How to Get a Full Ride Scholarship

The dream. The goal. With college tuition prices quickly on the rise, we can’t blame you for looking into how to get full ride scholarships. Why pay over $200,000 for a college degree when you can have it for free?!

But doesn’t this sound a little bit too good to be true? That’s because, it is. Although we hear about full ride scholarships quite frequently, it doesn’t happen very often.

We want to debunk the myth of how easy it is to get a full ride scholarship. For those that are still determined to be part of that small number, we’ve provided a guide below on how to get a full ride scholarship.

What is a Full Ride Scholarship?

Before we jump in, let’s quickly define what this means. A full ride scholarship provides complete financial coverage of tuition and fees, room, board and course-related books. Essentially, full ride scholarships financially cover everything but the red solo cups.

Sports/ Athletic Scholarships

Let's start with the biggest hype; full ride athletic scholarships. We hear about these most often because that’s who we hear most about in the media. Along with the full ride scholarships, many times students are also basking in the stardom at their universities with private dining facilities, tutors and more.

Fun Fact: Only about 0.12% of all high school athletes will receive a full ride scholarship to a university. According to the NCAA, where you can read more about the probability of playing athletics in college and professionally here.

.12% is close to nothing! The chances on receiving a full ride sports scholarship are slim, and extremely difficult to do. While sports and athletic recruiting can help students receive their golden tickets into universities, many won’t offer any financial assistance at all.

So who gets them and how do you get a full ride athletic scholarship? Here are the basics:

Depends on the Colleges Athletic Division

There are three athletic divisions; Division I, Division II, Division III. Athletic scholarships are only allowed to be given between Division I and Division II. These schools provide more than $2.9 billion in athletics scholarships annually to more than 150,000 student-athletes. Most of these students are receiving only partial athletic scholarships.

Although, we have heard rumors of schools packaging scholarships for students ‘creatively’ to recruit students and lure them in. An example of this would be the financial aid department offering the student athlete an academic scholarship along with their athletic scholarship. Check out this PDF by the NCAA that quotes that 80% of Division III athletes receive some form of scholarship/grant in the form of an ‘academic scholarship’. To that, we say: Veryyyy Interesting…

Depends on the sport

Different universities have different priorities in where they would like to spend their athletic recruiting scholarships. For some schools, this means that they want their football team to be the best, others maybe it’s volleyball, baseball or women’s rowing scholarships. The NCAA states the highest number of students playing sports in college come from these sports: Men’s Basketball, Women’s Basketball, Football, Baseball, Men’s Ice Hockey, Men’s soccer.

What’s your gender?

Did you notice something about the list above? A lotttt of men’s sports. While that may prove that there is more popularity for mens athletics, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing for women.

Heard of Title IX? Back in 1972, Title 9 leveled the playing field (pun intended) for men and women in universities, which today plays effect in athletic scholarships. You can read more about it here, the most important fact is that it mandates that female and male student-athletes receive athletics scholarship dollars proportional to their participation. Essentially, if there are 60% men and 40% women across a universities athletic departments, then 40% of all athletic scholarship funds have to go to women.

The opportunity is there. Get in on those scholarships ladies. By no means are we saying that is easy, because it’s not, but there are some things to be aware of. For example, the number of female crew teams more than doubled between 1995 and 1999 to help keep some men’s sports teams alive, according to this article. This not only led, and still leads to student acceptance at low admission rate schools such as Stanford and UC Berkeley, but also most opportunities or scholarships for women that haven’t been playing..or rowing since they were born.

One more piece of advice:

To help piece everything together of who plays what sports and where college athletic scholarship money is going, we recommend taking a look at this chart.

Next time you hear someone talking about how they plan on getting into a school with a full ride athletic scholarship to a university, just know; it’s not easy.

Academic, Institutional, University Scholarships

When advising students on scholarships, I always tell them that their best chances of receiving scholarships are from the universities themselves. Saying that, it’s important to keep in mind that colleges are all different and will give partial or full ride institutional scholarships based on their own priorities. Let us explain:

Need Based Financial Aid

Need based refers to a student’s financial need to afford the cost of attendance (COA) of a given school. COA not only includes a colleges cost of tuition, but also living, class materials, and everything else that adds up quickly in college. A student’s financial need is often determined by filling out FAFSA, and also by the CSS Profile.

Some universities and colleges will give only need based scholarships and no merit scholarships. Some schools will even meet a students ‘Full demonstrated need’. Meaning, if the FAFSA determines that your family should pay $0 for college, then based on admission, the college will pay your entire COA. The catch? Schools that meet full demonstrated need are the ones that are very difficult to get into and generally have very high endowments. Among some of these schools are Harvard, Dartmouth with a full and better list here.

Tip: There are some private organizations looking to help match low income high achieving students with scholarships from universities that meet their full financial need. If this sounds like it could be you, we suggest looking into organizations like QuestBridge. We also recommend looking into community based organizations near you to see how they can help.

Note: Loans. Some colleges say they meet full demonstrated need, however they may package your university financial aid statement with loans. Our feelings about loans will be saved for a different ‘how to (not)’ blog post.

Merit Scholarships

Merit scholarships can simply be defined as scholarships given for anything other than financial need. This includes athletics/sports, instrumental, academic, special skills and so forth. Your skills and their value are left to each university to judge and put a price tag on.


Boston University (BU) will offer scholarships based on the students they want to attract. For BU, their scholarships center around top performing students, international students and students who are contributing to their communities outside of school. You can see that here.

Offering a combination of need and merit is common, and BU is one of the universities that does this. One of favorites being the Richard D. Cohen Scholarship, which you can see by clicking this link.

Seattle University often offers scholarships for foster care students, international students and full ride 4 year scholarships for their Sullivan Leadership award which includes the criteria of academic excellence, leadership, service, communication and residence.

University Scholarship Charts using GPA & Test Score

Some universities, and often times they fall within the category of large public universities, will offer scholarships based on a students GPA and Test Scores. The better your GPA and test scores, the more money they will offer you. For example, you can check out University of Arizona’s chart here.

One more piece of advice:

The more you appeal to a university and fit a need in what they want, the more money they will offer you (generally speaking and if they have the funds to do so). If a school is trying to increase their diversity, chances are that’s where their scholarships are going to be centered. Universities use scholarships as a recruiting tool to attract and retain students that match their goals.

Private Full Ride Scholarships

Companies & Organizations

Organizations and companies that give scholarships are classified as ‘Private Scholarships’. Examples of organizations that offer full tuition assistance are Jack Kent Cooke Foundation (Young Scholars Program, College Scholarship program, Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship), SMART: Science, Mathematics, and Research for Transformation, and even Microsoft offers scholarships.

While these programs give out ‘golden tickets’, keep in mind they are just that. High competition and hard to receive. Below are some other suggestions when looking for full ride, or even partial scholarships to pair together to make into a full ride scholarship from private organizations:

  • Ask your college counselor about local scholarships. Some private organizations such as the local Rotary Club, AAUW or nearby retirement communities might offer scholarships that your counselor knows about.

  • Colleges/ University Databases. Even if the scholarships aren’t directly offered through a university, some colleges have their own databases that host scholarships available just for the university students or other local scholarships you might not know about

  • Parents Work - Some companies offer scholarship or tuition assistance programs for employees kids. Ask your employer or parents to see if there are any scholarships that can be applied for. Many of these go unclaimed every year!


ROTC stands for Reserve Officer Training Corps. Yes, we mean military. ROTC is a college program offered at over 1,700 colleges and universities across the United States with the goal to prepare students to become officers in the U.S. Military.

Different branches of the military offer a variety of scholarships ranging from full tuition, books and a $500 monthly stipend to smaller partial scholarships. We don't suggest you take this one lightly, it does come with a service obligation upon accepting the scholarship. Take a look into the following links for more information on ROTC scholarships:

Wondering why we didn't we state anything about the Marines?  The Marines financial assistance program is run through NROTC. For more information on this, click here.

One more piece of advice:

When looking into private scholarships, check with your university if you will have to let them know about the private scholarships you receive. Some colleges will take away institutional aid and scholarships from you if they see you received private scholarships from another resource. More on this here.

There are a variety of ways to receive full ride scholarships, but we can’t say any of them are easy. Please share with our community below in the comments if you’ve experienced a successful route to a full ride scholarship.

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