Big Scholarships: Where They Are, How to Get Them

Going after a lot of little scholarships can seem like a lot of work. That’s why the idea of trying for a few big scholarships is so appealing. We spoke with Kevin Ladd, Vice President of popular scholarships search site about the ways of seeking out and winning big scholarships.

Ladd not only points to how to find big scholarships, he also says students should of course apply for every scholarship they have time for and every scholarship they have a chance of winning. However, focusing entirely on big scholarships may not be the soundest strategy or the best way to get your college paid for.

Where Can You Find Big Scholarships?

Big scholarships come from big, independent foundations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation, the Dell Scholars Program and other big nonprofit organizations. Typically, these foundations are set up by big corporations. So, for example with Coca-Cola, it’s not the corporation that’s offering the scholarship, it’s a non profit foundation that they started.

big scholarships coca cola

The Coca Cola Foundation awards hundreds of big scholarships each year.

“Everyone associates it with Coca Cola,” says Ladd, “but it’s really a separate entity and that way for tax purposes they’re treated like a nonprofit.”

Big scholarships are often offered for minority students, first in family students and special circumstance students.

“They’re still pretty broad and they award a lot of scholarships,” says Ladd. “There’s a substantial number of really large scholarships, that even if they’re not full tuition they’re still $10,000 or $20,000 a year and some of them are renewable.”

Also see: How to Get a Full Scholarship

A Partial List of Big Scholarships

The list of big scholarships below is by no means comprehensive. Students who want to find every big scholarship they qualify for should do a scholarship search on a search site like Searches are free and the site provides users the opportunity to unsubscribe/opt-out from receiving email messages from and its marketing partners, or from having their personal information shared. A scholarship search on a website like can take a lot of the frustration and work out of looking for scholarships. That’s because it eliminates the thousands and thousands of scholarships a student is not eligible for.

Big Scholarship Amount Awarded Description
Milton Fisher Scholarship for Innovation and Creativity $20,000 (max) Big scholarship for students with creative and innovative problem solving abilities
American Legion National High School Oratorical Contest $18,000 (max) Big scholarship awarded for best speech about the U.S. constitution
Microsoft Imagine Cup $50,000 (team) Big scholarship based on a student technology competition
Gates Foundation Scholarships Depends on need The Gates Foundation offers several different big scholarships
Coca Cola Scholars Foundation Scholarships $20,000 (max) Achievement based big scholarship targeted to those who lead and serve.
Dell Scholars Program $20,000 Big scholarship for students with grit, potential and ambition.
Buick Achievers Scholarship Program $25,000 This big scholarship is for students who want to work in the auto industry.
Davidson Institute for Talent Development $50,000 (max) Big scholarship awarded for extraordinary achievement.
Siemens Math, Science and Technology Award Scholarships $100,000 (max) Big scholarship based on a math, science and tech competition.
Horatio Alger Scholarship Award $20,000 Big scholarship based on financial need and high performance.
Gallery Collection Scholarship $10,000 This big scholarship is for students who have outstanding talent.

Some Big Scholarships are Gap Scholarships

Many big scholarships, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation scholarships are what’s known as “gap scholarships.” That means those scholarships make up the difference between what a student’s family can afford and the cost of tuition.

“So basically whatever you can come up with on your own and whatever the school offers you, the difference between that number all put together and whatever you have to pay, they’ll pay it,” Ladd says. “So it’s almost like a full scholarship. It’s like a hybrid. They’ll wait and see whatever else you get and then they pay the rest.”

Also see: How to Find Scholarships Anyone Can Apply For

Some Big Scholarships Can Decrease Your Student Aid

big scholarships buick achievers

The Buick Achievers scholarship is a big scholarship that can award as much as $100,000.

One thing to watch out for with big scholarships, and in fact all scholarships, is that they can decrease the amount a student receives in student aid. Most schools are supposed to replace student loans with outside scholarships that you’re awarded, but that doesn’t always happen.

“You can’t assume every school is doing that,” says Ladd. “You might be disappointed if you went out and won a $5,000 per year scholarship, and the school adjusted your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) because now you have that money, and they’re considering it income instead of supplanting loans with it.”

Many Big Scholarships Aren’t Renewable

big scholarships dell

The Dell Foundation Scholarship is another big scholarship that awards money to students based on grit, potential and ambition.

Another issue with many big scholarships is that while they may award $10,000 or $20,000 or more, they may only last for one year. If the scholarship is only for high school seniors and you win it, you then have to make sure you go back and keep looking for other scholarships to fill the shortfall in later years. This is in contrast to institutional awards from schools, which are renewable as long as the student maintains their GPA and study levels. Some scholarships like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation scholarships are renewable, but others aren’t. The point is that many private scholarship foundations don’t think like colleges. They don’t think, okay, we’ve got to make sure this student keeps getting this money year after year.

Many Small Scholarships You Actually Get Are Better Than One Big One You Don’t

big scholarships microsoft imagine cup

The Microsoft Imagine Cup is a national competition that awards big scholarships each year.

In spite of the allure of big scholarships, it’s a big mistake to go after only the big scholarships and ignore the small ones. The reason is, the big scholarships that are open to just about everyone have lots and lots of competition and are therefore very hard to get. By contrast, smaller scholarships that offer less money are often more restrictive and therefore have less students applying for them. Because of this, they’re a lot easier to get than big scholarships for the students who actually qualify for them.

“So there’s definitely a large number of organizations that are offering large scholarships,” says Ladd, “but there are a lot more medium to small $1,000 for $2,000 scholarships. $4,000 or $5,000 I guess you could still consider medium to small because most schools nowadays cost at least twenty-plus thousand dollars a year even if you go in state.”

The real challenge is to change your way of thinking so you realize those small scholarships are a lot more attractive than they seem at first. While small scholarships offer less money, there are a lot more of them and they’re generally a lot easier to win.

big scholarships american legion

The American Legion offers annual big scholarships.

“Why would I want to spend my time on 10 small things if I can get one big one?” says Ladd. “The other thing is, a big scholarship is going to be very competitive. If it’s $20,000 a year for four years or $30,000 a year, You can bet everyone who qualifies is going to apply for that, and it really depends on the scholarship provider who qualifies. So if it’s for all high school seniors for example, who have to have a minimum 2.5 or a 3.0 GPA to qualify, it’s going to be hugely competitive. It’s going to be national. It’s going to be huge. You might find a lot of smaller ones that are only going to be $2,000 but it’s only for people in your county or it’s only for females that are studying stem cell research or something like that. Now is getting much less competitive, so even though it’s only two grand for five grand, your chances of winning the $5,000 are much greater than your chances of winning the $30,000 from the national scholarship that’s much broader, more open, way less filtered.”

The Trick is to Overcome the Mindset that Bigger is Always Better

big scholarships milton fisher“So the natural tendency,” Ladd says, “not having the benefit of experience with scholarships for a student is, hey, I’m going to go try and find these great big scholarships, one or two of them, and focus in on that, but it’s not always going to offer you the best odds. Yes, if you do get it, it’s going to be great, but the odds are much better that you’ll get one that’s not as competitive that offers $2,000, $3,000, $5,000, and you might have a better chance of winning three of those than winning one huge one.”

Also see: 30 Weird College Scholarships

When to Start Applying for Big Scholarships

Anyone who wants to go after a big scholarship should start applying as early as possible.

“I strategically tell people you can afford to look for the biggest scholarships when you start looking early,” says Ladd, “and if you start looking really late you should look for what’s coming up right now, like kind of a triage situation, like, I want to get these applications in before the deadlines go by. When you have the luxury of time you can go after the big scholarships first.”

Apply For Everything You Have Time For, And Start Early so You Have Time for Everything

big scholarships gates foundation

The Gates Foundation offers several different big scholarships.

Typically, Ladd’s message is that whatever scholarship you qualify for, if you have the time, do it. If you don’t have the time, make the time. That’s the only way you’re going to find out if you’re going to win a certain scholarship.

“But my point about the luxury of time,” says Ladd, “is if it’s March, if you’re a senior in high school, you really need to look at all your options, do a scholarship search online, and I won’t try too hard to promote myself or our site, but that’s why we offer the search. Everyone is different, and what you’re going to qualify for is going to depend heavily on who you are as a person, as a student, as well as financially, demographically and so on.”

That’s why Ladd tells students that if it’s March, they really need to see what’s coming up in the next two weeks. They need to see which scholarships they have the best chance of winning based on they are, matched up with who the scholarships are looking for.

“Whether it’s $1,000, $5,000, or $20,000,” says Ladd, “apply to everything you can that’s still available, because the deadlines are just starting to go by, and March has more deadlines for scholarships than any other month. And once this is gone, as a high school senior, you’re not going to have that opportunity again to apply for scholarships as a high school senior. As an undergrad, you’ll be able to apply for scholarships, but there won’t be as big a pool as when you were a high school senior.”

Someone who’s a freshman, sophomore, or even a junior in high school will have more time to research and apply for all the big scholarships they can.

“So really,” says Ladd, “big scholarships, if you got the luxury of time, go for them all. Any scholarship that you qualify for, go for it, take that chance, try to win it, but know that you’re probably going to have a better chance at some smaller scholarships because they are less competitive.

Also see: How Do I Save For My Kid’s College? 529 for College Savings

Size Matters But it’s Not the Only Thing

The size of the scholarship is just one part of the whole equation. You never want to focus on just one thing. You want to be holistic in how you look at it, what you’re looking for, what you match to.

“There’s just a lot more to it than, oh this is the biggest one, it’s the best one,” says Ladd. “It might not be the best fit. You might not have the best chance of winning it. So, always look at scholarships critically, even if you’re a junior and ask, am I really going to win this? Like if it’s an essay scholarship and I’m a terrible writer, can I get someone to help me, or should I just go for scholarships that ask me to make a video because I’m really good at that? There’s just other stuff to consider besides whether it’s a big scholarship or not.”