Maximize Your College Scholarship Dollars

College is most young adult’s first big financial decision. This choice that students make at 17 or 18-year-olds can affect them financially for decades to come. 

By: Soleil Kelly, Mathematics & Economics at Vanderbilt University, 2023

The key to maximizing your financial aid package is understanding the difference between internal and external aid. Though both function, in the same way, some other entity providing the funds to cover your tuition, board, and other expenses, the rules and availability of both can differ depending on the school.

Internal Scholarships

Internal scholarships are any scholarships received directly from the institution. Some common internal scholarships are presidential scholarships or community service awards. Institutional scholarships are often more official because they are managed directly by the college and university and tend to not affect your need-based financial aid if you are receiving any. Also, they often come with specific criteria that must be met to remain eligible for the scholarship. Common criteria include a minimum GPA, community service hours, etc. Though these criteria may seem a bit worrisome as you are trying to manage rigorous classes in college, being a part of an institutional scholarship program often also awards you some perks such as society/club membership, special invitations to events, or special classes.


Applying to an internal scholarship differs school by school, so be sure to check out the specific institution’s admissions website. Usually, two routes can be taken: everyone is considered, or there is a direct application. If everyone is considered, then the minute you submit your application for admission, you are automatically considered for all of the institutional scholarships that you qualify for. Otherwise, there will be separate applications for the institution-specific scholarships available (probably on their admissions or financial aid website). I know writing more essays for a school sounds daunting especially after finally completing your application sounds daunting, but I encourage you to apply to any institutional scholarships that are available to you. Often, as students decline admissions offers or transfer out of the school, they will reallocate the scholarship money to previous applicants, so even if you don’t win the money upon admission, you still have a chance for it in the future and it can save your future self thousands of dollars.

External Scholarships

External scholarships are any scholarships provided by a private entity. Common and popular external scholarships are those provided by local Elks Lodges or your high school’s PTO. Though usually smaller than internal scholarships, these can often be less competitive and have less strict requirements. But, to come up with the same sum of aid you will need to apply for multiple scholarships. Also, be sure to take a look at your institution’s rules regarding external aid, often it will affect your financial aid package. For instance, at Vanderbilt, any external aid received is first deducted from your need-based financial aid award, then your family contribution. This is a very common model for schools. Essentially, this means that to cover the cost of school, you will need to win the exact amount of money you need to cover tuition, board, etc. Of course, there are much larger external scholarships, but there is usually a direct correlation between the size and competitiveness of a scholarship.

Nonetheless, much like institutional scholarships, external scholarships can provide a community for you before entering school and award you many special invitations and opportunities. There are also often still eligibility requirements that must be maintained to remain eligible for the scholarship and these differ based on the award. There are plenty of online databases and articles providing links to scholarships that you may be eligible for. A simple Google search like “scholarships for high school seniors” or “scholarships for STEM majors” will reap hundreds of potential opportunities. Also, if you apply to multiple scholarships with the same theme (such as STEM) then you can probably recycle one essay for multiple applications.

Maximizing Scholarships

To maximize your chances of getting aid from merit-based scholarships, whether internal or external, I recommend applying to anything and everything you are eligible for. Start by first applying to any institution-specific scholarships that are available then move to larger and more popular external scholarships, this would include programs such as the Gates Millenium Scholars Program or the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation because these often have more robust applications. Then move to smaller, more localized external scholarships. A good trick for these is to see if the managing entity of the scholarship will send the funds directly to you instead of the institution. This way you can use these funds to offset travel and other expenses without them being deducted from your existing financial aid package. 

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