It’s no secret that attending college is a major expense.

Student loans and savings are options for covering the cost, but there’s nothing better than scholarship money for college. Scholarships are often referred to as “free money” because students aren’t required to pay back the money they receive. But “free” is a bit misleading since scholarships generally entail the hard work of research, additional essay writing, and applications.

This may be why scholarships offering small awards seem unappealing. You may think an award of a few thousand, or even a few hundred, dollars isn’t worth the work when you’re facing tens of thousands of dollars in annual tuition costs from $10,000 to $38,000. But you should take another look because small scholarships, even if they can’t cover the entire cost of tuition in one fell swoop, have plenty of benefits.

For starters, small scholarships can often mean less competition. Kevin Ladd, chief operating officer of, says, “Most smaller awards are going to target a narrower demographic. If the award is $800, but it’s only for female high school seniors in a single county in Iowa, for example, there won’t be as many applicants.” Fewer applicants means your chances of winning the award may be higher.

Sure, the effort it takes to complete a scholarship application that provides just a few hundred dollars may not seem worth it, but there’s another way to think about it. “If you spend two hours on a scholarship that awards you $800,” Ladd explains, “you’ve just earned $400 per hour. That beats mowing lawns or working at the local ice cream parlor!”

Not to mention, small scholarships can add up quickly and then they won’t seem so small. Here, recipients share how the smaller awards they earned made big impacts in their college lives.

Lowered My Stress Level

While a small scholarship won’t cover your semester’s tuition, it can help close the gap if you’re looking for a way to pay for books or living expenses. When Julia Laxer, a student at Portland State University, was notified that she’d won $500 through the John Connor Memorial Book Award Scholarship, she says she cried with relief. Although her tuition was covered by a Pell Grant, Laxer’s financial situation still meant she was stretched thin. “I was impoverished, and money equals survival,” she says. She used the award money to purchase basics, like clothing and medication. “Being able to buy much-needed items meant less stress,” Laxer explains. And less stress meant Laxer could devote herself more fully to studying and enjoying college.

Motivated Me to Succeed

As a high school graduate headed to the University of South Alabama, Jimena Bellido won an $800 scholarship from the Hispanic American Business Association of the Gulf Coast. The award money went toward covering her freshman orientation costs and paying for books, but the award itself paid off in an even bigger way: It gave her the motivation to succeed in school. Receiving the scholarship served as validation that Bellido was on the right track. “This small accomplishment inspired me to excel as a college student and focus on my studies,” she says.

Put Me on My Career Path

When Vee Shahab was selected to receive a $1,000 scholarship through the Kyle Zuleg Memorial Scholarship Foundation, it set her on an academic path at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. When Shahab won the scholarship as a high school senior, she had been considering studying journalism, but wasn’t completely sure which direction to take for her major. Since the scholarship was directed at students pursuing a journalism-related degree, Shahab explains, “I felt like this was a sign, and I went forward with my degree from there.” After earning a degree in broadcast journalism, she has used her education to launch a career in marketing, communications, and public relations.

While the advantages of large sum scholarships may be more immediately apparent, you shouldn’t overlook the perks of smaller awards as any amount of free money can help make a dent in your college expenses. And who knows? Winning a small scholarship could change your life in unexpected and important ways. But, you’ll never know unless you apply.

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