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Articles / Applying to College / What are different kinds of scholarships?

Feb. 11, 2002

What are different kinds of scholarships?

Question: Can you explain the different kinds of scholarships that are available?

This is an area of great confusion for both parents and students. The two key words to keep in mind when thinking about scholarships are merit and need.


Merit-based scholarships go to students who are superb academic performers. They are usually awarded on a competitively. Examples of these are the National Merit Scholarships. Competition can be very keen for some larger merit-based awards and because of the subjective evaluation process, the best-qualified candidate does not always win.

Need-based scholarships go to students whose financial resources do not enable them to afford the full cost of the college or university to which they've been accepted. These scholarships are available at many schools and can be quite large depending on the financial-aid resources of the particular college. Need-based scholarships are sometimes the only way that students can afford to attend costly schools.

There is another, more elusive category of college scholarships. I call these restrictive specialty scholarships. Most colleges have a special group of awards (usually provided by graduates of the school) that bestows money upon enrolling first year students according to unique considerations. For example, church-affiliated colleges may have some specially endowed scholarships for young men and women who are members of that denomination. Other specialty awards might go to students from certain geographic areas. The variety of requirements and restrictions can be wide.

To find out what scholarships you, as a high-school senior, might qualify for, check with your college advisor. Sometimes one general application will suffice to apply for the full range of merit/need-based scholarships your school and community offer. Many private scholarships are advertised in the local newspaper every year, so be alert to their listings. And--as always--turn to your public library or the Web for current books and listings of other scholarship sources.

Start early and look diligently. Finding scholarship money for college takes time.

Written by

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone knows the competitive and often convoluted college admission process inside out: From the first time the topic of college comes up at the dinner table until the last duffel bag is unloaded on a dorm room floor. She is the co-author of Panicked Parents' Guide to College Admissions; The Transfer Student's Guide to Changing Colleges and The International Student's Guide to Going to College in America. Sally has appeared on NBC's Today program and has been quoted in countless publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Weekend, USA Today, U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek, People and Seventeen. Sally has viewed the admissions world from many angles: As a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years, an independent college counselor serving students from a wide range of backgrounds and the author of College Confidential's "Ask the Dean" column. She also taught language arts, social studies, study skills and test preparation in 10 schools, including American international schools in London, Paris, Geneva, Athens and Tel Aviv. As senior advisor to College Confidential since 2002, Sally has helped hundreds of students and parents navigate the college admissions maze. In 2008, she co-founded College Karma, a private college consulting firm, with her College Confidential colleague Dave Berry, and she continues to serve as a College Confidential advisor. Sally and her husband, Chris Petrides, became first-time parents in 1997 at the ripe-old age of 45. So Sally was nearly an official senior citizen when her son Jack began the college selection process, and when she was finally able to practice what she had preached for more than three decades.

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