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Whether you're looking at colleges for the first time, heading back to school after taking time off or looking at graduate schools and other professional-level education, there are a lot of opportunities for merit-based scholarships. Unlike loans, you don't need to pay back scholarships — making them an attractive way to help finance your education. But when you apply for scholarships, there are a few tricks you should use to maximize your chances of scoring one.

Keep Searching

First, look at the school or schools you're applying to. Most institutes of higher education offer different types of scholarships — some that require additional application materials and some that you're automatically entered for when you submit your application. You should always fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) as many schools require this in order to be considered.

Next, see if your company offers scholarships or reimbursement programs for continuing education. Ask nonprofit organizations, professional groups in your intended field of study, as well as clubs and other community organizations about opportunities. Check with your family to see if their workplaces or professional organizations offer scholarships to relatives.

There are sites available that allow you to search thousands of undergraduate and graduate scholarship providers offering billions in scholarship awards. The U.S. Department of Labor also lists aid opportunities for different levels of studying including professional development and vocational studies.

Apply Early

Finding scholarships you qualify for takes time, so start the process as early as possible. According to Federal Student Aid, first-time college students should start as early as the summer between their junior and senior years of high school. However, you can still find scholarships outside of this window.

Once you've identified the scholarships you want to apply for, enter deadlines into your calendar with reminders so that you're staying on track. Keep copies of materials you need like essays, transcripts, letters of recommendation or other proof of eligibility on hand so that you can apply quickly.

Check to see if your scholarship is a one-time award or if it's one that will renew each year of your education. Scholarships that renew often do so only if you meet requirements like a minimum GPA. Therefore, you'll want to continue to search for scholarships as long as you plan to attend your program.

Apply Often

No matter what educational level you're pursuing, seek out multiple sources for scholarship money. Even if you have stellar grades and a list of achievements, there's no guarantee that you'll receive an award. The more you apply for scholarships, the higher your chances are of securing additional money to meet your education goals.

Consider all of your skills, experience and goals when searching for scholarships. Many are based on GPA, but you may find scholarships for your athletic achievements, your professional endeavors, volunteer work and more.

Avoid These Pitfalls

You should never have to pay to apply for a scholarship beyond paying for postage or printing any required application materials like an essay.

If an application requires a letter of recommendation, avoid your family members and friends. Letters should come from teachers, coaches, employers or community leaders who know you in academic, service or professional capacities.

Don't wait to ask for letters of recommendation — ask for letters as soon as you know you need them, and ask several people. This will give people plenty of time to compose their thoughts and you'll also have backups in case someone drops the ball. You may be able to repurpose one letter for multiple scholarships, so ask for several signed copies.

Review the terms for claiming a scholarship before you apply, and again if you receive one. Some may expect proof of enrollment before receiving the scholarship reward.

At the end of the day, if you're willing to tackle the daunting task of sorting through hundreds of opportunities and follow directions, the potential is high for you to reap the benefits.

This information and recommendations contained herein is compiled from sources deemed reliable, but is not represented to be accurate or complete. In providing this information, neither KeyBank nor its affiliates are acting as your agent or is offering any tax, accounting, or legal advice.

By selecting any external link on, you will leave the KeyBank website and jump to an unaffiliated third-party website that may offer a different privacy policy and level of security. The third party is responsible for website content and system availability. KeyBank does not offer, endorse, recommend or guarantee any product or service available on that entity's website.

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