How to Win a Gazillion Dollars in Scholarships

on April 3, 2017

A handful of students each year win a very large amount of scholarship money for college.


Some do it by winning one or two very big scholarships, such as the Regeneron Science Talent Search. Others combine several slightly smaller scholarships, such as the Dell Scholars Program and Coca-Cola Scholars Program scholarships. Some others apply to many less-selective colleges that offer full-tuition academic scholarships.


I was one of those students who won a gazillion dollars in scholarships for college. I won a first award and scholarship from my state science fair for four years in a row (a record), was ranked #1 in numerous math competitions and won a Westinghouse Science Talent Search scholarship (a predecessor of the Regeneron scholarship), among other scholarships. I graduated from M.I.T. with more money than when I started, between my scholarships and summer jobs. My parents did not have to pay a penny for my college education.


Be Realistic


Let’s be realistic. Most students will not be able to win a free ride in private scholarships. For many students, scholarships are part of the plan for paying for college, but not the entire plan. Most students will have to rely on money from the federal and state governments and from their college to pay for college.


Although about one in eight students wins private scholarships, only 0.2 percent of students enrolled in bachelor’s degree programs use private scholarships totaling more than $25,000 to pay for college costs each year, based on data from the 2011-2012 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS). When need-based grants are added to private scholarships, only 0.6 percent use enough grants and scholarships to cover the full cost of attendance.


So, how do you become one of the few students who wins a completely free ride to college?


Be the Best


To win a gazillion dollars in scholarships, you have be the best at what you do. Scholarship providers are looking for the student who best matches their selection criteria. Depth matters more than breadth. You have to be the best in the nation, not just in your high school.


Your talents also have to match the skills sought by top scholarship providers. You might be the best at reading upside down, but unless there’s a scholarship for that, it won’t help you pay for college.


A scholarship is not a reward for past performance. Rather, past performance is used as evidence of your future potential, especially in fields of interest to the scholarship provider.


Students with better test scores and grades are more likely to win scholarships, not because scholarships necessarily seek high-scoring students, but rather because the qualities that lead to academic success also contribute to winning scholarships.


Being your high school valedictorian or salutatorian is not enough to distinguish you from other students. There are more than 75,000 high school valedictorians and salutatorians graduating each year. Thousands of students get perfect SAT or ACT test scores each year.


Be Stubborn and Systematic


You also need to be thorough and persistent. The students who win a lot of scholarship money are aggressive in searching for scholarships. They also apply to every scholarship for which they are eligible. They don’t apply to just the most lucrative scholarships. They search for scholarships online and offline.

  • They search at least two of the free scholarship matching services, such as and, or They answer all of the questions in the scholarship search profiles, not just the required questions, to ensure that they match more scholarships. Students who answer the optional questions get about twice as many matches, on average.
  • Some scholarships deliberately aren’t included in any of the online scholarship databases. You won’t find them by searching Google for “scholarships scholarships scholarships.”  Instead, visit the local library and bookstore for scholarship listing books. Look on bulletin boards outside your school counselor’s office. Ask your parents’ employers and local businesses if they sponsor scholarships. Ask to be nominated for a scholarship that requires you to be nominated.

It helps if you get started early. Students who start searching for scholarships earlier will miss fewer deadlines. There are many scholarships that can be won in younger grades, even in elementary school.


Learn to Write Well


The students who win many scholarships know how to write well. Even if they aren’t good enough to win poetry contests, knowing how to write effectively increases their chances of winning a scholarship.


To win a scholarship, you should do some research on the scholarship provider. Why are they sponsoring the scholarship? What do they hope to accomplish by sponsoring a scholarship? How can you shape your application to match their goals?


Your essays should articulate why you deserve to win the scholarship. If your essays are wishy washy, you won’t win. Your essays should paint a tapestry that weaves together your past, present and future, tying your skills and characteristics to the goals of the scholarship provider.


It also is important to have a hook that will catch the reader’s attention and make your application memorable. You need to be someone they can identify with a short label, such as “the student who ______________.” Fill in the blank with whatever makes you special. If you don’t have a hook, you are much less likely to win. If the scholarship selection committee doesn’t remember your application, you aren’t going to win.  But, the label needs to be a positive one, not “the student who was arrested for drunken driving.”


Proofreading applications for proper spelling and grammar is important because the scholarship selection committee judges you based on the way you write, even if that isn’t an official selection criterion. An essay filled with spelling and grammar errors will give a bad impression.  

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