The Scholarship Search Doesn’t Stop at External Scholarships

When planning in advance to graduate with a debt-free college degree, one of the most important components to examine from every possible angle is scholarships. Researching colleges with outstanding merit scholarships to offer students with your test score range and grades is the foundation to building a financially-conscious college list. You’re also likely building another list of external scholarships for your major, which is another great avenue to apply scholarships toward your degree. But for a truly debt-free college degree, you should know that the quest for scholarships does not stop at merit scholarships. 

If price is a large factor in your college search, you should consider merit scholarships as the “intro-level” of finding scholarship funds at your dream school. These are the funds that are covered in depth on every website and blog post, the major predetermined and publicised funds most schools offer to attract incoming freshmen. These funds can be negotiable at private colleges and more rigid at public universities. While these funds are the most important to research in advance, as their tendency to be renewable for multiple years means they will likely have the largest impact on the long-term finances of your college decision, they are not the only source of funds to be found on campus. 

Departmental scholarships are a major source of funding towards your degree which often goes overlooked by prospective students. How are these funds different from merit scholarships? Well, departmental funds are the college’s answer to offering more incentive to top students without going through the Office of Admissions, and another well of potential funding for your own education within this department at this school. 

Each major falls within a larger group of similar majors to create a department. For instance, majors like Literature, Psychology and History may fall into the department of Arts and Sciences, while Computer Science, Mechanical Engineering and Construction would fall into the department of Engineering. With the departments separated out in this way, each department also has their own funds to control and use as needed for recruitment. This means these funds are more flexible and can be distributed at the discretion of each department. They also may come from a variety of sources, usually alumni funds or memorial funds, with the possibility of having more sources to pull additional funding. 

Now, you are probably curious to see a student profile of the students who win these awards, and how to ensure that you will be a great candidate for departmental scholarships. Departments are specifically looking for top students to offer these awards, especially in any science field. Department heads will value the brightest talent and the applicants with the most potential for putting their research on the map. When applying to these scholarships, keep in mind that these awards are reserved for additional recruiting, so make sure you are presenting yourself as a student who deserves their additional funding. 

The secret to winning these department funds is to convince them that you are either already an expert in their field, or have big plans to become the next major name in the game. Showing them that you have already had your work published, raised a substantial amount of donations through a charity project within the realm of your major to demonstrate your passion, or have become a leader in a local organization in the field are all perfect ways to rise above the competition for the award. If you are still stuck on ideas, you are welcome to check out a longer article on building an impressive resume for college at

So how do you access these hidden funds? The first step is to apply to your chosen schools. Some schools list a few of their departmental scholarships on their websites or the admissions main website, which is a great indicator that there may be more funds or awards than are published. You will not be able to apply for these additional scholarships until you have been accepted by the school. 

Departmental scholarships typically require an additional application, often asking you to detail your leadership experience, community service work, or minority background. Again, some of these awards are not made public, so you should inquire about these scholarships immediately after receiving an offer of admission. If you don’t ask, you will never know what awards could be available. 

For a timeline, keep in mind that departmental scholarships often have early deadlines, in January, February and March. Applying to every school on your list by their Early Action deadline, or before December for any college with rolling admissions, will ensure that you are on schedule to pursue departmental awards. Immediately upon receiving an offer of admission, reach out to a few people in the department of your major to inquire into additional awards, and be prepared to explain why you feel you are deserving of these funds. 

If you find yourself needing additional guidance finding hidden avenues of funds in addition to merit and departmental scholarships, such as work study programs, the FAFSA or state grants, I highly recommend following the expert advice found throughout the pages in DebtFreeCollegeGrad or contacting me at MoonPrep for individual scholarship tutoring. Keep in mind that you are not alone in this journey to an affordable education, and there are experts on the other end of the college equation with years of experience we are eager to share with you.   

Michaela Schieffer is a former admissions counselor, now sharing her experience as an independent college counselor at, guiding students through applications and essays for Ivy League schools and direct medical (BS/MD) programs. 

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