How To Find and Apply For Scholarships: A Step-by-Step Guide

With the cost of colleges and universities rising each year, it might feel like the price of furthering your education is getting out of control. In fact, between 1988 and 2017, the cost of attending a public university increased by 213% and the cost of a private one by 129%.

Students can expect to pay around $9,970 per year for a public university and $34,740 per year for a private university. One of the best ways to ease the pain of college tuition is earning scholarship awards. Learning how to apply for scholarships can save you a ton of money on tuition, plus it can help you feel more confident going into your college career!

When it comes to paying for college, scholarships are one of the best options.

The good news is there’s nearly a scholarship for everything you can think of. From being left-handed, to showcasing your talents on the football field, to making a prom outfit out of duct tape, the scholarship opportunities are endless. When you’re awarded a scholarship, the money goes straight to your college tuition (and sometimes books and room and board). You never have to worry about paying back a scholarship award.

Student applying for scholarships

How to Find Scholarships to Apply for

The internet has gifted us with so many different search tools and online resources where you can find and apply for thousands of scholarships within minutes. We’re breaking down common tools you (and your parents!) can use to find scholarships to apply for.

Scholarship Websites

Scholarship websites are commonly the first place recommended to search. These websites are easily accessible and host hundreds upon thousands of scholarships. In the past few years, scholarship websites have really upped their game with simple sign-up options, filter options (such as college major, gender, race, and school year), and search results matched to students’ individual profiles. 

The downside with scholarship websites is the massive amounts of competition. Many of these websites link to external, national scholarships, and sometimes the scholarships are based on a lottery system. Since some sites aren’t updated frequently enough or quality-checked, some sites will still list scholarship programs that no longer exist.

One last note of caution about these sites: Beware of scams. Some scholarship applications may require you to pay a fee in order to apply. You shouldn’t need to pay for any scholarship application. That’s a big red flag. You can check our tips for avoiding scholarships scams in our “No Essay” scholarship post.

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Mobile apps and mobile-friendly scholarship websites are a convenient method for searching for scholarships. Having the ability to apply on-the-go and stay updated on scholarships is a great benefit. Most apps personalize your search options.

Using Going Merry’s mobile-friendly scholarship application allows you to filter your scholarship search for local scholarships, create a list of your favorite scholarships and colleges, and view scholarships you’re eligible to apply for. We’re also releasing mobile apps (for Android and iOS) by early 2020!

Search Engines

A simple online search through Google or Bing is another option to find scholarships to apply for. To search effectively, make a list of all the different categories you fit into (e.g. by gender, race, state, hobbies, sports, disabilities, GPA, etc.) and then search for scholarships based on those. For instance, if you’re a Mexican-American female student from Phoenix, Arizona, who dances ballet and wants to study engineering, you might search for:

Newspapers & Bulletin Boards

Old-fashioned search tools should not be overlooked! Information on great local scholarships could be waiting for you in the newspaper or on a community bulletin board. Try looking for newspapers or bulletin boards at schools, cafes, community centers, or places of worship.

These scholarships have the benefit of being less known or having a specific, local criteria you meet that national applications might not meet. For example, the scholarship requirement section may read, “Must attend North Central Engineering High School,” or “Applicants living in Olivier County are eligible.” This can help increase your chances of receiving scholarship awards locally. Just make a note to apply!

Scholarships Providers

Similar to scholarship search tools, scholarship providers range in organization, accessibility, convenience, and competition. The main scholarship providers are government, private, and school. We’ll break it down in the diagram below:


Government scholarships are provided on a national, state, or local level. Usually national and state government scholarships are applied for through FAFSA. National scholarships contain a crowded competition, since qualifications tend to be more flexible. For example, most national scholarships are not restricted by major, school year, or locality.

State and local government scholarships have the restriction of where you live. Local scholarships become very specific in which students they consider eligible. However, the qualifications are typically related to demographic restrictions rather than academic restrictions.


Private scholarships are provided by for-profits, like Coca-Cola and Dr. Pepper, or non-profits, like the LEAP Foundation. Both options have very flexible qualifications, as the company or organization is free to set their own rules for the scholarship they are funding.

For-profit scholarships have slightly more competition as they tend to be big name companies. Non-profit scholarships can vary greatly. Both private scholarship options tend to attach a theme to the scholarship application, such as a college major, a hobby, your heritage, or a topic the organization may support.


School scholarships can come from your high school (that you’re graduating) or your college (that you will be attending next year). In both cases, schools may have scholarships funded by  the government, a private agency (for-profit or non-profit), alumni, or the school’s own endowment. Some scholarships will be eligible for all students, while others will be based on specific qualities (e.g. leadership) or merits (GPA, sports). Some colleges may have departmental scholarships–for example, only for students majoring in psychology. The narrower the eligibility requirements, the less competition you have–and the greater chance you have to win!

Whether you’re applying for scholarships for the first time as an incoming college freshman or just looking for some extra cash to get you through grad school, here’s our step-by-step guide on how to apply for scholarships:

While the application process can be enough to scare some less-motivated students away, it’s really not so bad if you know what you’re in for (plus, Going Merry can help make the process easier!). Whether you’re applying for scholarships for the first time as an incoming college freshman or just looking for some extra cash to get you through grad school, here’s our step-by-step guide on how to apply for scholarships:

Student with computer applying for scholarships

Step 1: Search for Scholarships You’re Eligible For

You’ve already completed the heavy lifting of finding scholarships to apply for. Now, split your search into need-based and merit-based scholarships.

Need-based scholarships depend on your or your family’s ability to pay for college and are only awarded to candidates who need a little extra help financially. Merit-based scholarships are awarded to applicants based on their achievements or abilities. They may be focused on academics, art, or athletics. There’s also a large range of situation-based scholarships, such as ones for women, minorities, journalism majors, or gamers. 

Both need- and merit-based scholarships may be offered by your college, private organizations, or individuals. Talk to your high school guidance counselor or the financial aid office at your university about your options.

You can also search for scholarships using a scholarship website like Going Merry. After creating an account, you’ll be matched with scholarships based on information such as your school year, college major, GPA, hobbies, sports, and extracurricular activities.

Step 2: Find and Understand the Application Requirements

It’s important to research the requirements for the scholarship you’re applying for since each application will require you to submit different documents or complete various tasks.

Here are the most common documents and materials needed for a scholarship application:

Scholarship Application Form 

Be sure to fill out the scholarship application portion thoroughly and double-check that the information is accurate. (With Going Merry, we auto-fill your scholarship application forms based on your profile information–thus saving you loads of time.)



The essay portion of the application is your chance to shine. Even if you’re not a strong writer, it gives you the opportunity to express your personality, ideas, and opinions. You only have a certain amount of space and scholarship sponsors want to see how you’ll use it. Stuck and need inspiration? Check out essays from previous winners here.

You can also check out some of the most common essay prompts to the right. You might find out that you already have a bunch of these essays written!

Letters of Recommendation 

Most scholarships require letters of recommendation from personal or professional references. When requesting a letter of recommendation from professors, teachers, guidance counselors, or personal sources, give the requested person at least four weeks notice. The last thing you want is a rushed recommendation or a stressed-out recommender.

Copies of Transcripts and Diplomas 

Even if a scholarship isn’t merit-based, it may require a copy of your most recent school transcripts and your high school diploma. You can easily get transcript copies through your high school or university website or through the Guidance or Registrar’s Office. Occasionally, scholarship applications will also require your test scores from the SAT or ACT. 

Financial Aid Information 

Some scholarships, especially if they’re need-based, might require you to submit your FAFSA form or sometimes even your parents’ tax and income information along with your application.


An updated resume can make a big difference when it comes to applying for scholarships. Along with your essay, you should view your resume as one of the central pieces of your application—where you can highlight your skills and accomplishments.

Student looking up how to apply for scholarships

Step 3: Create a Calendar

When it comes to how to apply for scholarships, timing is key. It’s a good idea to begin applying as soon as possible…those deadlines can sneak up on you! From the start, make a list (whether in an Excel sheet or with pen and paper) of the scholarships you’d like to apply for, their deadlines, and the required documents and essays. (Going Merry also provides an estimated time for each application).

Make sure to start your scholarship applications well in advance so you’ll be ahead of the game. Some applications will request that you create a media project, such as a video explaining why you should be awarded the scholarship. This can be time-consuming, especially when you’re already busy with classes, homework, and sometimes extracurricular activities! Giving yourself time and starting early will help you confidently submit your scholarship applications.

Step 4: Rock the Essay

The essay can make or break the application, so it’s important to give it the time and effort that it deserves. Even if you’re lacking confidence when it comes to your writing skills, following a few simple tips can help take your essay to the next level.

Essay Tip #1: Read the Instructions

One of the most important aspects of your scholarship application is following instructions, from start to finish! Read the instructions for writing your essay as well. If the application requires a word count limit, stay within that limit. If you need to write an essay and submit a media piece, such as a video or photo, send it in!

Essay Tip #2: Give Yourself Time

When you give yourself sufficient time to write the essay, you’ll have more time to think through your ideas, and have more time for proofreading. Plan your time out beforehand to avoid errors and feel confident about the process.

Essay Tip #3: Find Your Own Path

When you apply for a scholarship, you’re responding to the same writing prompt as hundreds, or maybe even thousands, of other applicants. How can you make your essay stand out from the rest? What can you bring to it that nobody else can? Set some time aside simply to think over your strengths and to brainstorm ways to make your essay stand out.

Essay Tip #4: Create an Outline

An outline can help ensure that your essay is fluid and follows a logical sequence of events. Outlines don’t always need to be detailed, even just a basic one can help you organize your ideas!

Essay Tip #5: Liven It Up

Nobody wants to read a boring, lifeless essay…much less scholarship committees, who are reading hundreds of applications! Showcase your personality in your writing and let your passion show.

Essay Tip #6: Proofread, Edit, Repeat

Taking five extra minutes to proofread your essay can make a huge difference. We’re all human and we make writing mistakes. Proofread your work and then ask a parent or your guidance counselor to check your essay. Having a second set of eyes take a look can help ensure your essay contains the correct spelling and grammar, keeping your essay clean and professional when you submit it.

Step 5: Submit Your Materials

Now that you’ve gathered all of your documents and materials, the next step on how to apply for scholarships is simply to turn them in! Some scholarships should be submitted by mail while others are submitted online, so be sure to check the requirements. If you requested letters of recommendation, be sure that the person providing you with the recommendation knows the deadline. Also, provide them with either the email address or a stamped envelope with the correct destination address.

Step 6: Check The Status of Your Scholarships, and Be Patient!

Most scholarships will let you know when you can expect to hear back by. You can also check the status of your scholarship once you’ve submitted it to ensure you’ve included all information.

After submitting your application, take a deep breath and relax. Keep a positive attitude as you wait to hear back from the scholarship providers.

We also recommend keeping an organized list of the scholarships you’ve applied for, so you can estimate how much money you’ve applied for, and update it whenever you receive your scholarship application results!

Want to Start Applying for Scholarships?

Sign up for Going Merry today, for free. Our site is your one-stop scholarship shop to search and apply for scholarships. Just fill out your information, such as your school, estimated graduation, what you plan to study in college, and a few other items, and you’ll be on your way to being matched with scholarships to apply for. You’ve got this!


Ready to find scholarships that are a match for you?