One of the most frequently discussed topics at scholarship workshops is how to distinguish between legitimate scholarships and scams. Scholarship scam artists prey upon college students who are desperate for funding. This desperation leads students to believe offers, such as “win the best scholarships for a small fee” or “you’ve been selected to win a special scholarship” (for which you have never applied). The worst scammers will not only take your twenty dollars and give you a generic list of scholarships, but they will take your personal information and use it for fraudulent purposes.

What can you do to avoid being scammed?

For starters, the Federal Trade Commission advises students to avoid scholarship opportunities that use the following phrases to entice you:

  • “The scholarship is guaranteed or your money back.”
  • "You can't get this information anywhere else."
  • "I just need your credit card or bank account number to hold this scholarship."
  • "We'll do all the work."
  • "The scholarship will cost some money."
  • "You've been selected" by a "national foundation" to receive a scholarship - or "You're a finalist" in a contest you never entered.


When you apply for scholarships you will most likely need to share some personal information, but think carefully before sharing your social security number, place of birth, children’s names, or other highly personal data. Ask yourself, “Why do they need this information?”

As a scholarship professional, I have seen thousands of scholarship applications produced by scholarship sponsors, associations, foundations, and employers, and most are perfectly acceptable. If an application looks questionable, however, I do my own research as a precaution. For example, I might visit the sponsor’s website to learn more about them or enter their name in a search engine to see what kinds of articles or documents surface about them. If I still have questions or need verification of a fact, I make a call or send an email with my specific questions about the application or the organization. Some scholarships are managed by volunteers and it can take a few days or weeks to hear back. If I do not receive a response within a few weeks, then I question if anyone is really “in charge,” and if anyone will even review the applications. Lastly, if the organization does not provide a phone number, email, or postal address by which to reach someone, then I would be suspicious.

Another tip for avoiding scams is that you should never pay a fee to apply for a scholarship. The only exception to the “no pay” rule is if you join an organization or association as part of your eligibility for the scholarship. For example, I am aware of several organizations that offer scholarships to their members, but you must be an active member and have paid your dues before you are eligible for the membership benefits, such as their scholarships.

If you are having trouble figuring out if a scholarship is a scam, then it is best to get a second opinion. Ask a counselor, advisor, co-worker or someone else you trust to help you decide if it is a legitimate opportunity. The University of Phoenix has staff available to steer you in the right direction.

SPECIAL NOTE: The excerpt from the government website is in the public domain and is used with a source credit.