Navigating the world of scholarships can be a challenge.

It’s hard to know where to start and how to find them. Even so, it is an endeavor worth pursuing because they can provide free money to help pay for college. 

The main obstacle for students looking into scholarships is time — there are so many options and simply not enough time to apply to all of them. It can feel overwhelming. But there is another issue: the myths surrounding scholarships. So if you’re going to invest effort into researching and applying for them, you should be aware of the common misconceptions.

Here are common falsehoods surrounding the scholarship process and the facts you should know.

Myth 1: You Need Good Grades to Get a Scholarship

You absolutely can get scholarships even if you don’t have stellar grades. Kevin N. Ladd, COO of Scholarships.com, encourages students to shoot for As because that certainly helps with academic-based scholarships. But, there are a number of scholarship opportunities that aren’t based on GPA. 

If your grades aren’t top notch, get creative with your scholarship search. Identify your other strengths and interests, and search for scholarships specifically targeted to those areas. Your talents, financial means, geographic location or community service could qualify you for scholarships. Amanda Gilliam, of Briar Patch Educational and Career Consulting, says identity is an increasingly common non-academic scholarship criteria. “I’ve seen tons of legitimate scholarships and grants for trans, disabled, older and nontraditional students offered by advocacy accounts on Instagram and Facebook.” Gilliam notes, however, that these scholarships are often advertised outside the typical scholarship search resources but are worth the extra effort to locate them.

“A family may get more funding from a school that can offer merit-based scholarships.”

– Chad Dorman

Myth 2: Athletics Guarantee a Full Ride

Getting a full athletic scholarship is “the dream of every athlete,” says Jon Fugler, author of The Athletic Scholarship Playbook, on the College Covered podcast. But in reality, those scholarships are rare. 

Fugler explains that most athletic scholarships actually aren’t full rides. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) reports that only 2% of athletes receive some form of scholarship. While there are certain sports where full tuition is offered — like football, basketball, volleyball, tennis and gymnastics — the others, he says, typically extend partial scholarships. Highly talented athletes can get 70 to 80% scholarships, but for most sports — baseball, for example — scholarships generally have a limit of 11.7%.

Chad Dorman, founder of Leonard Andrew Consulting, recommends that student-athletes and their families compare all financial aid offers and not assume that an athletic scholarship will be their best option. “A family may get more funding from a school that can offer merit-based scholarships.”

Myth 3: Once You Get a Scholarship, You’re Set 

Some scholarships are free money to apply toward your education, and you’re good to go once the check clears — but for recurring scholarships, there may be conditions you must continue to meet each year to remain eligible. You need to read the fine print and ensure that you’re fulfilling whatever obligations necessary to keep that cash coming in. “Some scholarships require students to participate in seminars [and] public presentations and fulfill other duties in order to renew funding. I always advise students and families to know what the criteria are for maintaining the scholarship before they accept it,” Gillam says. 

Even athletic scholarships are subject to review. “While some Division I programs may offer multiyear scholarships, many of these financial awards must be renewed at the conclusion of each academic year,” Dorman says. Grades, athletic performance and academic eligibility all factor into extending the scholarship. 

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Myth 4: You’re More Likely to Win a Scholarship If You Pay a Fee

If you have to pay a fee to apply for a scholarship, it may mean that you’re not in fact applying for a scholarship opportunity. Gilliam explains that sometimes scholarships you pay for are profit-making endeavors. How can you tell the difference between a scheme and a scholarship? Gilliam says to be wary of any offers that claim to guarantee a scholarship if you pay a fee because that’s simply not how legitimate scholarships work. In addition, you should steer clear of any “scholarship” that asks for your Social Security number. That could be a ploy to steal your identity. 

Gilliam suggests setting up an email account specifically for scholarship offers. That will make it easy to keep track of potential offers while also alerting you if any faux-scholarship sites sold your email address to marketers. You should immediately unsubscribe from any scholarship junk mail that doesn’t apply to you.

Myth 5: Only Students of Certain Means Can Get Scholarships

Many believe that scholarships are exclusively for students who can afford tutors, college consultants and test prep courses. Others think the opposite: Scholarships are limited to students who can demonstrate extreme financial need. As it turns out, neither is true.

Gilliam has seen students from both affluent and impoverished families secure scholarships. If you have the time to research opportunities, she says it’s very likely that every student can find at least a handful of scholarships that fit their situation, financial or otherwise. “My best advice? Go ahead and apply,” she says. “Someone’s gotta win. … Why not you?”

If you’re in the process of applying for scholarships, separating fact from fiction is essential. For more tips from these experts on how to be proactive and increase your chances to win scholarships, as well as more red flags and how to avoid them, tune in to the “How Do I Get Scholarships?” episode of the College Covered podcast.

Interviews for this article were conducted in 2020.