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What is a Scholarship and What Types are Available?

A scholarship is an award of money that is provided for a student to support their pursuit of a college degree. The main difference between these funds and loans is that scholarship money does not need to be repaid. This means you can use scholarships to lower the cost of tuition, making college more affordable.

Here's What You Need to Do to Help Afford College Costs

Receiving a college acceptance letter is an achievement, and once you've gotten your foot in the door, it's time to start forming a game plan. You have a lot of decisions to make. One of the most crucial considerations to factor into the equation is how you plan to pay for college.

Whether you're going to be paying out-of-pocket each term or relying on private or federal loans, it's wise to consider how you can offset the cost of your college degree by applying for scholarships. Some scholarships are offered by third parties and are available to anyone who meets qualification standards. Many schools also offer scholarships available only to incoming and current students at that school.

What Does It Mean When You Get a Scholarship?

Donna Camire, director of Student Financial Services for SNHU Global CampusA scholarship is an award of money that is provided for a student to support their pursuit of a college degree. If you get a scholarship, you can put it toward the cost of your tuition, potentially making your education more affordable.

Typically, you'll need to identify a scholarship you qualify for and submit an application to be considered. "While it takes time, it is one of the best ways you can fund your education because it is money you do not have to repay," said Donna Camire, the director of Student Financial Services for the Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) Global Campus. That's the main difference between using scholarship money to help fund your education and student loans.

What are the Benefits of Getting a Scholarship?

Perhaps the best benefit of getting a scholarship is that the money awarded to you can help you pay for college. Some additional reasons why you should consider applying for scholarships include:

  • You may not need to borrow as much. This is because scholarship money awarded to you does not need to be paid back. As a result, you may not need to take out as much in student loans and, therefore, owe a lender less. "Scholarships will allow a student to minimize the amount of loan debt they will have to repay once graduated," Camire said.

  • You can keep applying for them. Unlike the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which is important to apply for annually, you can seek out scholarships year-round. Just because you've been awarded one scholarship does not mean you can't qualify for others that same year. Be sure to review deadlines as you identify which you'd like to apply for, as dates may differ between scholarships.

  • How they're spent may be up to you. While some scholarship money will be sent directly to your college's financial aid office, others may go directly to you. You can then decide whether you want to apply your scholarship to your tuition or textbooks or some other fee. According to Camire, each scholarship is unique, so it's important to understand how potential award money could be applied to your education. "It is important to review the offer thoroughly to understand how the funds will disburse," she said.

  • They're not all need-based, and they're not all merit-based. Unlike most federal aid you could receive in your financial aid offer letter, scholarships are not necessarily need-based, although some organizations and scholarship donors may want to consider your financial position. Additionally, you may not be required to provide a grade point average (GPA) on your scholarship application, but there are certainly some that will.

Types of Scholarships

A certificate award iconIt can be daunting to wade through the pages upon pages of scholarship listings on websites like College Board, but if you approach your search strategically, it will make the process considerably more efficient. 

"There are thousands of (scholarships) out there for almost everything you can think of," Camire said. 

In general, scholarships are broken out by the criteria considered for a candidate's eligibility — merit, financial need, personal background, athletics and so on. It's important to dig deeper, however. "Start with your program, gender, special interests, etc.," Camire said. "Believe it or not, there is a scholarship out there for just about anything you can think of, such as one for left-handed individuals."

Here are a few examples of how you can divvy up the categories to make your search easier:

  • Scholarships for Current College Students - Scholarships aren't only for those students just starting their college careers. If you are a current student looking for additional financial support, there are scholarships out there for you.

  • Scholarships for Military Service Members, Their Families and Veterans - Supporting current and retired members of the U.S. military and their families is a point of pride for many institutions, and you will find a number of scholarships designed around that same goal. For example, SNHU partners with Operation Homefront to offer full-tuition scholarships to military spouses. Sallan Francis, the spouse of a U.S. Army service member, was a 2023 scholarship recipient.

  • Scholarships for Minority Groups - Cultural diversity is another significant factor for many scholarships. You will find awards available to African Americans, students of Hispanic or Asian descent, Native Americans with tribal affiliations and more.

  • Scholarships for Specific Majors - If you already have your major picked out, be sure to check for scholarships that are designed with you in mind. There are awards for just about every academic discipline — from business programs to healthcare programs and beyond.

  • Scholarships for Students with Disabilities - Students with disabilities may also find themselves eligible for scholarships intended to provide financial support for them. The awards vary in criteria from the very general to being meant for applicants with specific disabilities.

  • Scholarships for Women - There are many scholarships available for women, and you don't need to be a traditional 18-year-old to be eligible for them. Some are designated to offer support for single mothers, women pursuing specific academic disciplines, female veterans and women looking to return after a break in their studies.

Some institutions and organizations may also award scholarships to the general public contingent on being accepted into a program. For example, creative writers who participate in SNHU's Fall Fiction Contest have a chance to win a scholarship to the university if their short story submission is a finalist.

Tanner Shaw, a project manager on the financial literacy team at SNHU

If you're searching for external scholarship opportunities, you may come across many different sites that can simplify the search process. However, some of these scholarships may be misleading or fake. One safe resource available to SNHU students through an internal portal is Scholarship Universe.

"Scholarship Universe is a database that has over 17,000 scholarships in it at any given time," said Tanner Shaw, a project manager on the financial literacy team at SNHU. He said that all of these scholarships are pre-vetted to ensure they meet certain criteria and aren't fraudulent.

How Do You Get a Scholarship?

An icon of a white-outlined checklist with three items checked offEach scholarship will have different guidelines depending on the criteria required.

Databases such as Scholarship Universe can help you find scholarships that you may qualify for. According to Shaw, the tool provides a questionnaire to help students narrow down their scholarship options. You can answer questions about your GPA or major, for instance, to be matched with relevant scholarships.

Read all scholarship guidelines carefully, and be sure to understand what is needed from you. 

Beyond figuring out the rules and requirements of how to get a scholarship, it's important to have a strong, positive mindset as you begin the scholarship application process. Like applying for a job, you'll want to present your best self. While you likely won't be seated in an interview room, you will need to showcase your strengths in the forms you'll be filling out and the essays that are typically required.

To make your scholarship application stand out, Camire recommends including the names of organizations and community service projects with which you've been involved and any notable awards you've received, be it for athletics or academics or something else.

"The more you share, the better your chances will be to receive one," she said.

A degree can change your life. Choose your program from 200+ SNHU degrees that can take you where you want to go.

Sarah A. Easley '12 '18MA is a content writer and proofreader. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

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About Southern New Hampshire University

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SNHU is a nonprofit, accredited university with a mission to make high-quality education more accessible and affordable for everyone.

Founded in 1932, and online since 1995, we’ve helped countless students reach their goals with flexible, career-focused programs. Our 300-acre campus in Manchester, NH is home to over 3,000 students, and we serve over 135,000 students online. Visit our about SNHU page to learn more about our mission, accreditations, leadership team, national recognitions and awards.