External Scholarships: Read the Fine Print

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

No Free Lunch

Why would so many companies offer large, and seemingly easy scholarship opportunities online? It’s no secret that private companies are driven by profit, so what could possibly be profitable about giving away thousands of dollars to students?

There is an analogy in economic studies which says that there is “no such thing as a free lunch.” This means no matter what you do in life, there is always a tradeoff for what you are getting, even if it’s totally “free.”

Take Google for example. Google provides useful services such as maps, email, calendars, and search engine features free of charge. So what are you trading off when you use a free Google service? Google uses their free services to collect data on users, and to sell hyper targeted advertisements to other businesses based on what they know about each individual. This means that the service is not truly free, rather you are trading your personal data for the features that you depend on.

Just like Google, the companies providing external scholarships have some motive. So what could a company providing an external scholarship possibly want from you?


Most (if not all) external scholarship opportunities require you to submit some type of content in order to be considered for the prize. This is usually an essay of a specified length, but could also be a personal video, questionnaire, or an informative graphic.

In the digital age, many companies are expected to produce content frequently (like I’m doing with this blog post). The truth is that good content eventually starts to run out, and a company may have few topics left to talk about. One way around this issue is to get other people to create this content for you, either free of charge or for a very small price.

Imagine that you own a company which needs content for your blog. You could pay one of your staff members to do nothing but write blogs every day, but that could become very costly. Instead, you could offer a $1,000 annual scholarship, and receive hundreds of blog posts from students hoping to win the prize. This is a far cheaper way to gather content compared to creating it “in-house.”

Personal Information

Most successful companies maintain databases of potential customers that are used for marketing purposes. Much like content creation, gathering data on prospects is not cheap. By offering a $1,000 scholarship, not only can a company gather hundreds of great content ideas, but they will also gain the personal information for every student who applies. Companies can always pay for big data, but it is not cheap. A one-time $1,000 scholarship payout is not a bad deal when you consider the content that the company gains as well.

It’s in the Terms and Conditions

All of this is not to say that applying for external scholarships is a bad idea. On the contrary, external scholarships provide a flexible, creative, and engaging way to get money for school, and to build relationships with companies that you may be interested in working with after graduation.

The point is to make sure that you read the terms and conditions (the fine print) of every external scholarship before you apply. There is nothing wrong with submitting an essay to a company for it to be posted on their website. You might even gain a little bit of online recognition for doing so! That being said, always take the time to know exactly what will happen to your content and personal data before you submit an application.

Here in the University Scholarship Office at UNC Charlotte, we put all external scholarship opportunities through a tough vetting process before we post them on our website. It is still up to the student to know exactly what will happen to their personal data before finalizing an application. For a list of pre-vetted external scholarships, you can visit our external scholarship hub online at – http://scholarships.uncc.edu/resources

Do you have experience applying for external scholarships or other advice for students who are seeking scholarships? Let us know on Twitter @NinerScholars or contact us via email, and will be sure to include your comments in a later update.


The original blog was written by Taylor J. Valley, a Graduate Assistant in the University Scholarship Office at UNC Charlotte, and a student in the Master of Public Administration program. It was edited by Lauren Kueider, a Graduate Assistant in the University Scholarship Office, and a student in the Master of Health Administration and Health Informatics program.