How to Know a Scholarship is Legit

by Bethany Goldszer | Last Updated: June 29, 2021

When you’re looking for money to pay for college, it’s hard to know if a scholarship is legit. It’s a big waste of time to apply for scammy scholarships that don’t lead to any wins. There are many scholarships disguised as marketing efforts by companies who want your private information.

In this post, you’ll learn how to avoid fake scholarships. I’ll show you how to review a scholarship listing and tell if the scholarship is legitimate and worth applying for. When you find and apply for real scholarships, they are easier to win, stack up and pay for college to graduate with no student loan debt.

Key Takeaways

Table of Contents

Where to find legit scholarships

Whether the scholarship is legit, depends first on where you look to begin with. Unfortunately, most students will head to popular websites like Fastweb.com.  Sites like these seem like a great resource because they promote a comprehensive listing of millions of scholarships. However, if you depend on the big scholarship search sites, get ready to trudge through a sea of fake scholarships.

What makes a scholarship fake? Fake scholarships are for marketing purposes only. Their goal is not to help you pay for college. Instead, companies will announce a scholarship. They may call the scholarship “The No Essay Contest” and claim they award one to a new student every month to collect your private information to sell you something later.

Scholarship listings that are least likely to lead to an award are easy to spot.

No essay requirement. A scholarship that is a scam often don’t require an essay. Low requirements mean that tens of thousands of students like you, eager to find money for college, will apply. The less work required, the more likely you are to give your private information. However, I am warning you not to fall prey to this scam. Your private information is valuable. Protect it from the lure of a scholarship that is likely a scam.

Everyone and anyone can apply. The eligibility criteria are loose. The only requirement is that you live in the United States (for tax purposes) and be a high school or college student. The more information they collect, the better. Minimum requirements mean that there are minimal barriers to many students applying and sharing their data. 

No previous winners. When you look on the scholarship website, you don’t see anything listed about any previous winners. Even if you Google the scholarship, you can’t find anything about anyone ever winning this award. If this is the case, it’s likely fake. 

Ask for money. Also, if a listing asks you to pay a fee to read about or enter the scholarship contest, then click away fast. This reeks of scam. A legit scholarship would never ask you to pay a fee to apply.

Also, this type of scholarship scam is something the Federal Trade Commission warns against. On their website, here are warning signs the FTC says to look out for:

  • Scammers say: “The scholarship is guaranteed or your money back.”
  • Scammers say: “You can’t get this information anywhere else.”
  • Scammers say: “I just need your credit card or bank account number to hold this scholarship.”
  • Scammers say: “We’ll do all the work. You just pay a processing fee.”
  • Scammers say: “The scholarship will cost some money.”
  • Scammers say: “You’re a finalist [for a contest you never entered].”

Also, never give your social security number or bank account information to a scholarship application. You may have to provide these details to claim scholarship winnings for tax reporting purposes, but never before you apply.

Overall, when a scholarship is not real, there’s no clear purpose for the scholarship. It reads like a sweepstake drawing. I have never had a student win any of these scholarships. So you should avoid these scholarships and focus on real opportunities instead. 

What All Real Scholarship Listings Have

student searching on google

The best scholarship search engine is Google. You can use Google to find the exact scholarships that you’re eligible for. If you learn about a scholarship on another search engine, you can use Google to check that a scholarship is real by finding the original listing on the sponsor’s website. 

When you find a scholarship listing, here’s what to look for:

  • The name of the scholarship and organization should read like a collegial scholarship opportunity. It shouldn’t sound like marketing. For example, the Thurgood Marshall Scholarship is a real scholarship. It’s named for a historical figure to memorialize his commitment to education. Also, the byline shows the scholarship’s purpose, “where education pays off,” and the sponsor outlines who the scholarship is looking to help, students who have urgent financial need.
  • There are several eligibility criteria, such as location, GPA, affiliation, financial need, to name a few. Eligibility criteria create limits on how many students can apply. The more eligibility criteria, the fewer students will apply, and the greater chances you have of winning the scholarship.
  • You have to write an essay. Although essays may be no fun to write because it means more work for you. Most students feel the same and will choose not to apply. As a result, this increases your chances of winning. When scholarships want you to write an essay, the sponsor wants to learn about you. A real scholarship will want to spend the time reading your essays and award the scholarship to the most worthy student.
  • You can read about previous winners. Real scholarships will list previous year winners. This is a fantastic opportunity to help you build your own application. See what worked for those winners and learn why the scholarship committee awarded them the scholarship. Also, you should be able to Google their names to find news articles that announced the scholarship winner so that you know that there are real students who are winning the award before you do the work of writing the essay. 
  • You can contact the sponsor. Somewhere in the listing, you should find the contact information for the sponsor, including their name, email address, and website. With this information, you’ll use it to reach out to the sponsor for questions. You can learn more about the opportunity, ask a question, and begin building a relationship with the sponsor.

So, these are the things that I want you to pay attention to as you find legitimate scholarships. 

Focus on Local Scholarships

students deciding about local scholarships

To increase your chances of finding real scholarships, you should focus primarily on local scholarships. Many scholarship search engines will show you national scholarships open to all students across the United States. For reasons discussed earlier, the more students who apply, the least likely you are to win.

Local scholarships, however, have fewer students applying and will have many of the qualifications of real scholarships outlined in this post. When you’re thinking about if a scholarship is “real” or “fake,” often the issue comes down to competitiveness. So the more students that apply for a scholarship opportunity, the less likely you will win it. Then it feels like a scam to you. You never had a shot. With so many students applying to a national scholarship, the scholarship sponsor may only notify the winner. Most students never hear back from national scholarship contests. Has that happened to you? How does that make you feel? Pretty bad, right. And it probably is the reason you hesitate to go all-in on the scholarship game.

But I can assure you that scholarships are worth it. I have so many student stories to share, that scholarships are the fastest way to pay for college and help you avoid student loan debt. Just follow the steps in this post to know if a scholarship is legit before you devote the time and effort to applying.

Conclusion + Next Steps

Try to avoid big scholarship engines. Use the methods shared in the post How to Find Scholarships. If you do use scholarship search engines, make sure you know how to tell if the scholarship is legit. Using the tips in this post, you should avoid fake scholarships and focus on applying for real scholarships that lead to money to pay for college.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Was this article helpful?
Bethany Goldszer is top college admissions and financial aid expert. She's been featured in HuffPost, USA Today, Newsday, Queens Gazette, and Official Black Wall Street & voted Best of Long Island. Faced with the overwhelming stress of applying, getting admitted to and financing her University of Chicago education, she started Stand Out College Prep LLC in 2012 so that no student or parent would have to go through this process alone. Over the last 15 years, Bethany has worked with over 1,500 students, helping them and their parents get into their top choice colleges and secure more than $20M in financial aid and scholarships. And each year, she continues to help more students stand out in the college admissions process and their parents navigate financial aid and scholarships.