Paying for College
Last updated: January 12th, 2024

Everything You Need to Know About Scholarships

How to use scholarships to help cover college costs

Search for scholarships at your college 

When you apply to college, you are automatically considered for some scholarships, but there may be others that require additional application.

Here’s how you can find out more about these scholarship opportunities: 

  • Check your college’s student portal, and your email, to see if your college sent you information about campus and community scholarships.
  • Call the financial aid office at your college and ask if there are any scholarships for incoming first-year students.
  • Try google searching the name of your college plus the word “scholarships.” Sometimes these scholarships can be hard to find so you may need to click through a few pages.

Tip: Be careful about relying on scholarships to cover your costs. Always have a back up plan! Never pay for scholarship opportunities. Students should never pay a fee to submit a scholarship application or to be entered into a potential recipient pool.

Search for local and state scholarships

Where to look for these scholarships:

  • Ask your high school counselor if they have a list of local and state scholarships available
  • Ask your church, mosque, synagogue or other religious community if they offer scholarships
  • Ask local branches of organizations such as the Boys & Girls Club, Rotary Club or the Kiwanis if they offer scholarships
  • Ask your parents’ employers if they offer scholarships
  • If you have a job, ask your employer if they offer scholarships
  • Look at what scholarships are listed for your state on Unigo
  • Did you apply to colleges using the Common App? Take advantage of their direct link to the BigFuture’s Scholarship Search to apply to multiple scholarships with one application.

Search for national scholarships

Where to look for scholarships if you are undocumented:

  • Immigrants Rising List of Undergraduate Scholarships
    • Lists undergraduate scholarships that don’t require proof of citizenship or legal permanent residency. This up-to-date list, organized by the deadline date, contains scholarships at the local, state, and national levels.
  • MALDEF’s Scholarship Resource Guide
    • MALDEF has an extensive list of scholarships, including many that do not inquire about immigration status or require a valid social security number.
  • My Undocumented Life College Scholarships List
    • Contains a list of scholarship opportunities that are open to undocumented students, strategies for navigating the educational system while undocumented, information on how to apply for DACA, key upcoming immigration-related events, news on immigration policies, and much more.
  • Dreamers Roadmap
    • List of scholarship opportunities that are open to undocumented students.


  • Most scholarship applications require an essay. Be ready to write an essay responding to the application prompt. Look for opportunities to use your essay for multiple scholarship applications.
  • Have letters of recommendation and contact information (email and phone number) ready. You’ll need references from at least two people.
  • Keep track of application deadlines in your calendar or a reminder app.
  • Stay motivated. We know it can be hard to find the time or energy to do all of this, especially when you’re already busy with school and life. But if someone offered you a thousand dollars for a few hours of effort, you’d probably take it.
  • Apply to as many scholarships as you can. The more you apply, the higher likelihood you’ll earn some additional money.

You have won a scholarship. Now what?

Here are main points to keep in mind: 

  • Unless you are notified you have won a scholarship, do not count on that money when making a financial plan.
  • It may not be clear how you will receive your scholarship funds. Be sure you understand whether the money will be given directly to you or to the college. 
  • If you are awarded a scholarship and the money will be given directly to you, we recommend not reporting that to the college. Instead, treat the scholarship as cash to pay for your school expenses. 
  • If you’ve been awarded a scholarship and the money will be paid directly to the college, we recommend checking to see what your college’s “scholarship displacement policy” is. Be sure to follow up with the financial aid office directly to be sure.

What is financial aid displacement?

Financial aid displacement may happen when a student wins an outside scholarship.

The school will reduce the amount of financial aid awarded to a student based on the amount awarded through an outside scholarship. Generally this means the school will reduce the amount of “gift aid” (aid you do not need to pay back) or the amount of loans (aid you need to pay back). 

What does this mean for you?

Here’s an example: Imagine the school offers you $10,000 in financial aid to help with college costs. Your aid is divided into two parts: $5,000 is in the form of grants, which you don’t have to pay back, and $5,000 is in the form of loans that you will need to pay back later.

Then, let’s say you have also won a $3,000 scholarship from a different organization outside of your school. What happens to your financial aid package? Most likely, the outside scholarship will reduce the amount of student loans you would need to take out. The school will use the $3,000 outside scholarship to reduce the $5,000 loan that they offered. This means you will only be responsible for paying back $2,000 in student loans instead of the original $5,000.

However, some schools may use the outside scholarship to reduce the $5,000 of free financial aid (grants/scholarships from the school). That means you will still need to take out $5,000 in loans to cover all your costs. This is called scholarship displacement. Ideally, your outside scholarship should reduce the loans offered by the school, not the grants and scholarships.

Tip: Colleges can’t subtract from the federal Pell Grant — that will remain intact regardless of scholarship winnings! Ultimately, schools can choose to apply your scholarship winnings against your financial aid package in any way they see fit. This is why it is so important to call your financial aid office after you’ve won an outside scholarship to understand how this money will be applied against your financial aid.

Why you should still apply to as many schools as you can

Keep in mind that approximately 4 out of 5 (80%) colleges will reduce unmet need first. This means that:

  • At most colleges, scholarship funds you have won will replace loans and work study before reducing any grant money! 🙌🏽
  • Reduced loan amounts mean lower out of pocket costs, making the college even more affordable! 🎓

Tip: If you’ve won significant amounts of private scholarships, you should take each college’s outside scholarship policy and the tradeoffs that impact college affordability into consideration when deciding which offer you will accept.

Tip: Find out if the outside scholarship you are awarded will be paid directly to you or if the funds will be paid directly to the college.

Questions to ask the financial aid office:

  • Does the college practice either partial or full displacement?
    • If the answer from the financial aid office is “no,” you’re in the clear.
  • If displacement is practiced, will the college reduce loans first?
    • This is the best-case scenario if a school answers yes to the first question. If they are going to reduce part of the financial aid package, ideally they will reduce the loans offered, not grant aid. 
  • Do I have to use the private scholarship for this year’s tuition?
    • Financial aid packages differ broadly and so do private scholarship guidelines and restrictions. If you find yourself facing the possibility of displacement, you should contact both the college and the scholarship provider to explore options.

Actions you can take after finding out about your scholarships:

  • If the scholarship will be paid to you directly:
    • Treat this money like money from family, savings or money earned from a summer job.
    • Treat your scholarship funds like cash. Use this money to pay college bills and student personal expenses for the upcoming school year. 
  • If the scholarship will be paid to your college: 
    • Reach out to the financial aid office or search to see the college’s policies on scholarship displacement.
    • If your college does practice displacement, contact the college’s financial aid office to see how displacement will impact your financial aid award. 
    • Speak with a financial aid officer and, if necessary, submit an appeal to have the school’s displacement policy first reduce loans and work-study before any grants.