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Grants and scholarships can help you take on less student loan debt while you’re earning your degree. That’s because grants and scholarships are “gift aid” that you don’t have to pay back, reducing the net price you pay for college.

You don’t have to be a perfect student or have financial need to apply for free money for college. Here are some tips for researching and applying for grants and scholarships that can help pay your way through college or graduate school.

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The difference between grants and scholarships

Grants and scholarships are financial awards that you can use to pay for college costs including tuition, room and board, books, and living expenses. Although both are free money you don’t need to pay back, they do have their differences:

  • Grants: These are often need-based, meaning they are aimed at helping students who might otherwise not be able to attend college. But not all grant aid is need-based. Many colleges, particularly private ones, will offer merit-based grants to students who apply for admission.
  • Scholarships: These are usually merit-based, so you’ll have a better chance of landing one if you can point to academic or athletic achievements that set you apart from other students.

If you or your family can’t afford to cover all of your college expenses, you may automatically qualify for grant aid from the colleges you apply to, the federal government, or your state. Even if you’re financially well off, you may qualify for grants that aren’t need-based or merit-based scholarships from thousands of public and private sources.

How to find scholarships and grants

If you’re looking for free money for college, you’ll want to check out all of the potential sources of scholarship and grant funding:

  • The federal government: The federal government offers one of the most important need-based grants, the Pell Grant, which provides up to $6,195 in annual assistance during the 2019-2020 award year. About one in three students qualify. Learn more about federal grants and scholarships like the Pell Grant, Teach Grant, and scholarships for military families.
  • Colleges and universities: One of the biggest sources of gift aid will be the college or university you choose to go to. Check with the office of financial aid at colleges you’re interested in attending for a list of campus-based grants and scholarships.
  • State grant agencies: College financial aid offices are also a good source of information on state-based grants and scholarships. Find the state-based aid programs.
  • Employers: If you’re working while pursuing a degree, your employer may be willing to help pay your tuition. Employers and other private organizations provided $16.5 billion in assistance during the 2017-18 academic year.
  • Nonprofit agencies and private companies: Check the U.S. Department of Labor’s Scholarship Finder is a searchable database of more than 8,000 scholarships, fellowships, grants, and other financial aid opportunities, including offers from private companies and nonprofits.

How and when to apply

To be eligible for the Pell Grant and other forms of federal aid, you’ll need to fill out the Free Application For Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Filling out the FAFSA is also the first step needed to qualify for many types of state and school-based grant aid.

  • You should fill out the FAFSA during your senior year in high school, as soon as possible after the application window opens on Oct. 1.
  • You should apply for state and school-based grants as soon as possible after filling out the FAFSA. State deadlines can be as early as February or March, and money for these is often available on a first-come, first-served basis.
  • Many scholarship applications are due in January, but deadlines for others may fall in any month of the year. Some scholarships require that you apply at least a year before the start of the academic year.

The information about your family’s finances that you provide on the FAFSA is shared with any colleges you intend to apply to, and to the state higher education agencies where those schools are located. That means once you’ve filled out the FAFSA, you’ve started the process for applying for school- and state-based grant aid.

Some schools and scholarship programs also use the College Board’s CSS Profile. Check with any colleges and scholarship programs you’re interested in to see if a CSS Profile is required.

After you apply to colleges, you’ll get a financial aid award letter from every college that accepts you. You’ll want to compare the financial aid award letters you receive from each school, so you can see which is offering the most gift aid and the lowest net price.

How to stand out when applying

To improve the odds of winning a merit-based scholarship, The College Board offers several tips, including:

  1. Plan ahead. Mark due dates on your calendar so you won’t miss deadlines
  2. Make sure you’re eligible. Contact the scholarship sponsor if you’re not sure that you qualify.
  3. Follow instructions. Don’t submit an essay that exceeds the word limit, and don’t send supporting material like your grades or test scores if they’re not requested.
  4. Be meticulous. Proofread your application for grammar and spelling mistakes. If you’re reusing material like a cover letter, make sure you’ve updated any names.

If a scholarship award requires an essay, provide honest insights that illustrate your personal strengths and real-life experiences.

Requirements and restrictions

There are a few requirements and restrictions when it comes to grants and scholarships:

  • Make sure you know what you can use scholarship awards for. This is up to the government, school, or organization that provides the award. Some scholarship awards will be provided to your school, to help you pay for tuition, fees, and other expenses. Other scholarships will be paid directly to you, and you may be allowed to use the money for living expenses.
  • You’ll need to meet the requirements of renewable grants. You’ll often need to demonstrate you’re making “satisfactory academic progress” toward earning your degree to continue to receive federal aid and most state- and school-based aid. Each school will have its own standards, which typically include a minimum grade-point average. Some grants can even be converted into loans (that you’ll have to pay back) if you don’t follow through on the minimum requirements. Always be sure you understand the terms of any grant that you accept.
  • Grants and scholarships can affect other student aid you’re eligible for. You’re required to report outside scholarships awarded by organizations other than the government or your school to your college’s financial aid office. If all the scholarships, grants, and loans you’re set to receive exceed your financial need by $300 or more, your school must reduce the amount of need-based financial aid it awards you. It’s up to the college how to do this. It may reduce the amount of a loan you were offered, which means less money you have to pay back. Or a college may choose to reduce a grant that it had planned to provide to you. In that case, the scholarship award simply replaces your grant — your costs don’t change.

Other ways to pay for college

If you’ve taken advantage of all the scholarships and grants available to you and are still unable to cover all of your expenses, you can explore other options for borrowing:

If you’re able to keep the total amount borrowed in line with what you expect your annual salary to be after graduation, your loan payments will be more manageable.

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About the author
Matt Carter
Matt Carter

Matt Carter is a Credible expert on student loans. Analysis pieces he’s contributed to have been featured by CNBC, CNN Money, USA Today, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post.

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