Finding and Winning Private Scholarships

Published by Wendy Nelson on

rolled-diploma-mdFinding and winning private scholarships can be a complicated process.  Most families dream about getting a full-ride scholarship to college so that they don’t have to pay out of pocket.  The reality is that most full rides come from institutional merit scholarships or athletic scholarships.  There are not that many full-ride private scholarships available.

Just to be clear, let me define a private scholarship as a scholarship that is offered by an organization, foundation or business.  Private scholarships are those not offered directly by colleges themselves.

Private scholarships can be need-based, merit-based or a combination of both.

Finding Private Scholarships

Private scholarships range from local scholarships for a few hundred dollars up to national full-ride scholarships and everything in between.

Here are some of the biggest and most well known private scholarships available to high school seniors who are applying for college:

  1. Gates Millennium Scholars Program – Offered to outstanding minority Pell Grant eligible students.  This is a combination merit-based and need-based scholarship program.
  2. Stamps Scholarship Program – Working with partner colleges, Stamps seeks students demonstrating academic merit, strong leadership potential and exceptional character.  Stamps is a merit-based scholarship program that does not consider financial need.
  3. QuestBridge College Match Scholarships – QuestBridge National College Match is a program to help outstanding low-income high school seniors gain admission and full four-year scholarships to the most selective colleges in the U.S.  This is a combination merit-based and need-based scholarship program.  To be eligible, your family income (for a family of 4) must be less than $65,000 per year.
  4. Chick Evans Caddie Scholarship – This is a full-ride scholarship offered to over 900 golf caddies per year.  It is a combination need-based and merit-based scholarship that also takes into account the student’s caddie record and character.
  5. Coca Cola Scholars Program – An achievement-based scholarship awarded to graduating high school seniors each year. Students are recognized for their capacity to lead and serve, and their commitment to making a significant impact on their schools and communities. 150 Coca-Cola Scholars are selected each year to receive this $20,000 scholarship.
  6. Horatio Alger Scholarship Programs – As one of the nation’s largest need-based college scholarship programs in the country, the Horatio Alger Scholarship Programs specifically assist high school students who have faced and overcome great obstacles in their young lives. While many programs are directed primarily to recognizing academic achievement or leadership potential, the Horatio Alger Association seeks students who have exhibited determination, integrity, and perseverance in overcoming adversity, as well as have critical financial need.
  7. Jack Kent Cooke Foundation College Scholarship Program – An undergraduate scholarship program available to high-achieving high school seniors with financial need who seek to attend the nation’s best four-year colleges and universities. College Scholars receive up to $40,000 per year, college planning support, ongoing advising, and the opportunity to network with the larger JKCF Scholar community. Up to 40 College Scholars are selected for this program each year.  Applicants should demonstrate significant unmet financial need.  Family incomes up to $95,000 will be considered, but most recipients will be those eligible for Pell Grants.
  8. AXA Achievement Scholarship – This is a merit-based scholarship open to U.S. high school seniors who demonstrate ambition and self-drive as evidenced by outstanding achievement in school, community or work-related activities.  Scholarships are offered in amounts of $2,500, $10,000 and $25,000.
  9. Buick Achievers – This is a combination need-based and merit-based scholarship for students who intend to study Engineering, Technology, Design or other programs of study related to the automotive industry. Up to $25,000 per year is awarded to 50 first-time or existing college students, renewable for up to four years, and one additional year for those entering a qualified five-year engineering program.

You can find lists of national and state private scholarships on the following websites:


There are other smaller sites that list these as well.  A word of caution – Most of these sites require a lot of personal information before they allow you to search.  Your information will be sold to colleges and other college-related firms, so be prepared to receive a lot of unsolicited email.  Additionally, these sites have lots of advertising to weed through!

Look for Local Scholarships

Local scholarships are often the best bet for your student’s time.  My college-bound daughters each secured thousands of dollars in local scholarships their senior years of high school.  These are often available only to students of a particular high school so the competition is much lower than private scholarships offered to a wider group.

How to Find Local Scholarships:

  • Check with your high school counseling office – most will have a list
  • Scour the local paper – organizations usually send out press releases about their scholarships
  • Ask at local organizations – Rotary, Lions Club, VFW, Knights of Columbus, Kiwanis, Optimist International, PEO, Woman’s Clubs and more usually have college scholarships available

Winning Private Scholarships

Unfortunately there is no “secret” to winning scholarships.  Don’t believe the online ads for programs that will teach you how to win scholarships.  These are usually offered by former students who were able to win enough scholarships to pay for all their college expenses.  They will walk you through what worked for them.  It is mostly common sense.

Here are the most important things to increase your student’s chance of winning a private scholarship:

  • Good grades, class rank and test scores
  • Great activity list – solid leadership positions, consistent involvement, depth of involvement over number of activities, meaningful community service experience
  • A great essay – writing for scholarship essays is much like writing for college application essays.  Make sure your answer directly fits the prompt, stick to any word limit given, make sure there are no grammar or spelling errors, don’t use “worn out” topics like mission trips or winning the big game.
  • Have a “hook” – The people offering the scholarship are looking for a “standout student”.  A student should capitalize on what makes him or her unique and special.  Is it a particular hobby?  A great accomplishment?  Something he or she poured heart and soul into?
  • The “complete package” – Most winners are very well-rounded with great grades, class rank and test scores along with leadership experience, community service and other impressive activities and/or awards.  To go along with this, they can craft a good essay.

To summarize, there are a lot of private scholarships out there.  Local ones are often the smallest, but are also the easiest to win.  The big national scholarship programs, like the ones I have listed above, will have tons of students competing for a very limited number of scholarships.  It never hurts to apply for as many scholarships as possible, but your student should weigh his or her amount of effort against the potential reward, both in monetary value and in odds of winning.

1 Comment

5 Tips for Winning Private Scholarships | My Kid's College Choice · February 5, 2017 at 8:15 pm

[…] there are some really large scholarships out there.  I wrote about some of these in my post, Finding and Winning Private Scholarships.  Most students will not win these.  There just aren’t that many out there and they are […]

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