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Last updated August 10, 2023

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Full-Ride Scholarships to College

Key Takeaway

Learn how to increase your chances of getting a full-ride scholarship by understanding the types of scholarships and being strategic about your college list. Be realistic about your competitiveness and focus on colleges that meet your financial need or offer merit-based scholarships.

If you’re applying to college, chances are you’re also thinking about how to pay for it.

And what is the most sought-after kind of financial aid? That’s right: a full-ride scholarship.

Full-ride scholarships are scholarships that pay for your tuition, room and board, and maybe even other expenses like books or travel.

As you can imagine, full rides are hard to come by. If you want to get one, you’ll need to understand what they are, which schools offer them, and whether you might be a competitive applicant.

Let’s begin.

Types of Scholarships

There are two main types of scholarships: need-based and merit-based.

Need-based scholarships are—you guessed it—calculated based on your financial need. Schools assess your financial need using the information you submit through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) or CSS Profile.

Merit scholarships, on the other hand, are awarded based on merit. Whether you have a lot of financial need or none at all doesn’t matter. Instead, it’s your merit that counts—that could be academic merit, athletic abilities, exceptional skills in a particular field, or more.

Before we get into the types of scholarships, I want to spend just a minute talking about the different kinds of college expenses.

Tuition vs. Room and Board vs. Anticipated Costs

You always hear about the high costs of college, but you don’t always hear much about how the breakdown of those costs works.

In general, most colleges charge you for three separate things: tuition, room and board, and fees. On top of those charges, you also have additional expenses to take into consideration, like textbooks, technology, day-to-day living costs (shower shoes aren’t free, y’all!), and travel expenses to and from campus.

The best full-ride scholarships will cover all three expense categories, and they may even give you a little extra to cover those additional expenses, too.

On the other hand, there are some scholarships that may seem like “full rides” that don’t actually cover all your expenses. Things like tuition remission exchanges (if you have a parent who works at a participating university—here’s an example) don’t usually cover room and board expenses. Other programs, like Colgate’s tuition elimination (more on that in a minute), refer specifically to tuition expenses and not room and board or other fees.

So as you’re looking for full-ride scholarships, make sure you read the fine print.

Need-Based Full-Ride(ish) Scholarships

So there’s not much you can do to help yourself qualify for a need-based full-ride scholarship. Your eligibility is determined by your family’s income.

But if you know that your financial situation will likely require a lot of need-based aid, you can be strategic about your school list—especially if you already have a competitive application.

There’s a particular admissions term to look for when you’re trying to assess whether a school is likely to give you strong need-based aid.

That term is this: “meets full demonstrated need.”

“Demonstrated need” is the difference between your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) and the Cost of Attendance (COA). So if the Cost of Attendance is $70,000 and your Expected Family Contribution is $20,000, your “demonstrated need” would be:

$70,000 (COA) - $20,000 (EFC) = $50,000 (Demonstrated Need).

Schools that meet full demonstrated need promise to give admitted students this full amount, usually without any loans.

Sounds too good to be true, right? Is there a caveat?

Caveat #1: Most schools that meet full demonstrated need will calculate room and board costs into their calculations. But watch out for schools that just offer tuition discounts (like the Colgate example below)—those savings may only apply to your tuition costs.

Caveat #2: Colleges and universities that meet full demonstrated need are schools that are very financially stable and highly selective. That means that they’re usually pretty hard to get into.

Here are just a few schools that meet full demonstrated need, with their accompanying acceptance rates:

  • Davidson College (17.8%)
  • Dartmouth (6.2%)
  • Harvard (4%)
  • Johns Hopkins (7.5%)
  • Northwestern (7%)
  • Grinnell (11%)
  • Pomona (7%)

Other schools alter their expenses and financial aid packages depending on the income a student’s family makes.

Colgate University, for example, eliminates tuition for any student whose family makes below $80,000. And students whose families make between 80,000 and 175,000 annually will only pay a percentage of tuition.

So if you’re a strong student with good extracurriculars who needs a bit of financial help, colleges that “meet full demonstrated need” should definitely be on your list—they may just result in a full ride.

Merit-Based Full-Ride Scholarships

Merit-based full rides, on the other hand, don’t take your financial situation into account at all.

If you’re exceptionally talented in a particular area, or if your family makes too much money to qualify for much need-based aid but would still struggle to pay your tuition and fees, then you should look into merit-based full-ride scholarships.

Many full-ride scholarships—especially those awarded based on academic merit—come from the school itself. Take Vanderbilt’s Cornelius Vanderbilt Scholarship, for example. Awardees get all of their tuition paid for, receive a one-time summer stipend, and must maintain a 3.0 GPA. Note that this scholarship does not include room and board, so

Other full rides come from outside organizations that partner with schools. One of the most popular is the Stamps Scholars program, which partners with 30+ schools and offers awards of up to $75,000 per year, which can cover tuition, fees, and room and board for four years.

Getting a full-ride scholarship based on academic merit that covers tuition, room and board, and other fees is really difficult. It’s more common to get a need-based full ride or one based on athletics or other talents.

Understand How Competitive You Are

To have a shot at merit-based full-ride scholarships, you need to be at the very top of the applicant pool. That means you’ll have to be realistic about how your GPA, course rigor, and standardized test scores stack up against the rest of the applicant pool.

Also know that it’s not just your grades that qualify you for merit scholarships—it’s also your extracurricular activities.

Your extracurricular activities, especially those that showcase your impact and leadership, have a lot of sway in the admissions process, too. There will be plenty of other strong academic candidates; impressive extracurriculars and strong essays are one of the best ways to stand apart.

Keep in mind that most merit scholarships require you to maintain a minimum GPA if you want to keep the scholarship all four years of college. Admissions officers want to set you up for success, so they’ll be more likely to grant you a scholarship if you’ve already shown that you know how to be academically successful and engaged in your community.

If You Want Good Aid, Consider Applying to Schools Where You're Very Competitive

So how can you increase your chances of actually getting one of the few but coveted full-ride scholarships?

You need to apply to schools where your application is very competitive. And to do that, you’ll need to be ultra-realistic about how competitive your application is.

That might mean adjusting your school list so you have more schools that would be considered “safety schools.”

Especially if you’re not at the top of your class, don’t have any notable extracurriculars, and haven’t taken many AP classes, you’re probably not going to be awarded Vanderbilt’s full-tuition scholarships. There are so many qualified students that that’s just the reality.

Does that mean you can’t get a full ride elsewhere? Of course not! You just have to apply to more realistic schools.

For instance, during my time in admissions at the University of Mary Washington, a school that admits about 70% of applicants, we offered a few full-ride scholarships to exceptional students each year. In contrast, at Vanderbilt, a university with only a 7% acceptance rate, the full-ride scholarship was even more rare.

What should you take away from all this?

College admissions and scholarships are relative. You can get a great education from schools beyond the Ivy League or T20, and you probably have a better shot at getting substantial merit scholarships at less selective schools.

Sometimes we hear from students that applying to less selective schools seems like settling for second best. But I promise you, it's not.

A school's selectivity isn't always a reflection of the quality of its education. Your college career is more about the opportunities you take advantage of, the connections you make, and the personal and academic growth you achieve. And if you can do so for cheaper or even free, even better!


You can increase your chances of getting a full-ride scholarship by understanding the types of scholarships (need-based and merit-based) and being strategic about your college list. Focus on colleges that meet full demonstrated need if you're a strong applicant in need of financial aid. If you excel academically, have impressive extracurriculars or special talents, look for merit-based full rides. Apply to schools where your application stands out.

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