How to Get a Full-Ride Scholarship for College

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Jeff White, CEPF

By Jeff White, CEPF

February 2, 2023

A college education can allow you to build a lucrative, rewarding career in the field of your choice. However, it comes at a price: students enrolling in a four-year undergraduate degree in 2023 will pay somewhere between $110,000 and $240,000 over the course of the program.

Scholarships make higher education more accessible, and better still, a full-ride scholarship can be your complete solution to paying for college. Furthermore, there are probably more options for these kinds of scholarships than you think.

What Is a Full-Ride Scholarship?

A full-ride scholarship is a financial award that can be awarded based on academic performance, athletics, or other factors, and is designed to cover the entirety of your college degree.

While some people refer to full-ride scholarships as meaning funding that covers all of your tuition, they’re typically more comprehensive than that. Usually, full-ride scholarships cover all of your college expenses: not just tuition, but also everything else you need to pay for to support your education, such as books, lab fees, accommodation, and meals. Some full-ride scholarships even include a stipend that you can use to pay for additional living expenses.

How to Get a Full-Ride Scholarship

Being awarded a full-ride scholarship may seem like a pipe dream, and it’s true that these kinds of awards are highly competitive. However, if you meet the requirements, preparing a strong application can go a long way to helping you to get that coveted scholarship and be able to go to college without worrying about how you’ll pay for your education.

Here’s a quick step-by-step guide to how to apply for full-ride scholarships. 

1. Evaluate Your Strengths

Most full-ride scholarships are awarded based on merit, so you’ll need to demonstrate excellence in a particular area to be successful. Critically assess your strengths to determine which type of scholarship, if any, you have a chance of being awarded.

2. Build Your Credentials

Selection committees for full-ride scholarships look for evidence that candidates meet certain criteria. For example, they look for a very strong GPA and/or SAT scores when awarding academic scholarships, exceptional performance in your high school sports team for athletic awards, or internships, club leadership, and official positions held for leadership scholarships.

Therefore, it’s important to build your experience and credentials in order to demonstrate you have the qualities and abilities that they’re looking for. The earlier you can start this process, the better, in order to build your credentials. At a minimum, you should start working towards building your academic, athletic, or leadership record in your junior year of high school.

3. Research Possible Scholarships

Next, it’s time to identify potential scholarships you may wish to apply for. Try to cast your net as wide as possible, as the more applications you submit, the greater your chances of success. Having said that, don’t spread yourself too thin: it’s better to put in fewer, stronger applications than a large number of hastily-prepared ones.

4. Check the Requirements

Full-ride scholarship requirements vary depending on the program, ranging from required documentation and a minimum high school GPA  needed to apply to limiting candidates to certain demographic groups. Be sure to check each program’s individual requirements to ensure that you are eligible for consideration, as well as see what documentation you need to pull together ahead of submitting your application.

5. Gather Your Supporting Documentation

Once it gets closer to the time to submit your scholarship applications, start gathering the supporting documents you’ll need.

Although requirements vary from program to program, most ask for:

  • Academic transcripts
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Details of extracurricular history
  • Personal essay

Be sure not to leave this to the last minute, as pulling everything together can take some time.

6. Submit Your Application

Finally, it’s time to put in your application! Take your time to prepare the strongest possible application to give yourself the best chance of success, and carefully check it over for errors, incorrect information, or missing elements before submitting. It can be a good idea to ask a family member or your school career counselor to look over your application before you send it.

A limited number of scholarships are awarded on a first-come-first-served basis, so be sure to put your application in as early as possible rather than waiting for the deadline.

Different Types of Full-Ride Scholarships

How much a full-ride scholarship is worth can vary depending on the program’s specific cost of attendance. Each school publishes a cost of attendance (CoA) for its programs, which covers tuition, educational supplies, housing, and meals, and this is generally used as a basis for calculating the value of the full-ride scholarship. Therefore, full-ride scholarships can easily be worth $100,000 or more for programs with a higher cost of attendance, notably at more expensive Ivy League schools. You can usually check the cost of attendance on the school’s website.

Similarly, requirements for a full-ride scholarship vary depending on the program. Most scholarships are based on merit of some kind – whether academic, athletic, artistic or something else – rather than financial need. This is in contrast to grants and other types of financial aid, which are typically awarded to students with the highest financial need.

The most common types of merit-based full-ride scholarships are:

  • Academic scholarships: Based on excellent academic performance
  • Athletic scholarships: For those who excel in various types of sports
  • Leadership scholarships: Awarded to students who demonstrate exceptional leadership qualities through school or extra-curricular activities

Having said that, there are some scholarship programs that are needs-based, and others are awarded based on a combination of merit and need, as well as demographics. For example, some scholarships are awarded based on merit, but only consider candidates from a specific gender, background, or heritage.

Where to Find Scholarships

If you’re wondering how to get a full ride to college, you’ll need to do extensive research in order to find all of the scholarships that you’re eligible for.

Full-ride scholarships come from a range of sources, most commonly:

  • Government: There are a number of full-ride scholarships offered by the US Government and its institutions, including the US Air Force, the US Navy, and the US Department of Agriculture.
  • Colleges: A range of schools offer full-ride scholarships to their students, so check with the schools you’re applying to see if they offer these types of awards and how you can apply.
  • Private foundations and companies: There is a diverse range of organizations, foundations, and companies that offer scholarships to deserving students, including full-ride awards. In some cases, these are only offered to the child or spouses of company employees.

Tips for Getting a Full-Ride Scholarship

So, how do you get a full-ride scholarship? You’ll need to focus your efforts on finding the right scholarship for you. Almost all scholarships are highly competitive and this is especially the case for full-ride scholarships, as many students want to take advantage of these generous programs.

In order to give yourself the best chance of success, follow these tips:

  • Apply for as many different types of funding as possible, including institutional need-based financial aid, institutional merit-based scholarships, and private merit and need-based scholarship programs.
  • Build strong relationships with your teachers and mentors – not only can they give you excellent advice on what scholarships to apply to and how to prepare a strong application, but they’ll also be more likely to write a winning letter of recommendation for you.
  • If you’re aiming for an academic scholarship, focus not only on getting great grades but also doing so in challenging subjects. Many selection committees look for candidates who have done well in honors, advanced placement, and other challenging courses.
  • Start researching scholarship applications early, and make a note of all potential scholarship programs and their deadlines. Work out which scholarships to prioritize based on their deadline and how likely you are to be successful.
  • Don’t submit the same, template personal essay for every scholarship application – make sure you tailor each essay to the scholarship you’re applying for and what they’re looking for.

Other Ways to Reduce College Costs

You don’t necessarily need to secure a scholarship that covers all of your tuition and expenses in order to get a full ride to college. There is a range of ways that you can secure funding for the university, and reducing your college costs can also go a long way to making higher education more affordable.

Ways to fund and reduce college costs include:

  • Apply to other scholarship programs: Even if they don’t offer a full ride, you can still combine them with other scholarships or other types of funding options to fully cover your college education.
  • Apply for federal financial aid: You can start by submitting the FAFSA as soon as possible after it opens on October 1 every year – this is important as some aid deadlines are much earlier than the overall FAFSA deadline.
  • Save for college with a 529 plan or Coverdell ESA: You can leverage the tax benefits of these plans to maximize your savings, especially if you start early.

The Bottom Line

Although awards that cover your tuition and all expenses are highly-competitive, it’s possible to get a full-ride scholarship if you excel in academics, sports, or leadership, and can demonstrate this excellence effectively in your application.

However, if your application is not successful, don’t despair. It may still be possible to get a free ride to college with a combination of scholarships and financial aid, or at least cover your expenses with a combination of some of these and a savings plan or similar, and avoid getting stuck with problematic student debt.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Do all schools offer full-ride scholarships? 

Not all schools offer full-ride scholarships, but there are many that do offer full-ride scholarships based on academic merit. The US Government, as well as a number of foundations and companies also offer full-ride scholarships. 

Can transfer students earn full-ride scholarships?

Although the options are more limited, there are full-ride scholarships available to transfer students, such as those offered by the University of Alabama, Boston University, and the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation.

What’s the difference between full-ride and full-tuition scholarships? 

A full-ride scholarship usually refers to scholarships that cover all of your tuition, housing, meals, and educational expenses, based on your program’s cost of attendance. In contrast, a full tuition scholarship only covers the program tuition, and you’ll need to pay for the other expenses related to your college education.

A good place to start:

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