Avoid misleading scholarship offers

Learn how to tell if a scholarship program is truly legit or just an attempt to get your data.

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Krista Ringler has a front-row seat to a growing problem in colleges across the country: bogus scholarships and grants. In fact, North Carolina State University, where she’s the director of the Office of Scholarships and Financial Aid, recently stopped offering students an external scholarship listing service because “it was becoming difficult to tell the difference between real scholarships and something that was more of a phishing scheme,” she says.

So what should you do when it’s hard to tell what’s legit and what isn’t? After all, scholarship money can help defray tuition costs. Below we outline ways to safeguard against being defrauded, and instead find scholarships and grants that are right for you.

1) Be wary of pay-to-play

Regardless of how official a program may look, proceed with caution if it asks for an application fee or offers a low-interest loan or valuable prize that requires a fee. These are all red flags that indicate you’re most likely dealing with something that you’re better off avoiding. Legitimate scholarships and grants will never require an upfront fee when you submit the application.

Ringler says you should pay attention to how many scholarships an organization offers and at what value. “If they’re only offering one or two scholarships and they’re small in value relative to the expected size of the applicant pool, it’s probably just a way to gather people’s information.”

2) Judge substance over style

Ringler says a scholarship application “should ask you specific questions that are used to determine your eligibility, rather than just basic demographic information.” Never divulge details like your credit card numbers or bank account numbers on a scholarship application. Information gatherers often use this information to commit identity theft.

Along those same lines, be wary of scholarships that use excessive hype (“guaranteed free money!”) or indicate that everybody is eligible. In most cases, scholarships have specific requirements and criteria. If a scholarship guarantees your acceptance simply for applying, then it’s best to stay clear.


“It takes some effort, but if you do your homework and make sure the opportunity is legitimate, finding the right scholarships can be really lucrative.”

— Krista Ringler, Director of the Office of Scholarships and Financial Aid, North Carolina State University


 3) Study the fine print

Always check to see if there’s a direct connection between the organization and the scholarship it’s offering. For example, an engineering firm offering a scholarship is likely to target engineering students. “If there’s no specific connection, that can be an indicator that it’s just a way to gather information from applicants rather than a legitimate program,” says Ringler.

4) Don’t give up hope

With the number of questionable scholarships growing at rapid speed, it can be easy to miss legitimate offers, including those from the business community. “We often hear from companies that they didn’t get as many applicants as they expected,” Ringler says. “That’s because it can be hard to break through all the noise, and unfortunately real opportunities can get buried.”

To help cut through all the clutter, Ringler says you should use reputable scholarship sites. Wells Fargo sponsors Tuition Funding Sources, which has been gathering information about scholarships for 30 years and adds 5,000 scholarships per month on average.

Most states have a college foundation that can provide guidance, and there are also federal organizations like FAFSA that provide federal grants, loans, and work-study funds. “Look at the disclaimers on scholarships and read the fine print,” says Ringler. “It takes some effort, but if you do your homework and make sure the opportunity is legitimate, finding the right scholarships can be really lucrative.”