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Bottom Line Up Front

  • Scholarships are available based on a variety of criteria, including income, academic achievements and financial need.
  • To source opportunities, look into national scholarships, financial aid services, local networks, mentors and professional organizations.
  • To maximize your scholarship opportunities, fill out the FAFSA, start your applications early and stay organized.

Time to Read

5 minutes

October 23, 2023

According to the Education Data Initiative, the average cost of college in 2023 is $36,436 per year. Even if you or your parents can afford to pay the full costs, that’s still a hefty sum. Scholarships can help cover the costs of college, from tuition and books to living expenses.

Did you know that you can even begin your scholarship search before your senior year of high school? Some databases and organizations allow students to start even earlier. Other scholarships are available to students already in college. All you have to do is look for them, apply and stay diligent.

What Types of Scholarships Can I Look For?

There are many categories of scholarships available to prospective and current college students. You can find them just about anywhere! Look into community organizations, major corporations, military branches or your school itself for scholarship opportunities.

Here are some of the most common types of scholarships available:

  • Merit-based. Merit-based scholarships are awarded based on academic achievements. This includes criteria like GPA, standardized test scores or outstanding talents. Merit scholarships are designed to reward excellence, without consideration for financial need.
  • Need-based. These scholarships are determined by a student’s ability (or inability) to pay for their education. Low-income students may be eligible for additional grants.
  • Minority scholarships. Minority scholarships support underrepresented groups in higher education. These scholarships may award money to racial and ethnic minorities, LGBTQ+ students and individuals with disabilities. 
  • Subject-specific. These scholarships are for students pursuing specific fields of study, such as STEM or the humanities. 
  • Community service. Community service scholarships recognize a student’s commitment to community service and volunteering. 
  • Athletic. Athletes who excel in sports like football and basketball may receive an athletic scholarship. Colleges and universities may offer them to recruit athletes for their teams.
  • Creative and artistic. Students with exceptional creative talents may be eligible for these scholarships. Like athletic scholarships, they may be used to recruit students for certain programs.
  • International. If you’re moving to the United States for higher education, apply for international scholarships. They might be merit-based, need-based or otherwise specific to international students.
  • Career-specific. Some scholarships are tailored to specific careers or industries. They may require recipients to commit to working in that field after graduation.
  • Entrepreneurial. These awards support students with innovative business ideas or entrepreneurial ambitions. 
  • First-generation. If you’re the first in your family to attend college, you might qualify for this type of scholarship. They’re designed to bridge financial and educational gaps for first-generation students.
  • Study abroad. Study abroad scholarships are for students interested in studying in foreign countries for a semester or more.
  • Military. Active Duty military personnel, Veterans and their dependents may qualify for certain scholarships through the branches of the military.

How to Find Scholarships

Finding scholarships is easier than you might think. Now that you know the different categories of scholarships available, make a list of which types you want to target. This will give you a starting point for your research. Then, turn to a few specific places to begin your search. 

Fill out the FAFSA.

Your first step is to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form. This application helps determine your eligibility for federal financial assistance like the Pell Grant. Most people are eligible for some form of aid. Even if you’re not eligible for student aid, apply anyway. Many states and scholarship programs use FAFSA information to evaluate applications. 

The FAFSA form takes about a half hour to complete. You’ll need personal information like your Social Security number and tax returns. If you’re a dependent, one or both parents will also need to fill out the FAFSA form.

Featured Content

The FAFSA Facts: Don’t Miss Out on Financial Aid 

Federal Student Aid, part of the U.S. Department of Education, provides more than $112 billion in federal grants, loans and work-study funds each year. Any student can apply for aid through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

Learn About Financial Aid Opportunities

Look for local opportunities.

Local scholarships are often less competitive because fewer students apply. Begin by checking with your high school’s guidance counselor. Then, inquire with community organizations and local businesses. Include your parents’ employers in your search. Some businesses offer exclusive scholarships for their employees’ children. 

Check scholarship databases.

Next, sign up for national scholarship database websites like FastwebAppilyUnigo and U.S. News Scholarship Finder. These websites collect information on a wide range of scholarship opportunities.

When you sign up for scholarship databases, take time to create a comprehensive student profile. List detailed information about your academic achievements, extracurricular activities, interests and career goals. Update your profile regularly when you achieve something new. Scholarship databases will try to match you with opportunities based on this information.

Ask your dream schools about scholarships.

Always research scholarships at each university or college before you apply. Some schools will automatically consider you for certain scholarships. Others may require you to apply. Contact each school’s financial aid office to ask about opportunities.

Tips and Tricks to Win Scholarships

Once you’ve found scholarships and reviewed the application requirements, follow the instructions and apply. You might not earn every scholarship you apply for. However, you can improve your chances with a few tips and tricks.

  • Start early. The earlier you start, the easier your applications could be. This also ensures that if you find a great scholarship later, tight deadlines shouldn’t prevent you from applying.
  • Stay organized. Keep track of the application deadlines, requirements and materials for each scholarship you consider. Create a calendar or spreadsheet to manage your applications. Also, make a dedicated email account for scholarships to ensure you won’t miss important communications.
  • Network. Ask everyone you know for tips, including mentors and guidance counselors. Many people are happy to provide recommendations or to review essays.
  • No award is too small. Don’t overlook smaller scholarships. Even $500 can cover a semester’s worth of books. Plus, they look great on your resume.
  • Keep the search going. Once you’re in college, continue your scholarship search. Contact your school’s financial aid office to inquire about scholarships for current students. Professional associations in your field are also a great resource.

Prepare Your College Fund With Scholarships and Savings

Scholarships can help ease the burden of paying for college, but you probably can’t rely on them alone. Make scholarships one piece of a larger college payment plan. Savings, student loans, scholarships and grants all work together to fund your path toward higher education.

Whether you’re just starting out on your educational journey or currently in school, Navy Federal Credit Union is here to help. Check out our student loan options to help fill funding gaps or explore our resources on college savings.

Next Steps Next Steps

  1. Prepare a plan to pay for your upcoming school year. Use Navy Federal’s College Savings Calculator to determine how much you’ll need to save for a college education.
  2. Explore Navy Federal’s education savings options like certificates and 529 plans. These will help you keep your college fund safe while you pursue more funding opportunities.
  3. Begin your scholarship search as early as you can. Look at sources close to home like your parents’ employers, then branch out to state and federal aid programs. Finish with searches for merit-, creative- or other unique opportunities on scholarship databases.


This content is intended to provide general information and shouldn't be considered legal, tax or financial advice. It's always a good idea to consult a tax or financial advisor for specific information on how certain laws apply to your situation and about your individual financial situation.