How to Find, Apply, and Get Scholarships for College

Paying for college is big expense, and one that is increasing. Tuition rates continue to rise and a growing number of borrowers will have a difficult time repaying their student loans. And when you add in textbooks, living expenses, and other supplies students can expect to pay high dollar for an advanced degree.

But college does not have to be paid entirely out of pocket. There are ways to save money and keep debt manageable, especially if you qualify for scholarships. Scholarships (also referred to as gift funds) are awarded to students based on academic merit, special talents, and financial need. They are an ideal source of funding, as they don’t need to be repaid.

However, scholarships can be competitive and application requirements are often extensive. Many scholarships are based on merit so even if you don’t prove strong financial burden, you can earn money for college by getting good grades. And in some cases, exceptional academic achievement may result in a full ride to the school of your choice!

The options outlined below will help students find ways to meet and quite possibly reduce the cost of higher education. Funding options are out there and with the right resources and a little perseverance, you may find that you qualify for significant benefits.

Where to Start and What to Look For

Let’s start with the FAFSA – an acronym you need to know.

The Free Application for Student Financial Aid (FASFA) is used to determine a student’s eligibility for financial aid, including Pell Grants or Work-Study programs. Students may complete the application online by creating a PIN for electronic signing and document retrieval. Completing the FAFSA is the first step for all students applying for aid. Some scholarships require FAFSA results, especially those based on financial need. You can also check out a free financial aid estimator, the FAFSA4casterSM tool to give you an early estimate of your eligibility.

The FAFSA takes more than a few minutes to complete. In fact, completing the FAFSA can take weeks, due to the paperwork and information gathering necessary for processing. But if you follow the steps in a reasonable amount of time, you should okay. The following information and documents are needed to fill out a FASFA:

  • Social Security Number
  • Driver’s license (or if you don’t have one, a state-issued ID)
  • Previous year’s records of money earned (W-2 Form, etc.)
  • Income Tax Returns from the previous year (and your spouse’s, if you are married)
  • Parents’ federal income tax return (if you are a dependent student)
  • Untaxed income records (for example, Social Security, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, welfare, veterans benefit records)
  • Current bank statements
  • Investment records
  • Your alien registration or permanent resident card (if not born in the US)

To help you better understand the different types of aid available as well as the financial aid process, check out this helpful visual from The U.S. Department of Education:

Online Resources for Finding Scholarships

Finding and applying for scholarships is time consuming, and as you may know, or soon find out, there are A LOT of scholarship scammers on the prowl. These sites are not affiliated with or endorsed by the U.S. Department of Education. In fact, these sites are designed to get your personal information to sell to a spam organization. Stick with the free scholarship search tools to prevent an inbox full of junk. Also make sure to avoid “scholarships” that require you to pay a fee to receive the money or pay taxes on the funds. And NEVER EVER give out your Social Security Number! This is a huge red flag. Any request for personal information is always a warning sign.

  • Education Resource Organizations Directory: The Department of Education provides information on each state’s scholarships and financial aid programs. This resource is especially useful when researching state-funded scholarships and grants.
  • U.S. Government Guide for College Students: This site provides the U.S. Government’s current information about available scholarships, financial aid and career development. The FAQ section helps students sort through financial aid information to identify potential scholarship opportunities.

A Few Tips

  • Don’t limit yourself! It’s really important to cast a wide net when conducting a scholarship search. You never know what you might be eligible for. Scholarships are available for students with specific backgrounds, academic interests, and admissions needs. You might be surprised to find that scholarships come in all sizes. Ask your parents if their workplace offers academic scholarships for children of employees. American Express, Exxon Mobile, Chevron, and many more offer financial assistance for qualified families. Would you believe there are scholarships for students who promote vegetarianism, duck calling, rodeo club, and so many more? There are also scholarships specifically for adult learners available from many organizations.
  • Don’t forget to research professional organizations. Many professional organizations offer scholarships for qualified candidates. The American Marketing Association, The National Society for Accountants, and The Business and Professional Women’s Foundations are just a few of the organizations that help students afford college.