how to get into college

Contrary to popular belief, college scholarships are readily available. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, nearly half of all students attending private colleges and one-fifth of students at a public college receive scholarships. The numbers don’t lie, but the key to winning available scholarships is to think strategically about why colleges offer students money. The list of colleges you choose to apply to is the most effective tool at your disposal to maximize your chances of earning a college scholarship. Make sure you are considering colleges across the spectrum and not just applying to all “the usual suspects” that your friends are applying to. Schools may not have much incentive to award scholarship dollars to you if they see a lot of applicants just like you.

In the competitive landscape of college admissions, schools are finding some unique ways to award scholarships to students. We wanted to take a look at some emerging trends and ideas that colleges have started to utilize when awarding their scholarship funds.

What’s in a Name?

While the words “scholarship” and “grant” are often used interchangeably, use of the word “grant” typically implies that there is some component of financial need required to qualify for the money. Some schools are moving away from this practice and forgoing the term “grant” altogether on their financial aid award letters. The thought behind this practice is that calling the money a “scholarship” makes the award somehow sound more prestigious and less charitable. Though free money is free money, colleges are banking on the idea that a more impressively-named fund will entice more recipients to enroll.

Good Things Come in Small Packages

Micro-scholarships are small scholarships that students can earn during high school to be used at college. The idea behind sites that sponsor micro-scholarships is marketing. Participating colleges hope to put their schools firmly on students’ radars by pledging scholarship funding early on in the college search process, often as early as 9th grade. The micro-scholarships allow high school students to earn money for college by doing the things (we hope) they will be doing anyway: getting good grades while taking a rigorous curriculum, taking part in extracurricular activities, volunteering in the community, and even helping out with family chores. Note that participating in a micro-scholarship program does not offer a guarantee of future acceptance by the colleges participating in that program.

Good Things Come to Those Who Wait

We are all familiar with recruitment scholarships—money that colleges and universities award to students in the hopes that the best and the brightest will matriculate come fall. While these recruitment packages still make up the vast majority of college-based scholarships, some schools have started to take a different approach, awarding scholarships to students as upperclassmen. The idea is to reward deserving students for the contributions that they make to campus after certain tasks or achievements are accomplished. A student is not awarded a merit-based recruitment scholarship up front, but is told that he can have the opportunity to earn the scholarship once he has a proven track record. This award may come through an academic department or from the university at large.

We Want You Back

Some schools call it a retention grant and others call it a flat out scholarship, but the main idea behind recruit-back scholarships is to offer a monetary incentive to students who have dropped out of an institution, giving them money to try and get them to come back to campus. Most colleges do not advertise this practice and may just contact the student directly about returning to campus to complete their education. This type of scholarship may be of interest to students who are returning to higher education after an absence of three or more years and have already earned a significant number of academic credits.

Non-Cognitive Measures

Scholarships are commonly awarded to students based upon SAT or ACT scores. These are thought of as common indicators of high school success, but are not always the best indicators of college success. As more colleges become test-optional, wouldn’t it make sense to award scholarships based upon non-academic markers? Many colleges are now looking at other measurement scales or academic accomplishments beyond testing. The overall concept is to put a system in place that is fairer and less biased towards a family’s finances.

While colleges have always used scholarships to entice the best and brightest students to their campuses, increased competition among colleges to recruit and retain students is driving these new scholarship trends. Students should pay attention to these developments, making sure they understand the motivations of colleges and the tools at their disposal. Knowing how and why colleges award scholarships will allow you to think strategically about maximizing your scholarship success.


Written by Robyn Stewart
Robyn Stewart is a member of College Coach’s team of college finance experts. Prior to joining College Coach, she worked as a former financial aid officer at College of the Holy Cross. Visit our website to learn more about Robyn Stewart.