The Three Most Common Institutional Scholarships


Paying for college can feel like an Easter egg hunt with no end in sight — elusive funds hidden in places it seems you'll never be able to find in the time allotted. Sometimes it can even feel like scholarships are given at random or to people who can prove their ancestors traveled on the Mayflower or are direct blood descendants of a World War I veteran. But while some scholarships might have the strangest requirements for eligibility, there are a few standard categories that colleges have been routinely filling with capable students for decades. Here's a breakdown with a few helpful tips on how to snag some extra cash for college.

Academically Gifted

When you think of scholarships, you probably think of awards based on academic performance given to hopefully lure the next generation of great minds to a particular institution. And that makes sense! Schools want the brightest, the most ambitious and the most academically accomplished students on their class rosters, so naturally merit grants based on high school grades and test scores are becoming more and more widespread.

And sometimes the schools offering that merit-based money are schools that claim to be “test optional." Does that mean if you submit an ACT or SAT score that those schools won't take them into consideration at all? No! Since the ACT and SAT still stand as some of the most widely accepted measures of a student's ability, you'd better believe they'll hold at least a little ground in any scholarship decisions being made at a given school, test optional or not.


Scholarships aren't awarded just on merit — they're also given out for other talents. One of the most prevalent and sought-after types is the scholarship given to student athletes.

While it's usually a good idea to sing your own praises to stand out on your scholarship application, athletes should get in touch with the athletic department directly. When you visit a school, make it a point to meet the coach of the team you want to join. Don't be afraid to initiate contact! The worst thing you can do is assume that a school is not interested in you merely because you haven't been approached by a scout during the school year.

(However, keep in mind that only colleges in the NCAA Division I and II can award scholarships based on athletic ability. In Division III, being a coach-recruited athlete can help with admission, and of course you can't get financial aid from a school unless you get in! For more on athletic scholarships, check out this guide.)


A third common type of scholarship is one awarded to the child of alumni at any given school. Many colleges will go out of their way to ensure a college degree from their institution runs in the family — even if that means offering a little more assistance to you if you or your parents' circumstances are such that you cannot pay the entire cost of attendance. If that's the case, don't hesitate to ask for help from the admissions office. (And that's not to say they won't be forthcoming at many schools anyway.)

While it's a great idea to go right to the source — i.e., to the college admissions office — when looking for funding, there are plenty of other places to look for scholarships, too. Plus, with a little financial aid finesse, funding the rest of your college education doesn't have to remain as mysterious as it might seem on first glance. For help, check out our books Paying for Collegeand 8 Steps to Paying Less for College.