College  |  March 29, 2022  |  Lisa Litant

Full-Ride Scholarships: What Are They & How Can You Get One?

What you'll learn
  • What is a full-ride scholarship
  • How to get a full-ride scholarship
  • What types of full-ride scholarships are available
  • How many students get full-ride scholarships

It’s every student’s dream: getting all the money you need to cover school expenses for a year—in one scholarship—and for free! It’s rare, but this could be you if you’re lucky enough to get a full-ride scholarship

What’s a full-ride scholarship?

It’s a financial award, like any other scholarship, but with a difference—it covers all your college expenses. And not just tuition—a full-ride scholarship also covers your housing, meals, books, lab fees, and sometimes even living costs. In money terms, it can be worth anywhere from $20,000 to more than $50,000, depending on your school’s costs. And more than just money, in some cases, it can also include participation in special leadership programs, internships, and peer mentoring at your college.

Note: There’s a similar-sounding award—a full-tuition scholarship. Like the name says, this will pay for your tuition but not your other expenses. Not too shabby, but the full ride is the real golden ticket.

How do you get a full-ride scholarship?

Not surprisingly, a full-ride scholarship is very competitive. It can focus on academic standing, athletic skill, leadership, or merit; financial need isn’t necessarily a requirement. The important thing is to start out with an honest self-evaluation. What are your biggest strengths? What makes you really shine and stand apart from others in your class?

It’s hard to generalize, but you can increase your chances by making yourself stand out in one or more areas, and the earlier you can start to develop these unique qualities, the better:

  • Full-ride academic scholarship: Be at the top of your class with a great GPA, take AP/honors classes, and get perfect (or close to perfect) SAT or ACT scores. Along with academic merit, it also helps to also have leadership skills or community involvement, too (see below).
  • Full-ride leadership scholarship: This is one of the basic qualities that schools and organizations look for; you could be a student class officer, organize a club, devote your spare time to community service, or have a unique internship.
  • Full-ride athletic scholarship: You’ll need to excel in your high school team (and rank toward the top of your state, too) so a school wants you badly enough for their program. Division 1 sports offer full-ride scholarships to six different sports, but there are organizations for other sports.
  • Other types of full-ride scholarships: This can include being the first-infamily to attend college, having a specific heritage, or overcoming significant life challenges. Some universities (like the University of Virginia) have full-ride scholarships based on financial need.

What types of full-ride scholarships are available?

These scholarships are most often awarded by a school or a private organization. Universities award these scholarships to sweeten the deal when they’re trying to attract a certain type of student to their campus.

Organizations or companies may offer them for a specific field of study, like STEM, or even for a certain affiliation. Here’s just a few examples; for a complete listing, use a free scholarship database, like Scholarship Search:

  • Colleges with free-ride scholarships: A number of colleges have these programs—The Jefferson Scholarship covers students who go to the University of Virginia; the Torch Scholars Program helps students at Northeastern University. Some schools, like Alabama State University and the University of Notre Dame also offer scholarships based on SAT/ACT scores.
  • Government: There’s a U.S. Air Force ROTC Scholarship for use at any private institution with an ROTC affiliation. (The Navy offers similar ones.) The USDA/1890 National Scholars Program has awards for students pursuing degrees in agriculture and related disciplines at historically Black land-grant colleges and universities. Plus, some states offer scholarships to residents.
  • Foundations/companies: The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation has scholarships for students with financial need in any field of study. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation offers The Gates Scholarship for use at any U.S. accredited college. And the Strive Foundation awards Stamps Scholarships that are good at 36 colleges around the country. And Coca-Cola has a Scholars Program.

How to apply for full-ride scholarships

Just like with any scholarship, you need to make sure you know the application date, details, and the backup materials you need. Read over the scholarship’s rules several times to make sure you don’t miss anything. Extra materials you’ll need can include

  • Official grade transcript
  • One or more essays
  • Lists of your extracurricular activities
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Demonstrated financial need (if that’s part of the specific scholarship)

And be sure to speak with your counselor—those rules can get pretty specific and sometimes require an experienced professional to make sure you’re not missing something.

How rare are full-ride scholarships?

To be honest, they’re pretty unusual. Wondering what percentage of students get one? One estimate is 1% to 1.5%.1

On the other hand, someone has to be awarded the full-ride scholarships so why not you? And you can’t get one if you don’t apply! It’s also smart to have a backup financial plan for college, just in case. Always fill out the FAFSA® so you’re eligible for federal financial aid and apply for all the scholarships you can. Several smaller scholarships can add up to full tuition or more.

Who knows? You could be in the 1% that gets the golden ticket to college!


1. https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2018/10/16/odds-yourchild-getting-full-ride-college-are-low/

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