How to Avoid Scholarship Scams | Best Colleges

How to Avoid Scholarship Scams | Best Colleges

While a junior in high school, Jocelyn Pearson spent many nights applying to dozens of college scholarships. Each took no longer than 15 minutes to complete and required nothing more than her basic information and a short essay.

Before long, her inbox was flooded with emails from the scholarship companies – but none were offering her scholarships. Instead, she was overwhelmed with marketing emails to the point where she had to create an entirely new email account. While it seemed smart to apply to as many big-money scholarships as possible, in the end it proved fruitless.

That’s when Pearson realized that some scholarships weren’t all they claimed to be. She decided her time could be better spent pursuing scholarships that, although the dollar amount may be much smaller, seemed more legitimate and offered a more realistic chance to win.

“That was a turning moment for me when I realized these other ones, they look easy, but there’s a reason,” says Pearson, now CEO and founder of The Scholarship System, a company that offers help securing college scholarships. Her experience motivated her to start the company to share with students and families what she wishes she had known.

“Unfortunately, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Just being aware of that, I think that alone can save students a lot of headaches.”

Experts say it’s imperative that students and families use discernment when vetting scholarships and providing personal information. Scholarship scams are often a ploy to gain someone’s personal information and relentlessly market to them or potentially sell their information to other companies.

In more egregious cases, scammers may look to obtain someone’s bank account information or Social Security number, which could have more serious ramifications.

Here are ways to spot and avoid potential scholarship scams.

Identifying Scholarship Scams

As the cost of college continues to rise and students search every nook and cranny for ways to pay for it, experts say this demographic is an easy target due to a mix of inexperience, vulnerability and desperation. Concerns over paying for college rose during the 2023-2024 school year due to delays rolling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, notes Will Geiger, co-founder and CEO of, a website that offers a free database of thousands of vetted scholarships.

Scammers often use clever language and official-looking branding to entice students to apply for scholarships that advertise attractive award amounts. Students may receive emails that look official and contain language that may pass the initial sniff test. But anything involving scholarships, financial aid or grant money requires a critical eye to ensure legitimacy, experts say.

Some of the most prominent red flags are when students are selected for scholarships they never applied for, the scholarship offers a “guaranteed” award or students are asked to pay a fee to be eligible for a scholarship. Legitimate scholarships never charge an application or processing fee, experts say.

Certain language might also be a red flag. If a scholarship claims to be a “no essay scholarship,” asks applicants to “enter to win” or mentions a drawing, it’s likely just a sweepstakes that’s meant to attract a high amount of entries, making the chances of winning slim to none, experts say. These so-called scholarships are usually based on luck, rarely merit or need.

“I always recommend that students pay attention and be observant,” Geiger wrote in an email. “If something looks off, double-check the scholarship and provider website. For instance, if you see typos or spelling mistakes, invasive questions or lack of detail around the organization awarding the scholarship you should pause and take some time to examine further.”

Tips to Avoid Falling for Scholarship Scams

Scholarship scams are less common than other scams, but the Federal Trade Commission still receives hundreds of consumer reports each year regarding illegitimate scholarships and educational grants, according to a 2023 report. The Better Business Bureau has reported that it receives numerous complaints each year regarding scholarship scams.

Anything that requires bank account information, a Social Security number or anything that could leave an applicant vulnerable to identify theft or bank fraud should be avoided. Schools may ask for this information regarding merit-based awards or financial aid, but third-party scholarships won’t until perhaps after a scholarship has been awarded, says Denard Jones, lead counselor at Empowerly, a college admissions consulting company.

Though students are busy and often juggling multiple tasks, one of the best ways to avoid falling victim to a scam is to take a little extra time to investigate a scholarship, Jones says.

“Read, read, read,” he says. “Read the instructions. Read the details. Read what’s going on, because a lot of times it’s right there in front of us, but we’re so quick to (go to) where we see a box – we just start filling it out.”

Pearson says she looks at scholarships on a spectrum. On one end are the quick and easy ones that she initially targeted that don’t require much effort. On the other end are those with more defined eligibility and criteria and a more rigorous application process, such as lengthy essays and perhaps interviews. These typically require more effort and have some degree of selectivity, but often draw fewer applicants and are awarded by trusted local or national organizations with more transparency about their selection criteria.

Pearson eventually turned her attention to, and won, a local $500 scholarship and was able to decipher what was and wasn’t worth her time. She also discovered that applying for scholarships is best done as a team effort by both students and parents. Parents have more life experience and often a more trained eye for spotting potential scams, she says.

She recommends parents help by researching and vetting legitimate scholarships while students spend their time applying for them. This allows students to focus on their essays and making their application as strong as it can be.

“The search process is the best place to make the difference, because if they’re helping their students choose the right scholarships from the beginning, then their student’s not going to be burned out wasting their time on all these scams,” she says. “From the beginning, they could be applying to a lot of scholarships where they have actual chances of winning.”

If students encounter a fraudulent scholarship or feel they have fallen victim to a scholarship scam, experts encourage them to report the website or company to the FTC and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Additionally, those who have shared banking or financial information with a scammer should immediately get in touch with their bank, Geiger says.

Trying to fund your education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for College center.

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