Guide to college scholarships and grants

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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.

Research from Sallie Mae shows that the typical family received $7,355 in scholarships and $4,914 in grants in the 2020-21 school year. Here’s how to find scholarships and grants to pay for college.

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What is the difference between a grant and a scholarship?

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 personality traits. Better yet, there’s no limit to the number of scholarships you can apply for.

Most scholarships are merit-based and may fall under these broad categories:

  • Academic achievement: Academic scholarships are based on earning 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 find the best 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.

There are multiple ways to search out scholarships:

  • Search the internet: Try searching using specific interests or traits. 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.
  • Ask your friends and family: Talk to the people you know about scholarships they may know about or have applied for. They may know of options that aren’t searchable online.
  • Check your school resources: School guidance counselors, teachers and program heads usually know of some scholarships. Talk to the faculty at your current school and reach out to faculty at the college you will attend. Both will likely know of a few scholarships that fit you.

Tips for applying for college scholarships

As you prepare to apply for college grants and scholarships, keep these tips in mind:

  • 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.
  • Focus on your unique traits. You may stand a better chance at winning local scholarships or ones with specific eligibility requirements. You may even want to write down a list of these unique traits.
  • Keep an eye out for scams. Make sure the offers you receive are legitimate. You shouldn’t have to pay for scholarships or for scholarship searches. And you definitely don’t need to pay for the FAFSA — it’s free.
  • Follow all instructions. 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.
  • Apply as early as possible. While many students search for scholarships during their senior year, you can usually start applying much earlier. And when it’s time to fill out the FAFSA during senior year, apply as early as possible. Some aid is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis, so once it’s gone, it’s gone.
  • Continue applying for aid. Many available scholarships are for students already enrolled in college, so keep up your search while in school.
  • Check ongoing requirements. To remain eligible for the scholarship, you may need to maintain a certain GPA or renew your application each school year. For instance, you’ll need to reapply for the FAFSA every year for aid consideration.

College grant guide

College grants can from 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 four main types of federal student grants. These are designed to help low-income students pay for school expenses at colleges, career-training schools and universities. Beyond federal aid, you may also find grants through state programs and private organizations.

  • 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 2021-22 award year, each student may receive up to $6,495. 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 $4,000 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 $6,495 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.

Tips for applying for a college grant

As with scholarships, it’s important to stay organized by keeping track of all your grants. Use a spreadsheet to monitor the ones that interest you, the ones you’ve applied for, the ones you’ve heard back from and the ones you’ve won. Also keep tabs on how much money you’ve won and compare it to the cost of attendance at your school. The better organized you are with your grants, the easier it’ll be to track your progress throughout the application and award process.

As you find grants based on your needs, remember that you can also find ones based on your standout traits. Consider your socioeconomic background, religion, sexual orientation and other aspects about yourself as you search for available grants. If you don’t think a grant exists for something, chances are it does — you just have to look for it.

Don’t forget to review ongoing requirements for grants that get renewed every year. For instance, you may have to hold a minimum GPA or be enrolled at least part time to continue receiving award money. Some other grants are one-time awards, which means that you may need to look for more money while you’re still in 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 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.

How do I get scholarship and grant money?

Once you find your scholarships and grants and apply to them, you’ll need to wait until winners are announced before finding out if you’re lucky enough to receive funds. Sometimes winners get checks mailed directly to them, and sometimes schools receive the funding directly. How scholarship and grant money is disbursed is up to each individual organization, group and business.

Can I accept more than one scholarship?

When applying for a scholarship, check the terms and conditions. The vast majority of the time, you can apply for and accept as many scholarships as you’d like. However, some athletic and academic scholarships are “full rides,” and you may not have the chance to accept additional funds.

Final considerations

Scholarships and grants are your biggest assets when it comes to paying for school without going into student loan debt. Use as much free money as you can before tapping into other resources, like student loans. If you do need student loans, exhaust your federal student loan options first before applying for private student loans.

If you want to avoid going into student loan debt, get organized and keep track of your scholarships and grants as early as you can. For some, that might be while still in high school. And you may need to continue on until you’ve graduated to ensure that you don’t need to find additional funds that require repayment.

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