Sadhvi Mathur 8 min read Financial Aid, Scholarships

10 Tips for Winning Full Ride Scholarships

As more and more employers require bachelor’s degrees to fill even entry-level roles, the costs of acquiring a college education have steadily risen in tandem. In fact, according to CNBC, the costs of attending a private, four-year institution rose 129% from 1987 to 2017. Public institutions saw an even greater increase, having risen nearly 213% over the same period. 

 

Unsurprisingly, college is one of the biggest personal investments you can make, so it’s important to know what your financing options are and what they could mean for your future. While it’s great if you and your family can cover your college expenses out-of-pocket, most families will need some sort of assistance. Options like loans and work-study programs can be incredibly helpful, but often come with strings attached– some being more costly than others. That said, these aren’t your only options. Scholarships are a great resource for students looking to finance their college education. In fact, some organizations will cover the entire cost of your education and living expenses‒ or, in other words, they’ll give you a full-ride. 

 

What is a Full-Ride Scholarship?

 

Full-ride scholarships pay for the entire cost of a student’s education, including tuition, room and board, and other living expenses. This is not to be confused with a full-tuition scholarship, which only covers the cost of tuition. Full-ride scholarships can come from either a college or a third-party institution, and they can be merit or need-based. 

 

While need-based scholarships are awarded based on both a student’s qualifications and demonstrated financial need, merit-based scholarships are awarded strictly based on a student’s qualifications and achievements, irrespective of financial need. 

 

Which Colleges Offer Full Rides?

 

Numerous colleges offer full-ride scholarships, these institutions ranging from highly-prestigious private schools to their lesser-known counterparts.

 

For example, Duke University offers the Robertson Scholars Leadership Program, which covers a student’s cost of attendance for four years of college. Emory University has the Emory Scholars Program, which is a merit-based full-ride scholarship. Some programs even pay scholarship recipients to attend!  The University of Alabama has an Academic Elite Scholarship, which covers tuition, one-year of on-campus housing at the regular room rate, an $8,500 yearly stipend, and a $2,000 book scholarship.

 

Check out our post 77 Colleges With Full-Ride Scholarships to learn about other schools with full-ride scholarships. 

 

While winning a full-ride scholarship is easier said than done, there are several things a student can do to maximize their chances of being awarded that coveted full-ride. Here are 10 of our expert tips for setting yourself up for success and securing a full ride to the college of your choice. 

 

How to Win a Full-Ride Scholarship

 

1. Get Stellar Grades and Test Scores 

 

Even if the scholarship you’re interested in is need-based, you’ll need to earn an impressive GPA and stellar test scores in order to win a scholarship and, sometimes, to even qualify for it. In some cases, achieving a certain GPA and SAT score can automatically qualify you for a scholarship. For example, The Presidential Academic Scholarship at Alabama State University is automatically awarded students who have earned at least a 3.76 GPA as well as a minimum 26 ACT/1240 SAT score. 

 

Looking for more opportunities like this? We’ve rounded up a full list of schools that will automatically award you with a scholarship based on your grades and test scores.

 

2. Curate Strong Extracurriculars (Leadership and Community) 

 

Most scholarship applications won’t just want to know about your grades and test scores (though those are important factors). As with your college application, your extracurricular profile, leadership experience, and community involvement will all be taken into consideration in your scholarship application. So if you want a chance at winning a full-ride scholarship, you should make sure that you have a breadth of extracurriculars that you’ve pursued passionately and excelled in. 

 

If you’re unsure as to what makes for a meaningful extracurricular, see if you can categorize it in one of our four tiers of extracurricular activities

 

Tier One: These are the extremely rare, powerful extracurriculars that will really catch the attention of a scholarship committee. An achievement such as winning a national award or gaining entry into an elite club would fall into this tier. 

 

Tier Two: These are more common extracurricular achievements that are still impressive, demonstrating hard work, leadership, and dedication. Tier Two extracurriculars include, for example, holding a high leadership position in an organization or being part of a team that accomplishes some feat or earns special recognition. 

 

Tier Three: Tier Three extracurriculars show a scholarship committee where your interests lie and what you’ve been pursuing, but they don’t necessarily rise to the level of a Tier One or Two activity. For example, being the president/founder of a club would be a Tier Two activity, but being treasurer or secretary of the same club would count as a Tier Three. 

 

Tier Four: These are the most common extracurriculars seen by a scholarship committee. Any activity that you participated in but did not hold a special role or achievement in counts as a Tier Four extracurricular. These are a good start, but they won’t necessarily set you apart from other applicants. 

 

3. Take the PSAT/NMSQT

 

In case you don’t already know, the Preliminary SAT, or PSAT, is a primer for the SAT. It’s not just a practice test though; it’s also the National Merit Qualifying Test. Each year, about 50,000 students with particularly high PSAT scores qualify to become National Merit Scholars. Becoming a National Merit Scholar not only shows colleges that you are prepared to tackle the rigor of their curriculum, but also opens you up to potential scholarship opportunities. 

 

Some colleges will automatically offer scholarships to National Merit Semi-Finalists, or the top 1% of test takers. For example, the University of Alabama’s flagship campuses at Birmingham and Huntsville offer full-ride scholarships to National Merit Semi-Finalists. The University of Arkansas offers Semi-Finalists a full-tuition scholarship plus $10,000 a year for living expenses and other fees. More selective schools tend to offer less money, but you can still expect to get a one-time scholarship of around $2,500. Many colleges offer scholarship money to National Merit Scholars, so be sure to study hard for your PSAT/MNSQT exam and set yourself up for scholarship-winning success.

 

4. Avoid Spending Too Much Time On External Scholarships

 

Many high school students believe that they should focus on applying for external full-ride scholarships as opposed to full-ride scholarships from the college of their choice. This common misconception is based on the assumption that external scholarship organizations have more money to offer than the colleges themselves. However, colleges themselves award $11 million more in scholarships each year than external organizations. In fact, 80% of external scholarships award less than $2,000, which won’t cover anywhere close to your full tuition bill. 

 

Plus, external scholarships can either have incredibly large applicant pools or a very specific criteria that a student must meet to qualify. In the first case, your chances of winning the scholarship are much lower than if you focus on institutional scholarships simply because of the larger applicant pool. In the second case, the pool of scholarships for which you qualify will be limited.

 

So if you find yourself wondering which type of full-ride scholarship applications to prioritize, those offered by colleges are often your best bet. While top-tier colleges may only offer need-based aid, larger schools tend to offer generous merit aid to draw in outstanding applicants. 

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5. Apply To Schools Where Your Profile Is Especially Strong

 

As a general rule, you probably have the best chance of getting a big merit scholarship to your safety schools. These are schools where your profile is especially strong compared to the average applicant. 

 

This is because these lower-ranked colleges often offer generous scholarships to “draw in” outstanding students. Otherwise, they may lose these students to more prestigious universities. So if you want to maximize your chances of getting a full-ride, make sure you have at least two safety schools on your list that are known for giving generous merit aid. 

 

6. Don’t Rule Out Need-Based Financial Aid 

 

Need-based financial aid scholarships should definitely not be ignored, especially if you need a big scholarship to afford college. 

 

Some schools are incredibly generous with their need-based scholarships, and will cover 100% of a student’s demonstrated financial need. Demonstrated financial need is the estimated Cost of Attendance minus your Expected Family Contribution. The Expected Family Contribution (EFC) indicates how much your family should be able to contribute towards tuition, based on the information that you put in your FAFSA. 

 

For some students, their EFC is zero, which means that their Demonstrated Financial Need is the entirety of a school’s cost of attendance. So if you can find some schools that will cover your demonstrated financial need, you might just end up with a full-ride scholarship. 

 

Just keep in mind that each school has a different financial aid formula, so even if your FAFSA EFC is 0, you may not actually get a full ride at every college. Be sure to use each school’s net price calculator to estimate your financial aid package.

 

7. If Your Family Is Lower Income, Check Out Questbridge 

 

If you belong to a family that makes less than $65,000 a year for a family of four, you qualify for the Questbridge National College Match program. This program is open to all high-school seniors with exemplary academic achievements who are U.S. citizens or permanent U.S. residents. The Questbridge program partners with 40 prestigious colleges and universities like Dartmouth, Duke, and Emory and covers the full cost of attendance for each college with no parental contribution and no loans. 

 

If you are a rising senior and think that you qualify for this program, start gathering your application materials and do some more research to find out if the Questbridge program is right for you. Some of the application components include two letters of recommendation, your transcript, and two essays. For more information on Questbridge, check out our guide to Questbridge.

 

8. Don’t Expect Need-Based and Merit Aid to “Stack”

 

Many students are under the impression that they can “stack” their merit-based and need-based aid to cover the cost of college. In other words, they think that receiving merit-based aid will not affect how much need-based aid they qualify for, so they’ll get enough need-based and merit-based scholarships to cover the cost of college. 

 

Unfortunately, that’s not how it works. Whenever you receive merit-based aid, that lowers your family’s Demonstrated Financial Need for need-based aid. So if you are able to win some merit-based scholarships, it is likely that your need-based scholarships will be re-evaluated, and you will likely be offered a lower amount. So don’t think you’ll be able to cover all of your college costs by “stacking” need-based and merit-based scholarships. In reality, things will likely end up “see-sawing” – or in other words, when one goes up, the other comes down. 

 

Of course, winning merit scholarships can still have some benefit, as the less-desirable forms of need-based aid are usually “taken away” or “covered” first. This includes loans and work-study. But after a certain point, getting merit scholarships will start negatively impacting your need-based aid.

 

9. Write a Highly Personal, Engaging Essay

 

Almost all scholarship applications require at least one essay, and, much like your college applications, the essay is one of your best chances to stand out. Especially with merit-based scholarships, you are competing with many students who have similar stellar grades and extracurriculars as you. Your essay can serve as your differentiating factor to the scholarship committee. Use your essay as a chance to showcase who you are, what interests and passions you have, and what makes you different from other applicants. 

 

Of course, that’s easier said than done. Please refer to our guide on How To Showcase Your Strengths In Your College Application Essays for some expert tips on writing a truly stand-out essay. In the meantime, here’s a little preview of some techniques you can try: 

 

  • Make Your Essay A Reflection Of You: Don’t make the mistake of making your essay a theoretical musing where you contemplate and explain the logic of how you would answer the prompt. Instead, answer the prompt by drawing on your own experiences and achievements.
  • Tell a Story: Make sure your essay has a narrative arc. Take your reader on the journey you’re describing from beginning to end. Usually, this means walking the reader through your accomplishments in context, describing how they happened and what they meant to you. Don’t just list out what you’ve done. Explain it to the scholarship committee!

 

10. Apply Early 

 

Sometimes, the key to being considered for merit-based scholarships is simply applying by a certain date. For example, the University of Richmond will automatically consider your application for a scholarship, up to a full-ride, if you apply to the college by a certain deadline. 

 

Sometimes, the deadline is an arbitrary earlier date than the regular decision application deadline. Other times, you have to actually apply early action to be considered for full-ride financial aid. Do some research on the financial aid requirements for the schools you’re applying to so that you can plan to submit your applications in time to be considered for as many scholarships as possible.

 

Curious about your chances of acceptance to the colleges you’re applying to? Our free chancing engine takes into account factors like your GPA, extracurriculars, test scores, and more to precisely predict your odds of acceptance at over 500 colleges in the United States. Sign up for your free CollegeVine account today to gain access to this great tool!

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Sadhvi Mathur
Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Short bio
Sadhvi is a recent graduate from the University of California, Berkeley, where she double majored in Economics and Media Studies. Having applied to over 8 universities, each with different application platforms and requirements, she is eager to share her knowledge now that her application process is over. Other than writing, Sadhvi's interests include dancing, playing the piano, and trying not to burn her apartment down when she cooks!