Tips on how approach using scholarships to help cover college costs
Paying for College

If you really hustle, you may be able to find scholarships to help cover some of your college costs.

Check out some tips for doing so below!

Hint: 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.


When you applied to college, you were automatically considered for some scholarships, but there may be others that require an additional application. How to find these scholarships:

  • 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.” The page that lists these scholarships can sometimes be hard to find so you may need to click through a few pages


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 Scholar Snapp to apply to multiple scholarships with one application


Where to look for scholarships:

Where to look for additional scholarships if you’re undocumented:

  • Immigrants Rising Database of Undergraduate Scholarships & Related Resources
    • Immigrant Rising’s List of Undergraduate Scholarships contains scholarships for undergraduate studies 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 (Bay Area), state, and national levels.
  • MALDEF’s Scholarship Resource Guide
    • MALDEF is pleased to provide you with this 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
    • 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 if you can!
  • Have letters of recommendation and contact information (email & phone number) ready from at least two people
  • Keep track of application deadlines in your calendar or a reminder app
  • Stay motivated – 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 few hundred or thousand dollars for a few hours of effort, you’d probably take it. So don’t let yourself lose motivation – apply to as many as you can!


You may have worked hard to apply to many scholarships already, which is great! The more gift aid, the better! The main things to keep in mind: 

  • Unless you are notified you’ve 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, then we recommend not reporting that to the college and instead treat it as cash to pay for your school expenses
  • If you’ve been awarded a scholarship and it will be paid directly to the college, we recommend checking to see what your college’s Scholarship Displacement Policy is and following up with the Financial Aid office directly to be sure


This may happen when a student wins an outside scholarship but instead of the award amount being applied to their financial aid package to reduce loans (aid you have to pay back), the college reduces the gift aid (which you don’t have to pay back) by the scholarship amount.

Wait, what, does this mean you ask? This means that if you had a $10,000 financial aid award letter where $5,000 of it is loans and $5,000 of it are grants, the scholarship is used to reduce the grants side, not the loans side. What this means, is that at the end of your college journey your scholarships will not have reduced the total amount of loans that you need to pay back, which is your main goal when applying to scholarships.  

Hint: Colleges can’t subtract from the federal Pell Grant — that will remain intact regardless of scholarship winnings!


Keep in mind: About 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! 🎓

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


When it comes down to it, there are really three vital questions to ask:

  1. Does the college practice either partial or full displacement?
    • If the answer from the financial aid office is “no,” you’re in the clear
  2. If displacement is practiced, will the college reduce loans or work-study first?
    • This best-case scenario is if a school answers “yes” to this question. If they are going to reduce any part of the financial aid package, you want it to be the amount of loan aid, not grant aid. That way, even though you are losing out on some funds, they are funds you would have had to pay back after graduation, or not guaranteed in the case of work-study (depends on finding a work-study job and working to earn this money)
  3. Do I have to use the private scholarship for this year’s tuition?
    • Financial aid packages differ wildly, 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

Our RECOMMENDATION: First, find out if the private scholarship you are awarded will be paid directly to you or if it will be paid directly to the college you enroll at. Then take the following actions:

  • If the scholarship will be paid to you directly: 🙌🏽
    • Treat this money the same as money from family, savings, or money earned from a summer job
    • That means treating it like cash and using it 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 it may be best to get ahead of this by;
      • Contacting the college’s Financial Aid office to see the impact it will have on your financial aid award 
      • Speak with a Financial Aid officer and, if necessary, submit an appeal to have their policy of displacement first reduce loans and work-study before any grants (aka free money).