How Do Scholarships Work? Understanding the Scholarship Application Process — with FAQs answered!

When you’re looking for colleges to apply to, what’s one of the most common factors you look at before you apply? Tuition. If college tuition is expensive, students might be steered away from applying. However, a scholarship application makes it easier for any and all students to be awarded money toward their tuition, books, room and board, and more. 

We’re breaking down the most commonly asked scholarship questions and why you need to keep these on your radar in your search.

Student on computer researching scholarships

What are scholarships? How do they work?

Scholarships are a form of financial aid award–and one of the most preferred types because they’re free money. Basically, it’s money that goes toward your tuition or cost of attendance. You do not have to pay it back.

Generally, there are three kinds of scholarships: 

  1. Scholarships given by the college itself – These are college-specific. Often you are automatically considered for these scholarships when you apply for admission, but some schools do require additional, separate applications, so double-check out their financial aid pages! 
  2. Scholarships offered by the government (state or federal), which requires you to fill out FAFSA. These awards can be used at any college.
  3. “Outside scholarships” given by independent third parties, often sponsored by big companies like Foot Locker OR super localized (as in, scholarships just for students at your school). These scholarship awards can normally be used to fund any college.

Categories #1 and #2 are also often known as “grants,” which is basically another term for free money for college. 

Depending on the scholarship provider, the scholarship award can range anywhere from as low as $50 and as high as covering the full cost of tuition, also known as a full ride scholarship! A scholarship can really lighten the financial burden on families and individuals, covering thousands of dollars worth of tuition, and sometimes even books, and room and board, and other expenses.

Most of this help article will include information on independent scholarships (type #3).

Student with pen and book

What’s the scholarship application process?

To apply for a scholarship, you first need to fulfill the eligibility requirements. This is because many scholarships are only applicable for certain groups of students, like only high school seniors, only women, or only students from a specific state. Other times, the scholarships are limited to people with a certain level of achievement, like a certain GPA or SAT score. 

If you’re eligible, you’ll likely need to answer a few questions or even submit an essay or a video. Some scholarships also require you to submit certain documents like a transcript or a letter of recommendation. These different application elements allow you to show scholarship providers what you’ve achieved, what you’re proud of, and what you plan to do during and after college. Scholarship providers are looking for students who follow instructions and who are also passionate about their achievements outside of schoolwork.

A few months after the application deadline, a winner (or multiple) will be chosen. You’ll hear back directly from the scholarship provider if you’ve won. Remember that, if you win, it is best practice to write a thank you letter to the scholarship provider for helping to fund your education.

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Student reviewing a scholarship application

Who can apply for scholarships?  How do I know if I’m eligible?

Each scholarship will list its eligibility requirements, such as GPA, college major, and other information. Be sure to read through all instructions and requirements before you apply.

That said, most scholarships are intended to help students who are pursuing higher education (undergraduate and graduate students). Typically, scholarships are geared toward undergraduates attending 4-year universities, but there are scholarships available for community college and for graduate students. Some scholarships are also specifically tailored to transfer students.

There is also a myth that scholarships are only available for low-income students. However, there are many merit-based scholarships or athletic scholarships that are available to students from any income level.

Where do I find scholarships to apply for?

You can find scholarships through a number of resources, including: 

One note: Be mindful of scholarship scams. Some websites may ask you to pay upfront as a scholarship “application fee.” This is a huge warning sign. You never need to pay to apply for or to receive a scholarship.

How do I apply for scholarships?

Now, once you‘ve found your scholarships, you have to apply for them–and unfortunately, that is still quite fragmented. For the most part, each scholarship has its own application, which means filling out the same basic information (name, birthday, school, GPA, etc.) over and over again.

That’s actually why we started Going Merry, to provide you with one application platform where you could save profile information and apply for thousands of scholarships listed on our website.

That said, we’ve broken down for you, step-by-step, in this article. You might need some documents handy, so be sure to thoroughly read through all of the scholarship application requirements before applying.

What are common scholarship essay questions?

We analysed a representative sample of the scholarships on Going Merry to find out the ten most common scholarship questions. They were:

  1. How will this scholarship help you?
  2. How have you contributed to your community, or what community service have you provided?
  3. Tell us about you. (Basically, a request for a personal statement of sorts.)
  4. Tell us about a time you failed and what you learned from it. 
  5. What are your academic goals and your career goals
  6. What impact has sports had on your life? (Or some other athletics-related question)
  7. Why do you deserve this scholarship?
  8. Tell us about a time when you had a belief or idea challenged.
  9. How are you unique? (Discuss your background, identity, interest, or talent)
  10. Why do you want to study/pursue [X]? (For instance: science, nursing, medicine)

Keep in mind, each scholarship is different and might require additional information from you. These are just some prompts to keep in mind as they’re commonly included in scholarship essay requests.

What Are Some Other Scholarship FAQs?

What happens if I win, but I don’t know where I’m going to college yet?

Notify the scholarship as soon as possible that you aren’t sure where you’re attending yet. They’ll usually be able to do one of two things: (1) Hold onto the money until you notify them of which school you’re attending. Or (2), the provider might write you a check to be used solely for college, at whichever college you choose. In the second case, you won’t even have  to notify the provider of your college once you decide.

Are scholarships free?

Scholarships are free to apply for. However, some organizations consider scholarships to be an investment rather than free money. When students are awarded scholarship money, they might be expected to maintain a certain GPA, study a specific subject, or play a sport indicated in the scholarship requirements.

Can scholarships be used for anything, including room and board? Will scholarships pay for housing? What about studying abroad?

This depends on the scholarship provider. Some scholarships may only cover tuition for classes. Other scholarships are specified for books and technology. There are also scholarships that may cover housing, but only on-campus housing. 

Regarding study abroad, if it’s through your own university’s program, most scholarships will cover your tuition whether it’s for studying on the home campus or not. However, your scholarship money may or may not be used for things like international flights to attend the program.,  It’s best to clarify this with the scholarship provider to confirm what the award money can be used for.

Do outside scholarships affect financial aid? Can you apply for too many scholarships?

You can apply for as many scholarships as you want. However, the money you earn from scholarships that you win must be reported to the college. It may affect your financial aid package, but not always–and not always in a negative way. Why? 

First, your package may include merit scholarships (that have nothing to do with financial need) and/or need-based grants (which may decrease, if for instance you win a scholarship covering full tuition). 

Second, remember that financial aid packages usually include a combination of grants, loans, and work study. Sometimes your overall package amount will decrease but the scholarship/grant amount remains the same; only your loans decrease. That means you’ve just replaced loans (that you have to repay) with an external scholarship money (AKA free money) — hurrah!

TIP: If you win a one-time outside scholarship, consider asking the provider if they can disburse the money over all 2 or 4 years of college, so that the impact on your financial aid offer is more spread out.

Do scholarships count as income? Can scholarships awards be taxed?

Some scholarship awards could be subject to taxes. What is NOT TAXED is any money used towards “qualified education expenses” like tuition, books, supplies, and equipment (as long as you’re a “degree candidate”, i.e. studying to earn a degree, not just taking a random single class). However, leftover scholarship money used for other expenses, like room & board or utilities, do indeed count as gross taxable income.

Can scholarships expire or be taken away?

Yes. Scholarships can expire for a few reasons. If students don’t enroll in classes within a certain time period, or if students take a break from school, then the scholarship could expire. If you are concerned about your status or need to take a break, discuss this with your financial aid office and/or your scholarship provider.

Scholarships can also be revoked, or taken away, if a student doesn’t adhere to any  scholarship requirements, such as maintaining a certain GPA. In another example, if a student athlete with an athletic scholarship is injured or no longer plays, it’s possible that their athletic scholarship will be taken away or not renewed the following year.

Can scholarships be renewed?

Yes. While some scholarships are a one-time, lump sum payment (usually these are “smaller” awards of $500 to $5000), other scholarships can be renewed every year that the student remains in college. Some of these are renewed automatically as long as you maintain eligibility (e.g. continue studying full-time, maintain a certain GPA), while others may require you to reapply each year.

Who wins scholarships?

All kinds of students win scholarships! They study different things, come from different states, and are all kinds of ethnicities. Check out some scholarship winners (and their winning essays) here.

Student on computer reviewing scholarship application status

Okay. I’m ready to start applying for scholarships. Where do I go from here?

If you’re ready to apply for scholarships all in one place, you can sign up for a free profile with Going Merry. We’re your one-stop shop for all things scholarships, including applying for scholarships, writing essays, understanding different forms of financial aid, and more! 

You’ll enter your information once, and then your scholarship application will be prefilled with information such as your high school or college name, GPA, and what you want to study / what you’re currently studying.

Kelly Lamano

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