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Guide to college scholarships and grants

College student studies in library.
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College student studies in library.
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When finding ways to pay for a college education, it’s best to start with scholarships and grants. Unlike student loans, these types of aid do not need to be repaid. While grants are likely to be awarded based on financial need, scholarships are typically merit-based — and combining several of these awards can lead to thousands of dollars in savings on your college path.

How are grants and scholarships different?

Scholarships and grants are types of free money to pay for school that don’t need to be repaid. But they aren’t exactly the same.

Scholarships tend to be merit-based, while grants are need-based. You can apply for both and as many as you find necessary to fund your education. If you have a stellar GPA and high standardized test scores, look into scholarships. If your family may have trouble affording your education, look into grants.

Many organizations and groups use these terms interchangeably, so check the requirements for each type of aid you’re applying for to see what you need to qualify. Those that require evidence of academic achievement — like transcripts, GPA and test scores — are likely scholarships.

College scholarship guide

Scholarships are typically merit-based, and they can come from colleges, organizations or companies. Many undergraduate students turn to scholarships to help fund their education.

Types of scholarships

Many scholarships are awarded based on a student’s achievements, talents and interests. So no matter where your skills lie — for example, in the classroom, on the football field or onstage — there’s likely a scholarship out there for you. Many are even geared toward unique interests and hobbies. Better yet, there’s no limit to the number of scholarships you can apply for.

Scholarships may fall under these broad categories:

  • Academic achievement: Academic scholarships are based on superior grades in the classroom, a high GPA and/or excellent standardized test scores.
  • Arts: Creative students can search for scholarships geared toward music, visual arts, theater and more.
  • Career, major or industry: You may find scholarships designed for your expected field of study or career plans.
  • Family background: Some scholarships are awarded based on a student’s traits or background. For example, you can find scholarships designed for first-generation college students, people in the LGBTQ community and underrepresented minority groups.
  • School-based scholarships: Most colleges and universities provide their own scholarships as part of their ongoing financial aid programs. Ask your school’s financial aid office about your options.
  • Sports: Many colleges offer athletic scholarships to standout student-athletes who agree to play on the school’s team.

How to apply for college scholarships

While some scholarships can be easy to find, there are others that may take some digging to discover. The more obscure scholarships may be even better to apply for, since obscurity likely means less competition for applying.

To find and apply for college scholarships, start with these steps:

  1. Search for relevant opportunities. Try searching for scholarships using specific interests or traits. School guidance counselors and the faculty at your college can point you in the right direction, but you can also use scholarship databases to find options or explore the websites of local nonprofits or businesses to see if they offer scholarships that apply to you.
  2. Get organized. Keep a list of scholarships you’re researching, along with ones you’ve applied to, and include the major requirements and deadlines. Then set up a folder to keep your essays, details and documents in one place. Having these ready can help streamline the process.
  3. Apply early and follow all instructions. While many students search for scholarships during their senior year, you can usually start applying much earlier — so start your search as soon as you can and mind all deadlines. Don’t risk disqualification because you didn’t read the directions or submit the application on time. Use the instructions as a checklist and check off each item to make sure that you’ve met requirements.

College grant guide

College grants can come from organizations or from federal and state governments. For grants, you’ll typically need to demonstrate financial need.

Types of college grants

The Department of Education offers the most well-known college grants, but you may also find grants through state programs and private organizations. Common grants include:

  • Federal Pell Grants: Pell Grants are awarded to eligible undergraduate students who show exceptional financial need. Pell Grant awards are updated annually, and for the 2022-23 award year, each student may receive up to $6,895. The award amount depends on your family’s expected contribution, your school’s cost of attendance and other factors.
  • Federal Supplemental Education Opportunity Grants (FSEOG): These grants help undergraduate students with exceptional financial need pay for higher education. You can receive anywhere from $100 to $4,000 a year, depending on whether your school participates in the program, available funds, your level of financial need and other factors.
  • Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grants: TEACH Grants provide federal grants to students pursuing degrees in education. You may receive up to $3,772 a year as long as you agree to later teach in a school that serves students from low-income families. But if you don’t meet this obligation, the grant turns into a Direct Unsubsidized Loan that you must repay.
  • Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grants: These grants are available if your parent or guardian died as a result of serving in Iraq or Afghanistan after Sept. 11, 2001; you were younger than 24 or enrolled in college at least part time when they died; and you can demonstrate financial need. If you qualify, you can receive up to $6,124.79 for the 2021-22 school year.
  • State-based grant: Nearly every state hosts a financial aid program to help students pay for college. To qualify, most states require you to be a resident, fill out the FAFSA and attend an in-state school. Some states even have regional tuition exchanges, which allow you to pay in-state tuition at a school in a nearby state.
  • Private grants: You can search for private college grants using the U.S. Department of Labor’s free scholarship and grant search tool.

How to apply for a college grant

The process of finding and applying for college grants depends on the type of grant you’re pursuing. If you have significant financial need, start here:

  1. Fill out the FAFSA. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid is your ticket to federal grants, which can often provide thousands of dollars in aid per year. On the FAFSA, you’ll provide your family’s financial details, which helps your school determine which grants are open to you. It’s best to send in your FAFSA early; some grants, like the FSEOG, are awarded on a first-come, first-served basis.
  2. Investigate local organizations. Many organizations offer college grants to local residents with specific backgrounds or high levels of financial need. If you’re involved with a community group or a broader organization, ask about potential funding opportunities.
  3. Speak with your school’s financial aid office. If you don’t receive as much financial aid as you were expecting, schedule an appointment with the financial aid office of your college. Financial aid officers may be able to help you find additional grant opportunities offered by your school.

FAQ about scholarships and grants

When should I start looking for college scholarships?

You can start searching for college scholarships at any time. Some scholarships have no age limits, while others allow you to apply early in your high school career or once you’re already enrolled in college.

Do all scholarships require an essay?

Many college scholarships require an essay, but not all do. Check the scholarship’s requirements to find out. If you’re having trouble with writing, ask a friend, counselor or teacher for help. They may inspire an idea, offer to edit your work or suggest another resource.

How do scholarships and grants affect financial aid?

Your total financial aid cannot exceed the total cost of attending your college. Keep track of how much scholarship and grant money you win, since the total amount you win will be subtracted from the total amount needed for attending. Whatever amount is left can be filled in with federal financial aid you qualify for.

Learn more:

Written by
Dori Zinn
Contributing writer
Dori Zinn has been a personal finance journalist for more than a decade. Aside from her work for Bankrate, her bylines have appeared on CNET, Yahoo Finance, MSN Money, Wirecutter, Quartz, Inc. and more. She loves helping people learn about money, specializing in topics like investing, real estate, borrowing money and financial literacy.
Edited by
Student loans editor
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