school bulletin or newspaper. They may also distribute scholarship booklets that list scholarships that have been won by other students, or post lists of scholarships on their web sites.
Another good resource is the coupon section of your local Sunday newspaper. National scholarship programs often advertise there.
Start searching for scholarships as soon as possible. There are scholarships with deadlines throughout the year, so the sooner you start searching, the more scholarships you will find. You should continue searching for scholarships after you are enrolled in college, as there are some scholarships that are available only to current college students.
If you win a renewable scholarship, which gives you money every year you are in college, note the requirements for keeping the scholarship. Often you will need to get good grades to keep the scholarship and send a short progress report to the sponsor once a year. You might also need to get involved in community service or other activities.
Beware of scholarship scams. There are many con artists who try to scam you by posing as scholarship providers. Usually they will try to get you to pay them money, by calling it an application fee or taxes or something else that sounds reasonable. Beware of scholarships that charge any kind of a fee, even if it is just a few dollars. If you have to pay money to get money, it is probably a scam. Never invest more than a postage stamp to find out information about scholarships or to apply for scholarships. Nobody can guarantee that you'll win a scholarship. Also be careful about giving out your Social Security Number, bank account number of credit card number to any scholarship providers.
Mark Kantrowitz is an expert on paying for college. He is publisher of FinAid.org and Fastweb.com, the leading free web sites for information about student financial aid, student loans and scholarships.