8 Things You Need to Know About Private College Scholarships


Winning private college scholarships can certainly help make college more affordable, but you need to know the realities of competing for college cash. My pet peeve about private scholarships is that people assume that they are the biggest source of college cash when they are really the puniest.

Before you start hunting for private college scholarships, here are eight facts about these awards that you need to know:

1. Private scholarships aren’t the biggest source of college cash.

I suspect most families believe that private scholarships, which students can earn from organizations like the Rotary Club or by creating a clever prom outfit out of duct tape, is where most of the money for college is hiding.  The biggest sources of scholarships and grants, however, are the federal government and the colleges themselves.

Here is the breakdown of sources of college grants:

  1. Federal government (44 percent)
  2. Colleges (36 percent)
  3. State governments (9 percent)
  4. Private scholarships (6 percent).

2. Full-ride scholarships are extremely rare.

While many parents dream that their children will receive full-ride scholarships, they should definitely not count on it. There are less than 250 private scholarships that provide enough money to pay for all college costs, according to Mark Kantrowitz, the publisher of Fastweb, the highly popular scholarship search engine. Among full-time college students, a mere .3 percent receive a full ride to college from any sources.

3. Scholarships can reduce your financial aid award.

If a teen wins a private scholarship, the college could shrink his or her financial aid package by the amount of the award. So if a child wins a $3,000 scholarship, the college could cut the aid package by $3,000. Why is a student penalized for winning a private scholarship? Federal rules require that a college consider outside scholarships when calculating a financial aid package. Ideally you’d want the college to reduce the loan portion of a student’s financial aid award and not grant money. Some reduce both. You need to ask schools about their policies.

4. You should apply to less popular scholarships.

Many students,  don’t want to apply for scholarships that are worth less than $1,000, but these scholarships can be easier to win. Students also tend to dismiss competitions requiring the submission of art, poetry, or writing.

5. Some majors are more lucrative than others.

Students who major in a STEM field (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) are more likely to win a scholarship, Kantrowitz says. In one survey, 23.2 percent of math/statistics majors and 17.6 percent of engineering students earned a scholarship, while only 9.5 percent of business majors won one.

6. You’ll have better luck with local scholarships.

There can be less competition for local scholarships. Ask your guidance counselor about local scholarships and also check out the jobs and career section of your local library. You need to do the footwork because some local scholarship sponsors don’t want their listings in the national scholarship databases.

7. Do some volunteer work to increase your chances.

Many scholarship providers include a requirement that recipients be engaged in volunteer activities. Sponsors would rather see a student who sticks with one volunteer activity for a long time than one who hops around to various charities.

8. Read up on private scholarships.

If you’d like to learn more about private scholarships, a handy resource  is a slim book, Secrets to Winning a Scholarship, that Mark Kantrowitz wrote. Check it out.


Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of the second edition of The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price.

Read more:

Do You Enjoy a College Scholarship Advantage?

A New Tool for Merit Scholarship Searches

Case Study: What 66 Schools Would Cost This Family

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  1. Thanks for the wonderful resources Lynn….I have created an account in ScholarPRO and so far I like what I see and yes the process and the layout seems better than other websites….I will try it before I recommend it to our AVID Classes.

    Happy Holidays