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.