Let’s make one thing clear from the top: there’s no shame in failing to get a full-ride scholarship to a college or university. Most people don’t, and if they were so easy to come by, we wouldn’t be discussing them right now. But I know some people come from families that are pressuring them to be perfect students. Some people can’t afford college unless it’s mostly paid for up front (especially knowing how student loans are these days), and some just want that prestige. So, while this is by no means a foolproof method, this is every step and action you can take to boost your chances of a full-ride if you really, really want one.
Start Doing All of This Now
If you’re reading this, it’s either because you love our articles and you’re reading every one all the way through, or you’re currently a high school student who just Googled* “how to get a full-ride.” Hopefully you’re only a freshman planning ahead because the experts would say getting a full-ride is the product of hard work and good habits going back as early as elementary school. Or less dramatically, it should’ve started around the time the school system started splitting you and your classmates up by your GPAs and test scores.
If you’re a junior or senior already and you’re far from a prospective valedictorian or a superstar athlete, I’m not going to say it’s impossible now to right your path, but every passing day means you’ll have more work to do and less time to do it. But don’t worry, I’ll explain more about that later down the road.
*(Or you used some other search engine, but… no, you didn’t.)
Learn How to Learn
You don’t have to be an outright nerd to get a full-ride scholarship, but it would certainly help. You don’t need to be at the very top of your class, but it would really, really help.
You need to be the best student you can be. You need to be in the best classes you can be in. You need to push yourself academically. Do your homework, study, and prep for standardized tests as well as tests in the classroom. Ask for help if you think you need it even a little bit.
Choose classes wisely. Think about it: would it be more helpful to take Intro to Computer Science or Wood Shop? Also consider how many classes of a subject you should take. For example, if you could’ve taken a foreign language in middle school and continued all through high school, you’ll be expected to have done so.
Also understand that a B in an advanced class is better than an A in a “regular” class. Not all schools leave this up to choice, but if you can elect to take an AP course, do it. And by all means, take the AP test at the end, or else you’ll have wasted your time.
Also, be prepared to take other standardized tests multiple times. For example, at my public high school, we weren’t given the complete version of the ACT (which is the alternative to the SAT favored by flyover states). Our ACT didn’t have the writing portion, which is required for acceptance at most “good” colleges and universities. Many of us were forced to take the ACT a second time with the writing portion, and to match or beat our original score. The moral of this is to be prepared to run into similar situations.
Here’s the annoying thing: these preparations – AP tests, second or third ACTs, standardized test prep-courses – also cost money. You literally are expected to spend money to make money. If you’re shooting for a full-ride because you indisputably need the financial help, you’ll need to decide which of these tools are essential. You may want to hit up your guidance counselor to help you make these choices.
Participate and Participate Well
Don’t just participate in class, but in extracurriculars as well. Colleges like people who show leadership potential, so pick a club or organization you can not only enjoy, but plan to stick with and emerge as a leader. Again, choose wisely. Business Club looks better than Comic Book Club, but if you also want to join Comic Book Club, go ahead. Run that one, too, and highlight it on your résumé.
Try at least one sport to show you’re well-rounded. In a rare moment of my school being chill, nobody was ever cut from the tennis team so the kids who weren’t actually good at sports could have one on their résumés. Maybe your school has a similar setup?
Now, I’m not telling you to throw your social life away, but if that’s the conclusion you’re drawing from all this, well, I’m not going to correct you.
This was a tough pill to swallow: for all the complaining my classmates and I did about obscene homework loads, it’s kind of the way it was meant to be. We moaned, “These teachers think we don’t have a life outside of school,” but, yeah, we weren’t supposed to.
In the eyes of government and society, at that age, “student” is your occupation. For all any adult cares, learning and becoming a functioning member of society is supposed to be your only goal, and leisure and autonomy are something you get when you earn it. Whether it’s wrong for the world to operate this way is irrelevant, because if you’re going for a full-ride scholarship, it might just help to embrace it. Besides, that prestige might help you change the world later.
Know Your Options and Choose Them All
Should you look for scholarships based on the study you want to major in or the schools you want to attend? Should you apply to scholarships funded by the school, the state, the federal government, or a private third-party? Should you apply to obscure schools you’ve never heard of that might be less competitive or for the school everybody else in your graduating class is going to attend?
Exhaust every option. Research new options. Leave no stone unturned. Let there be no “unknown unknowns.” Look where nobody else is looking.
Certain scholarships might be tied to specific majors; this can be good if you want to major in those, but it limits the pool if you don’t. Conversely, obscure schools with specialty academics might dole out scholarships for an obscure major.
Then there are the eccentric millionaires giving away money to add to their legacy. Many of these scholarships won’t be full-rides, but if you’re creative and industrious enough, there’s no reason you can’t chain a bunch of them together and make them add up. You just have to look everywhere and try every path you can. I can’t elaborate much more than that.
Make Yourself Like School
Honestly, one of the most hurtful stereotypes about nerds is the notion they like school. I assure you, most of them just see it as a necessary evil. Just like a job you’re less than 100% in love with, getting ahead in school takes a lot of bearing and grinning.
Nobody told me this until the last possible minute, but you need a letter of recommendation to get into most colleges. You’ll probably need more than one if you’re looking into a full-ride. These usually come from a teacher or guidance counselor (so be sure to be on good terms with yours), but bonus points if you can get one from some higher-up academic or professional. These people will be more willing to help you out for your good attitude than for your good grades. They can also be a good networking tool, connecting you to opportunities and scholarships the Internet won’t even tell you about.
Do you want a full-ride scholarship more than anything else in the world? Well then, convince them of it.
Speaking of being convincing…
You’ll certainly have to write an essay at some point to get a full-ride scholarship. The topic will invariably be something relating to you and your relationship with the world in which you live. Be prepared to make yourself look good. Indulge in self-confidence. Show you want to learn at their institution and demonstrate you need money to do that.
Remember when I said earlier it wasn’t necessarily too late to get on track? If you think you’re cutting it close, try to acknowledge it. Play it up as you turning your young life around and realizing education is important, and since that moment of clarity, you’ve done everything you can** to strive for the best college experience you can get. Cite some “Best Improved” award or something impressive like that. If you’re a good enough writer to pull it off, I would say you deserve a full-ride.
**For best results, you should have actually done all you can, and have ample evidence to back it up
Have a Backup Plan
I’m not just saying have a backup plan because it’s a statistical likelihood you won’t get the full-ride, nor because people will accuse me of being irresponsible if I don’t say something along those lines. I’m saying this because the kind of high school student with the foresight to make backup plans is probably also into the same habits as the high schooler who will get that full-ride scholarship.