Your Complete Guide To Full Ride Scholarships

Whether you’re just beginning the initial stages of your college search or you’ve already picked a favourite few universities, you’ve surely heard of – and probably dreamt of – the coveted and elusive full ride scholarship.

The real question is, how do you earn such a scholarship?

Before I uncover the secrets to getting a full ride scholarship, you must understand the fundamentals of what a full ride scholarship is, so let’s start at the very beginning:

What is a Full Ride Scholarship?

A full ride scholarship is essentially the holy grail of scholarships; it covers even more than a “full-tuition” scholarship by providing additional money for books, travel, living expenses, or other potential out of pocket expenses … you know, like beer and hot dogs and stuff.

Exactly what the full scholarship does and does not cover varies among schools/organisations, but the general idea is that recipients of full ride scholarships don’t have to pay a dime for any thing related to their university degree.

Usually the funds are earmarked on paper for certain purposes, say $600 for books, but once the funds are released to you, it’s your call how and where to spend that $600 … so, you know, beer and hot dogs and stuff.

The good news is that unlike the holy grail, we know for sure that these full ride scholarships do exist – and even better, we know where to find them!

The bad news is that they’re primarily merit-based scholarships, so to actually get a full ride, you have to be an extremely competitive candidate; which can also be translated to near-perfect candidate.

If you’re concerned that a full ride might be out of your reach, there’s also financial aid (which is offered at many more universities, too). Obviously, aid is not as prestigious a full ride, yet it’s still a huge boost to help make college affordable.

Financial Aid vs. Full Scholarships

Most top-tier American universities (think the Ivy League and smaller liberal arts schools such as Vassar and Williams) offer need-based financial aid, not full ride scholarships.

Need-based financial aid, is basically exactly what it sounds like: financial support offered based on the needs of the applicant.

Colleges use parental income and assets (and some complicated algorithms) to determine how much your family can afford to contribute toward your college education. Based on this, you may (or may not) be offered a designated amount of financial support.

Financial aid is usually a combination of grants (money you don’t have to pay back), work-study (typically an on-campus job for ~ 10 hours a week), and subsidised loans (loans that don’t start accruing interest until 6 months after you graduate, way cheaper than the unsubsidised loans the federal government hands out). So still a pretty good deal, right?

Yet, while most of these schools have large endowments and lots of money to give out, the admissions process is already so competitive that all admitted students do actually have the qualifications for a full ride (high GPA and test scores, good recommendation letters, stellar extracurricular and demonstrated leadership skills).

If these top schools were to offer full ride scholarships, it would simply become too difficult to further distinguish standouts among an already distinguished group of applicants. Instead, these schools opt to focus on making college more affordable to lower and middle income students.

If you’re one of those extremely rare students lucky enough to get financial aid from your university and a full ride scholarship from an outside source, the most likely outcome is that your university takes the scholarship money and subtracts that amount from the amount of your financial aid. If there is any money left over, that is usually released to you.

Slightly confusing, right? Let’s look at an example:

If your university gives you a a financial aid grant of $45,000, and you receive an outside scholarship worth $40,000, the university will just take the outside scholarship and reduce your grant to $5,000. You won’t notice the difference. On the other hand, if you receive an outside grant worth $50,000, the university will take $45,000 and release the remaining $5,000 to you.  

Still confused? Check out the video below to see if you can afford to study at a top-tier university.

Requirements for Full Ride Scholarships

Full ride scholarships are hard to find and even harder to get. Each year, fewer than 20,000 students will earn a private full-ride scholarship award.

20,000 actually sounds like a lot, but that’s only the smallest portion of the 20 million students who attend college each semester in the US. Doing some quick math, that’s literally a 1:1000 chance of receiving a full ride.

While this sounds grave, you can easily help the odds swing in your favour with hard work. Remember, like admissions, full ride scholarships are merit-based.

With full scholarships, each college’s intention is to entice top applicants who have a lot of choice in their college decision. This means the qualifications for receiving one are essentially the same as what top-tier universities are looking for in applicants - a high GPA and class rank, high standardised testing scores (pull out that SAT or ACT score!), evidence of leadership skills and quality, and demonstrated passion in extracurricular activities. The full package.

So if you’re already applying for top-tier universities, throw a few applications out there for full ride scholarships too.

Again, like the admissions process, the selection process for the limited full scholarships that are out there is looking at your resume and transcript.

You want to show that you’ve committed to following your passions in high school and that you’re eager to learn and accept new challenges – academic or otherwise.

Oh, and you’ll likely have to write an essay that expands on some aspect of your application: leadership experience, community service, or academic achievement. However, not all large scholarships require essays or additional materials.

How to Get a Full Ride Scholarship

As we’ve mentioned, because most top-tier universities don’t give out full ride scholarships, you should look to add some lesser known universities and state schools to your pool of colleges you’re applying to.

These schools want to attract highly qualified students – those who probably could choose a top-tier university – so, they offer them something that Yale and Tufts do not: a merit based scholarship.

Unfortunately, if you’re an international student, not all colleges will make full ride scholarships available to non-domestic students. To avoid disappointment, you’ll need to do some research.

Having said that, international students are eligible to receive full ride scholarships such as the Stamps Scholarship, which covers tuition, room and board, at some of the partner schools, including Barry University, Miami University (in Ohio, not Miami), Morehouse College, Oberlin College, Tulane University, University of Notre Dame, and the University of Mississippi.  

Additionally, Loyola Marymount University offers full ride scholarships exclusively for international students through the Arrupe Scholarship.

There’s always plenty of options available to help make colleges more affordable, whether through full ride scholarships or otherwise. It’s simply a matter of doing some research, speaking to the right people and working hard!

What are my other options?

If the competitive nature of full ride scholarships has you worried, fear not, there are many other ways of helping bridge the financial gap in affording college.

Subsidised loans, unsubsidised loans, work-study jobs, private scholarships, and (if you are a U.S. citizen) the federal government are all other avenues from which to seek extra funding.

Let’s take a quick look at some other avenues to make studying in the U.S of A a little easier on the old hip pocket:

  • Subsidised loans:
    • usually small loans offered through the financial aid office at your university. These loans don’t gain interest until after you graduate, saving you a nice chunk of change. International students may or may not be eligible, depending on the university.
  • Unsubsidised loans:
    • usually offered through the federal government, these loans do gain interest while you’re still in school, however they can normally be for larger amounts. International students are not eligible for these types of loans.
  • Federal Work-study:
    • part-time jobs for university students with financial need; usually work 10-15 hours a week; earn money to help with educational costs. International students are ineligible.
  • Private scholarships:
    • usually smaller (anywhere from $250-$10,000 or more) scholarships from some outside organisation. These scholarships typically have very specific criteria for candidates (a woman pursuing a degree in chemical engineering, or a minority student who intends to study humanities at an in-state institution, for example) and are often granted and distributed locally. Though small, receiving a number of these scholarships really does add up. Hardly any consider international students. There are larger private scholarships, such as
  • Federal Government:
    • The U.S. government offers a number of full -ride scholarships to citizens through military Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) programs. The government pays for your tuition, etc. and in exchange you train with the school’s ROTC group and prepare for service in the U.S. military post-graduation.

Full Ride Scholarships: Final Thoughts

Obviously, full ride scholarships can’t be for everyone. They’re essentially reserved for the best of the best on offer.

And while a full ride scholarship is obviously the best kind of scholarship, there’s still plenty of other options that help make college more affordable.

Of all forms of support, they all have one similarity: in order to receive any of them, you need to first gain admission.

That’s right, admission comes before aid and scholarships. For this reason, there’s no point getting hung up about cost and aid and scholarship, because it might have a negative influence on your application.

The best thing you can do is take a quick look at which full ride scholarships you think you can obtain and then work your butt of to make sure you’re hitting their requirements.

Even if you don’t get it, you’ll no doubt have plenty of other options available to you in the end. After all, you’re a champion, right?

Keep your head in the books, young one, and you’ll be on your way to full ride scholarship in no time. Godspeed.


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