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Strategies for Winning Scholarships

As higher education costs continue to rise, scholarships are becoming increasingly important for many university students, especially those who want to minimize or avoid student loans. However, these days, winning scholarships can seem like a daunting challenge.

Scholarships have not only become a hot topic but also a rapidly changing area of higher education with several surprising and controversial recent developments that deserve the attention of our audience here on

In this report, we kick off our platform’s scholarship coverage by briefly looking at one way to look for awards: the use of scholarship databases. Then we briefly present strategies for finding and winning scholarships advocated by three experts.

Why Scholarship Databases Attract Students

At first, using scholarship databases such as BigFuture by the College Board,, or Monster’s might seem like attractive options. Busy students naturally assume that by using these platforms, they’ll save a lot of time because they expect that these databases will sift through thousands of scholarships and only present them with programs that closely match their qualifications and objectives.

Students also expect that these platforms will provide them with access to a broad range of options they might not otherwise find out about, which might enable them to select only from scholarships that provide strong probabilities of winning. And it’s certainly true that scholarship databases can be convenient “one-stop shops” when it comes to locating information that can help students evaluate the factors that indicate whether a scholarship seems worth pursuing—including award amounts and deadlines—and gauge how well they’ll fit all the requirements.

Many students hold these beliefs in part because some scholarship databases have received flattering coverage from the media. For example, the scholarship database that claims to have delivered the largest cumulative dollar value of awards is an app called Scholly; as of 2021, this seven-year-old platform claimed to be the world’s number-one scholarship database after connecting college students with $100 million in awards.

Scholly was launched by Christopher Gray, a Drexel University alumni who won $1.3 million in scholarships. After graduating, he beat seven competitors to win a 2015 business plan pitch competition sponsored by America Online’s founder Steve Case, taking home the $100,000 grand prize to help fund his new company. Gray then won another $40,000 in seed funding later that year during a famous national TV appearance on the ABC prime time program Shark Tank, shown in this video.

Strategy One: Target High Value, National Scholarships

Do such databases actually help? The use of scholarship databases like Scholly is controversial among large award recipients.

For example, Makenna Turner, an astute Stanford University computer science major who won over a million dollars worth of scholarships, believes that databases like these only help to connect students with major national scholarship programs. As a popular expert whose YouTube channel has tallied 3.3 million views, one such example she cites is the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation, probably the most popular college scholarship program in America. She also mentions the Elks National Foundation and the Palo Alto, California-based QuestBridge low-income scholarship program as examples of this genre.

Unfortunately, these scholarships are extremely competitive and difficult to win. For example, Coca-Cola offers about 150 of their $20,000 awards annually, but a whopping 93,000 students apply—so the probability of a random student winning that award is only 0.15 percent.

Furthermore, beyond these national programs, Turner warns that it’s challenging to find merit-based, legitimate scholarships on databases like Fastweb and Scholly:

Those websites can be useful. I used them—I signed up for almost all of them. However, they are riddled with ads. They mainly have sweepstakes or different ad scholarships by companies, where you’re just signing up for their mailing lists—you’re not really applying based on any type of merit.

So be aware of those scholarships, the sweepstakes ones. I’ve never met somebody who’s won one, so look for the actual legitimate scholarships that have an application process. They are out there but hard to find.

OK, so how specifically did Turner win over a million dollars in scholarships? In concentrating on high-value, national award programs, it sounds like she invested a tremendous amount of hard work in writing applications while she later applied some outstanding interviewing skills:

I applied to a LOT of scholarships. I applied to almost every single scholarship that I found that I was eligible for. It was a long and tedious process that coincided almost exactly with my college application process, meaning I was just every single night writing a lot of applications.

In total, I applied to 25 scholarships. I heard back from 17 at this point. I won 12 of those 17. . .of the ones that I did win, in 100 percent I moved on to the interview round, so post-interview I won 100 percent. . .Of those 12 scholarships I’ve won, eight were large national scholarships and four were small and local scholarships.

Strategy Two: Target Lower Value Scholarships

Turner’s strategy was phenomenally effective, but it’s not the only one. Other experts recommend strategies focusing mainly on smaller or local scholarship programs with less competition and higher probability of winning.

For example, scholarship expert Jocelyn Paonita—another large award recipient who won $100,000 in scholarships to the University of South Carolina—argues that for most students, it’s smart to apply for much less competitive, lower-value scholarships: “What we are going to focus on are scholarships in odd places that have a few to zero applicants but give you a decent amount of money,” she writes. “These are usually $500 to $5,000, but that adds up quickly.”

But with this strategy, given Turner’s experience that scholarship databases didn’t help her locate smaller and local awards, a formidable challenge revolves around simply finding these kinds of scholarships. One way might be to apply a set of systematic Google search queries that Paonita outlines in her book, The Scholarship System:

Many scholarships that exist are on [database] sites like the ones I listed above but there are also many that are only on the company’s homepage. This means that, if you limit your search strictly to scholarship databases. . .you can miss out on some massive cash opportunities.

We are going to fill out a worksheet that can help you come up with terms to Google in order to find scholarships that specifically pertain to you. They will be on foundation, company or organizations’ sites rather than some major scholarship database.

The goal here is to develop phrases that you can search in Google. . .list everything you do whether it be something in school such as band or basketball or any other hobby such as scrapbooking, singing, public speaking, etc. . .you can search each of those terms with the word ‘scholarship’ after it. For example, you can search scrapbooking scholarships, singing scholarships, public speaking scholarships — do you see where I am going with this? The list goes on.

You can also search the same words but with ‘awards’ at the end: scrapbooking awards, singing awards, etc. If nothing comes up, try ‘foundations’ or ‘organizations’ and search on their sites for scholarships. Either way, this can lead to you to many scholarships that you would never have found through the other sources we talked about. These are also the best ones to dig up because, if you could not find them through the popular methods, neither could your competition—which means a much higher chance of winning the big bucks.

Strategy Three: Purchase Local Scholarship Leads

Another approach might involve purchasing a list of these awards from a local educational consultant. Typically such professionals track press releases, website and social media announcements, and their clients’ results after applying to scholarship programs offered by companies and foundations across their regional or metro area.

One of the proponents of this ingenious method is Ryan Swayt, an advocate for a higher education management technique he calls “degree hacking” that he claims helped him graduate from an entire four-year bachelor’s degree program in only nine months. Swayt suggests that one of the most lucrative Google searches any university student could ever perform is a search for the term “scholarship consultant.” On his YouTube site that’s logged 220,000 views, Swayt explains how to use those search results:

Depending on where you live you might see a Google Map with actual physical local businesses you can drive into that are educational consultants that basically help you enroll in college. You can literally drive into one of these places and say, “Hey, I’m looking for local scholarships in our area.” And they can show you what local scholarships are available.

Some of these people might charge $50 or $100 an hour. But if you literally go in and pay $50 to get a big list of scholarships you can apply for, that can turn into thousands of dollars in scholarships.

It’s well worth paying a little bit of money for professional local advice. . .for local-based scholarships that are citywide and statewide. It’s really worth talking to these educational consultants.

These days in the post-Covid era, some of the statements in Swayt’s 2021 video might seem a little dated. In 2023, most brief consultations with such an EdD or PhD educational consultant will probably take place over a Zoom video meeting, and because of inflation, these days the cost will probably end up more in the range of $75 to $125 in most areas across the United States, while even higher in expensive metro areas like New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.

Nevertheless, that conversation could quickly yield a list of 20 to 40 high-probability state or local scholarship programs, each attracting a tiny fraction of the number of competitors applying to a national program like Coca-Cola’s. Not only could those awards add up quickly, as Paonita also argues, but that modest consultation fee would easily be offset by winning only a single, high-probability $500 scholarship.

Douglas Mark

While a partner in a San Francisco marketing and design firm, for over 20 years Douglas Mark wrote online and print content for the world’s biggest brands, including United Airlines, Union Bank, Ziff Davis, Sebastiani and AT&T.

Since his first magazine article appeared in MacUser in 1995, he’s also written on finance and graduate business education in addition to mobile online devices, apps, and technology. He graduated in the top 1 percent of his class with a business administration degree from the University of Illinois and studied computer science at Stanford University.