How to get college scholarships in 2021 (+ mistakes to avoid)

man writing notes

Getting into college is by no means an easy feat. From the lengthy application process to entrance exams, it can be rough. 

Then there’s actually paying for college which, at times, can seem impossible. But I’m here to tell you how to get college scholarships and it’s not nearly as difficult as you might think. In fact, literally billions of dollars in scholarships go unpaid every year simply because no one applies for them.

Billions. With a “B.”

And a slice of it can be all yours to help pay for college.

To help you, this article will outline the exact method I used to get over $100,000 in scholarship funds

Bonus: You can absolutely boost your income even if you’re in school! Learn how to start earning money on the side with my FREE Ultimate Guide to Making Money

What kinds of scholarships are available?

It can be easy to think there are no college scholarships available for you if you’re not an athlete, a genius, or a child prodigy.

That’s just not true.

There are thousands of untapped scholarships — adding up to billions of dollars — that go unclaimed every year. The money is out there. You just have to know where to look. The next section will begin to open your eyes to the scholarships that might be available to you.

How to find scholarships that will pay thousands (and nobody applies for)

If you’re a high school student, you have a lot of scholarship resources available to you. They can be broken up into five areas:

  1. High school career centers
  2. Library and bookstore
  3. Scholarship search sites
  4. Ethnic organizations
  5. Friends and family

With these resources, you’ll be able to earn thousands of dollars in scholarship money. Here’s how:

Tapping into high school career centers

First, go to your high school career center. If your high school doesn’t have a career center, your school’s counselor can help you find similar resources online or in your local community. Most high school career centers keep an updated list of scholarships sorted by date. Go through this list and make note of every single scholarship that applies to you. Even if you think it could be a stretch, write it down. You never know what will pay off later.

You should literally be writing down the following information for each one — you’ll need it when you actually start the application process. I suggest you write down:

  • the scholarship name
  • the amount it’s worth
  • a due date
  • whether or not you’ve applied yet

Do this in a Google or Excel spreadsheet so you can easily search, filter, and update from any device later. 

When you’re applying for dozens (or hundreds) of scholarships, it’s going to be critical that you stay organized so you don’t burn out. Of course, you can be as detailed as you want with your spreadsheet and include things like GPA requirements and whether or not you need an essay.

Pro tip: tap into other schools

Once you’ve exhausted your school’s list of scholarships, call up other high schools and ask them if you can go in and talk to them about what scholarships might apply to you. That’s right. I want you to call up other high schools in your city to see what scholarships they have. They’ll actually LOVE this because no high schooler ever goes out of their way to get scholarships. If you show just a little bit of initiative in your educational future, most advisors will be more than happy to help you out. Do the exact same thing you did with your school’s scholarship resources and record all the ones relevant to you. 

When I was in high school, I ended up applying for 60 scholarships from my high school’s career center — and earned thousands for college in the process.

Leveraging library and bookstore scholarship resources

Once you’re finished exhausting all of the scholarships from your high school (and other schools), head to a bookstore or library and pick up the latest copy of an annual scholarship reference book. You’ll also find these on Amazon, but it’s cheaper to borrow a copy from the library. If your library doesn’t have a copy, or only has outdated copies (Scholarships from 1977? What?), this is one of the best investments you can make in your short- and long-term future. These scholarship books are comprehensive catalogs of grants and scholarships you can earn as a high school student. They’re FANTASTIC resources if you’re looking to find cash for college. Here’s a list of a few good scholarship books to look for:

  1. The Ultimate Scholarship Book 2021 by Gen Tanabe and Kelly Tanabe
  2. Peterson’s Scholarships, Grants & Prizes 2021
  3. Pace Scholarship Academy’s Ultimate National Scholarship Book

I’ve included the Amazon links here so you can check them out — but I highly suggest purchasing these at your local bookstore (or better yet, finding them at the Library) so you can get started ASAP! Once you get the book, do what you did with your high school’s scholarship resources and make note of all the scholarships you’d like to apply for. The goal at this point is to keep adding to that long list. Not all of the scholarships you write down will be a good fit, but the idea is to gather a massive idea list before you start applying.

Searching college scholarship sites

Once you’ve found all the scholarships you can through the aforementioned resources, you can turn to different search engines and websites that can help you find scholarships. Pro-tip: You might be tempted to start with the internet first. But guess what: so is everyone else. That means the easiest-to-find scholarships on the web will be the most competitive. That’s why we recommend career centers and books first. Many scholarship sites include features that allow you to search for specific criteria like:

  • School-specific scholarships
  • Interest-specific scholarships
  • Demographic-specific scholarships
  • GPA requirements
  • Essay requirements
  • And lots more.

You can even set up email alerts (which I highly recommend) so that you are automatically notified when the sites find scholarships that fit your specific needs too. Here are a few suggestions for great sites to help you look for scholarships:

Bonus: Becoming a great student is all about building good habits. If you want to learn how to build good habits and break bad ones, download my free Ultimate Guide to Habits

Getting an ethnic organization scholarship

Ethnic organizations of all stripes tend to offer scholarships. These can help you earn hundreds — if not thousands — in scholarship money. Many of these are ethnicity-based, meaning that you’ll have to be a certain race or background in order to qualify for the scholarship. A few suggestions:

Of course, simply fitting the racial criteria for ethnicity-based scholarships isn’t enough. You’re going to have to knock the application out of the park (more on that later).

Finding scholarships through friends and family

Talk to your friends, parents, and parents’ friends to see if they know of any scholarships. There are a lot of companies that offer college scholarships — companies that the people you know work at. So ask around! Some of the best scholarships come from some of the most unexpected places. When I was applying for scholarships, my sister was working at Kaiser — which offered a college scholarship to relatives of Kaiser employees. My mom is a teacher and she knew about a scholarship offered through the California Teachers Union. These are scholarships barely anyone applies to because many high schoolers simply don’t know to ask about them and the eligibility pool is relatively small. So when you DO find out about one, you automatically have an advantage over everyone else. If you feel odd about it, know that every person wants to help out a high schooler. They won’t think it’s “weird.” In fact, they’ll find it admirable that you’re working hard to secure your future and succeed in college.

Bonus:Becoming a great student is all about building good habits. If you want to learn how to build good habits and break bad ones, download my FREE Ultimate Guide to Habits

Is it really worth it to pursue scholarships?

When you look at all the options and work it’ll take to actually earn a college scholarship, it can be easy to ask:

Is this even worth it?

Especially when you’re busy with your senior year of high school. Friends, clubs, teams, hobbies, AP classes, and lots more can fill up your schedule and make you think learning how to get scholarships just can’t make its way onto your schedule.

But consider this:

If you DON’T get a scholarship, you’ll be forced to pay for college on your own. That means working tons of hours during college.

Less time to study. Less time to date. Less time to enjoy the college scene. Because you’ll be working.

Life in college doesn’t slow down — it speeds up. And you’re setting yourself up to miss all of it if you don’t learn how to get a scholarship and apply for as many as possible. 

Don’t forget: I secured over $100,000 in college scholarships. The average U.S. salary is around $30,000. 

So just ask yourself this: Are a few late nights filling out scholarship applications or missing a football game here or there worth THREE YEARS of work?

As I see it, the answer is an obvious “YES.” 

With that in mind, let’s dive into how you can pull this off without burning out.

Why & how to apply to everything (without burning out)

From here, the strategy is simple: It’s time to apply to ALL of them. This might seem like an incredibly daunting task. After all, these applications generally require you to do two things:

  1. Send a letter of recommendation
  2. Write an essay (or a few short ones)

However, there’s an easier way to go about the process that doesn’t involve writing 60+ unique essays. Don’t get me wrong: Each scholarship application is going to take time and a bit of nuance in order to create a compelling case for you that’ll have the reader clamoring to give you the scholarship money. But you can make the process a lot more effective and simple if you just look at the letters of recommendation and essays.

How to actually land a college scholarship

Getting a college scholarship (or ideally multiple scholarships) is a numbers game, yes. But it’s also more than that. 

In order to actually LAND some scholarships and put money in the bank, you’ll need to get smart about your strategy.

At the foundation of this strategy are two things:

  • Powerful letters of recommendation
  • Strategically unique essay answers

Getting powerful letters of recommendation

Most high school students are afraid to ask for letters of recommendation. It’s a little bit awkward to ask a teacher or other trusted adult to write a glowing recommendation for you. HOWEVER, if you were a good student and established a good relationship with your teachers, they’ll be more than happy to help you out with your letter of recommendation. Most students never do this so they’d be happy to help. You’re going to want to approach it the same way I approach asking for a testimonial: politely and with the majority of the work done already. When you reach out to your teacher for a letter of recommendation, you’ll want to give them several things:

  • A broad view of what you want them to highlight
  • 2-3 key points they should touch on (maybe it’s something specific to the scholarship?)
  • Your resume so they have a reference to your accomplishments

If you provide them practically everything they need, they’ll be more than happy to give you an awesome letter of recommendation. In fact, many teachers will just ask you to write a draft that they can edit and sign. 

Write strategically unique college scholarship essays

When it comes to writing an amazing scholarship essay, I’ve developed a highly complex intricate process of algorithms and systems that you need to follow EXACTLY if you want your writing to soar. The steps are:

  1. Figure out what most students will write about
  2. Write something else

…and that’s it. Why does this work? Most scholarship essays bore judges to tears. Put yourself in the shoes of the person who will be reading your application — they’re going to be reading hundreds, maybe even THOUSANDS of these a day. And the fact of the matter is 99.99999% of the applications they read will be almost exactly the same. 

Oh, you got good grades? You were in a bunch of extracurriculars? That mission trip you took to Honduras junior year was “life-changing”? 

Get in line. 

What’s particularly unique about any of those things? Not a whole lot. And if you fall into the same formula as everyone else, I guarantee you your application won’t get a second glance. However, if you subvert the expectations of the scholarship judge, you’ll grab and hold onto their attention — allowing you to properly make your case. To do that, you need to follow the aforementioned two steps.

First: Figure out what other students will write about

You’re sitting down at your laptop, the scholarship essay prompt is in front of you, and you’re ready to dive in. Before you write a single word … STOP! 

Think about the other people applying for the exact same scholarship — what are THEY going to be writing about? What’s the easy answer to the prompt … and how can you subvert that? Back when I was applying, I had one essay prompt that asked, “If you could have dinner with anyone, living or dead, who would it be and why?” Classic prompt. So I started thinking. Nelson Mandela? Meh…that would be the “logical” choice. And to be honest, dinner with Mandela wouldn’t be the most exciting thing for a 17-year-old kid. Maybe President Clinton? That’d be cool for bragging rights … but what would we talk about? Given this prompt, I could have just written some BS about Mandela or the President, but I would have sounded like every other person applying for the scholarship. Plus, I didn’t really want to meet them. It’s almost like the people applying forget that it’s a competition. Would a coach say to his players, “Okay guys, we’re playing against every team in our division next week, so we’re just going to do the same plays over and over”? No. 

So why would you want to do that too? So when it came to who I wanted to have dinner with, I decided to go with my gut and pick someone different: Chris Rock, which leads me to the next step…

Next: write your application with UNIQUE answers instead

When you take a step back and consider the common answers to the prompt, you’ll be able to come up with an answer that will subvert the judge’s expectations and keep their attention. In my case, while other students wrote about historical figures, I chose Chris Rock, the famous comedian. 

My essay went on to argue that though he’s perceived simply as a comedian, he’s actually a highly astute social commentator. His jokes revealed the things we want to say but won’t articulate — because we’re afraid to. I even deconstructed one of his jokes and went into an in-depth analysis of why it was an examination of the racial attitudes our society holds. 

And it worked

My approach was offbeat — yet professional. When looking for unique angles, you shouldn’t make it offensive or inappropriate. Instead, aim to make it deep, personal, and a little bit against the grain.

Sample scholarship essay questions (good and bad examples)

To show you what I mean, here are a few common essay prompts — as well as the boring responses judges will typically see AND an example of a good answer.

Example essay prompt question #1

“Is it fair that professional athletes earn millions of dollars?” 

Typical boring answer: “No way! We should be paying that money to teachers and firefighters. Athletes are just playing a game.” 

What’s wrong with this answer? You could find this opinion in the “Letters to the Editor” section of any newspaper. It doesn’t matter if the answer is right — it plays everything safe and is BORING. 

Better answer: “Salaries aren’t decided by fairness. They’re decided by supply and demand. LeBron James is a millionaire because millions of fans pay to see him perform. Besides, if the athletes weren’t getting the money, the owners would. Those are the only two options.”

Example essay prompt question #2

“Which major world problem would you solve if you could only pick one?” 

Typical boring answer: “I would end world hunger. Every man, woman, and child deserves this basic requirement of human life.” 

What’s wrong with this answer? The reader makes no human connection to you. Why on earth would they want to read more? 

Better answer: “My life changed forever when I spoke at my best friend’s funeral. Standing there under the storm clouds, I felt a personal duty to make sure no one sees suicide as their only way out.”

Example essay prompt question #3

“Respond to this statement: America’s middle class is in trouble.” 

Typical boring response: “The middle class is America’s heartbeat. We need to put big corporations in their place to make room at the table for everyone.” 

What’s wrong with this response? This is such a cliche answer, the judge won’t help but roll their eyes. Reading an answer like this will have them mentally checking out before you can say, “Full-ride scholarship.” 

Better response: “Classes aren’t fixed groups of people. Most of us move in and out of different classes throughout our lives. In fact, many people who were in the middle class twenty years ago are in the upper-class today.”

The power of standing out

These answers practically grab you by the lapels and COMMAND attention. They stand out like a lighthouse in the ocean of boring applicants. This is the difference between following the crowd and hoping for the best versus thinking strategically and winning the game.

How to afford expensive schools (with scholarships)

If you’re an average high schooler, getting enough money to afford to attend an expensive or prestigious school can seem overwhelming. Sure, if you can get in, top-tier universities will take care of you in a number of ways. And yes, “if you’re good enough” includes incredibly complex socio-economic connotations, all of which we can’t address here. I simply want to highlight the mistaken belief that money is holding students back from attending top-tier colleges because of tuition costs. 

No. It’s not. If you’re good enough to get in, top-tier universities will take care of you, financially as well by helping you get a higher salary and a built-in network. Remember, college is not a technical school. There’s more to it than assessing how much money you’ll make once you graduate like so many people try to claim. There are ineffable qualities to being surrounded by an extremely high caliber of peers. 

I’m not even saying, “Go to a top-tier university” (although I think you should). But don’t be afraid to apply to them just because of money. In fact, tuition should be one of the LAST decisions you make. Stop thinking about the money upfront. First, focus on getting into the best schools possible, whatever that means for you. Once you secure admission, worry about the finances by using the advice in this article to get lots of scholarship money. 

Remember, if you’ve been accepted, the universities want you there, and they have large scholarship funds to ensure that you enroll at their school.

What’s next when it comes to getting college scholarships?

After reading this, you might find yourself asking: “Okay, so what’s next?”

Here are my final pieces of advice. If you’re smart enough to have stuck with me this far, I know you’ll be smart enough to take these last suggestions seriously. They can make all the difference.

Don’t wait

First, don’t wait. Getting scholarships takes time. In fact, there are even some scholarships you can apply for as a middle schooler. 

It’s never too early to start thinking about getting scholarships.

Don’t despair

With that said, it’s also never too late to start looking. 

Sure, it’s better to start earlier. But if you’re a few months away from graduation and starting to panic about how to pay for college in the fall, don’t despair. 

Just get serious about following the process above and you’ll find a few nuggets to get you through your first year. 

From there, don’t forget there are plenty of scholarships (especially from your school) that apply to second-year students and beyond.

Don’t give up

Finally, throughout this process, there will be highs (“You’ve just earned $1,000”) and lows (“We regret to inform you…”).

Through it all, you might be tempted to give up and just do what most high schoolers are doing about scholarships: practically nothing.

Stick with it. This is a numbers game. The more scholarships you can apply to, the better your odds of securing the money and the better you’ll get at applying.

Moving beyond college scholarships

If you think it’s fun getting free money from people to pay for school, then picture this:

You can get WAY AHEAD of your peers when it comes to money with just a few simple tasks most people don’t think about until their 30s.

By starting now, you’ll put yourself in a really great place to live a Rich Life. Instead of working yourself to death at a dead-end job, putting up with a boss you hate, counting down the days until you can retire and “really start living,” you’ll take control of your finances and put money to work for you.

Bonus: Getting scholarships is great, but mastering your personal finances is the gift that keeps on giving. I’ll show you how in my Ultimate Guide to Personal Finance
Great habits will help you succeed after you've won those scholarships

100% privacy. No games, no B.S., no spam. When you sign up, we’ll keep you posted