As you scan the Internet hoping to find a scholarship, your eyes are bombarded with multiple criteria. “Must be a leader,” “Must be a motivated first-generation student,” or “Must have a 3.0 grade point average.” How do you make sense of it all? Which scholarships are good matches for you?

For starters, you should recognize that you are the best person to find scholarships for you. No one else better understands your personal characteristics, family history, goals, aspirations, and academic achievements. It all starts with you.

To find the best fit of possible scholarships, write down everything you can recall about yourself on the academic side and the personal side. The majority of scholarships are based on merit, or academic achievement, but many scholarship providers target individuals based on their accomplishments, hardships, financial need, racial or ethnic heritage, career goals and more. You need to uncover your past, document your present, and think about your future to uncover scholarships that truly match your profile.

Too many students shortchange themselves because they conduct a generic search for scholarships that neglects the “whole” person. For instance, if you are a self-described “single mother” and you only look for scholarships offered to single mothers, you are missing many opportunities. Likewise, if you want to become an accountant and only seek scholarships for accountants, you are limiting yourself.

Students who excel at this process have learned the keywords, based on their personal situation, that lead to scholarship money. A few examples, although there are many more, include:

  • “First-generation” describes a student who is the first in their family to attend college or graduate from college.
  • “Community service” describes volunteer work through a community organization, place of worship, school or other agency in which you have contributed your time, talent or expertise for the greater good.
  • “Non-traditional student” describes someone who perhaps did not pursue college right out of high school.
  • “Returning adult” describes a student who may or may not have started college at a traditional age, but now, later in life, is seeking to finish earning a college degree.

As you widen your scholarship search, think of every possible angle. You should sign up for a free scholarship search service such as™ or Fastweb®. You also should conduct your own search.

If you focus solely on the Internet as your source for scholarships, you will miss the opportunities that never make it into the scholarship databases or the scholarship search engines. I suggest a process that includes online searches, print searches (newspapers, bulletins, etc.), and word-of-mouth (informing people you know about your need for money). Try to think locally and personally about how you are connected to organizations, associations, membership groups and more. Remember: it all starts with you!

To gather other helpful tips and advice, be sure to check out other articles from the Center for Scholarship Excellence (CSE).