When to Apply for Scholarships + A List of 69 Places to Start

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A Timeline for Scholarship Applications

K-5th Grade: A Scholarship Guide for Parents

The question of when to apply for scholarships is best answered “as soon as possible.” Would you be surprised to learn that it’s possible to obtain free money for college for students who are just beginning their education? Indeed, there are scholarship opportunities available for learners as young as four years old, as well as older elementary school students.

It’s definitely worthwhile for parents to begin working with their very young children on scholarship applications. If you’re successful in helping your learner obtain scholarship money very early on, then you may find the college planning process later in life to be easier and less stressful.

Start looking for external scholarship opportunities for K-5 students. An external, or outside private scholarship, is one not awarded by a college or governmental agency. These scholarship providers will sometimes hold money in escrow until the student enrolls in college. Alternatively, the funds may be contributed to a 529 savings plan in the student’s name.

Scholarship opportunities for elementary school students often call for artistic submissions, although some may challenge young learners to develop out-of-the-box solutions to real-world problems or complete a community service project. You can find some examples of scholarship funds for young children further down this page.

Middle School: Taking Charge of Your Future Early

Sixth through eighth grade can be a challenging, yet exciting transitional phase in your life. Your social life is likely changing in significant ways, and you’re beginning to exercise greater autonomy over your own life. It’s a great time to start taking charge of your own future whether or not you already started applying to scholarships in elementary school with the assistance of your parents or guardians.

During the middle school years, the scholarship opportunities available to you may mimic the types available to elementary students, such as artwork competitions. However, you’ll also find some based on academic accomplishments, such as essay writing. You may also find some scholarships related to extracurricular activities.

Like the scholarships for elementary students, those for middle schoolers often derive from external sources—not colleges. In addition to checking out the opportunities listed further down the page for middle schoolers, it’s a good idea to ask around. Check with your parents, other relatives, and other acquaintances to see if they’ve heard about any scholarships offered to middle schoolers by companies, civic organizations, and professional associations. Teachers are also great sources when looking for scholarships. Applying to locally or regionally offered scholarships can be a great way to score some free money, as these will likely have less competition.

High School: When to Apply for Scholarships During Your Secondary Years

The traditional answer to the question of when to apply to scholarships has always been “high school,” although, as you can see, there are plenty of scholarship opportunities available to elementary and middle school students. Nonetheless, it’s likely that you’ll spend the most time submitting scholarship applications during your time in high school.

If you didn’t already work on obtaining scholarship dollars as a younger student, don’t fret! It’s never too late to begin the process. In fact, you’re likely to find many more opportunities that you can qualify for as a high school student. At this stage in your education, there are three main types of scholarships to focus on.

  • Scholarships available from your school district
  • Scholarships available from your chosen college
  • Scholarships offered by private entities

School District Scholarships

Let’s take a closer look at the first category. Not all school districts offer their own scholarships, but it’s certainly worth it to investigate this possibility. Stop by your guidance counselor’s office and ask whether the school offers any scholarships—and if so, when is the time to apply? School district scholarships usually focus on criteria involving academics and extracurricular activities. Some school districts will also offer scholarships funded by other entities, such as private companies or local civic organizations located in the area.

Keep in mind that the list of available scholarships offered by your school district can change from one year to the next. You should visit your guidance counselor at the start of each school year to ask about current opportunities.

Another issue to keep in mind is that, while school district scholarships might not always promise big bucks, there is often a lot less competition for them compared to national scholarship opportunities. It’s definitely worth it to spend a few hours writing an essay for a chance to compete for some free cash for school, and even small dollar amounts can add up.

Scholarships Offered By Specific Colleges

As you progress further in your secondary education and begin applying to colleges, you’ll notice that it’s quite common for colleges to offer their own scholarships to incoming and current students. That’s why it’s incredibly important to fill out the FAFSA, regardless of your family’s income level. While these scholarships are likely to have more competition compared to school district-offered scholarships, the potential payoff may be greater.

Colleges may offer scholarships with eligibility criteria pertaining to the following:

  • Class rank
  • Average test scores
  • Socioeconomic background
  • Other qualifications, such as demonstration of leadership skills

You may also need to write an essay as part of your scholarship application package.

Private Scholarships

Lastly, you can apply for scholarships offered by private entities. These can be categorized into national and local competitions. National scholarships may promise more money to the winner(s), but there is often a significant amount of competition. Local scholarships may not have as high of a payoff, but the competition will be less intense. It’s not a bad idea to apply to a mix of types of private scholarships—both local and national, low payoff and high.

Private scholarships may be based on virtually any criteria, including the following:

  • Academic
  • Sports
  • Leadership skills
  • Non-sports extracurricular activities
  • Intended career path/field
  • Socioeconomic background
  • Other demographics (e.g. minority, military family, parent occupation, etc.)

Private scholarships are often offered annually. However, in some cases, you might only qualify to compete for them during a particular year in high school. This is the case with the National Merit® Scholarship Program, which is based on test scores. To qualify, you must take the PSAT/NMSQT® (Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualification Test) in your junior year.

It’s easy to feel a little overwhelmed by the sheer volume of scholarships out there. Rest assured, no one expects you to apply to every single scholarship you qualify to pursue—that would be a full-time job in itself! Decide how much time you can commit each week to researching opportunities and working on scholarship applications.

You’ll likely find it helpful to maintain a spreadsheet to keep track of all of the information. On your spreadsheet, designate separate columns for the following information:

  • Name of the scholarship
  • Website
  • Deadline for submission
  • Application materials required
  • Submitted? (Yes or no)
  • Result

As a timesaver, you might also want to maintain a separate document to keep track of the scholarships you’ve researched but do not plan to pursue. That way, when you come across a new opportunity, you can do a quick CTRL + F search on your document to see if you’ve already checked out that scholarship before.

Post-Secondary: Continuing Your Scholarship Application Efforts in College

The issue of when to apply for scholarships will still be relevant even after you graduate from high school. As a college student, you can continue to apply for free money to fund your education. Some scholarships designated for current college students must be applied directly to your tuition, whereas others can be used more broadly, such as for the purchase of books.

At this point in your academic journey, you’ll no longer qualify to apply for school district-offered scholarships, but you can still pursue college-offered and private scholarships. At the start of every school year, visit your college’s financial aid office to discuss the opportunities that may be available to you. And be on the lookout for competitions available through your degree program! (In addition, remember to fill out the FAFSA® every year to become/remain eligible for grants).



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