College Grants & Scholarships - How to Get Free Money for College

There are many ways to finance a college education. Private and Federal loans all play a role. The best kind of aid, however, is the kind you don’t have to pay back—grants and scholarships.

If you’re considering how to finance your education, it makes sense to try to secure as much grant and scholarship aid as possible. Some of it is given to you automatically when you apply for Federal financial aid and packages through your school. But you can up your ratio of scholarships to loans by doing some additional legwork on your own.

Where to Start with Grants and Scholarships

You’ll get some grants and scholarships automatically when you apply for financial aid using the FAFSA application. Your school’s financial aid officers will review your application and determine whether you qualify for certain grant and scholarship aid. Your qualification is often based on financial need, but occasionally funding is also given out based on other factors—including your ethnicity, extracurricular achievements, or scholarship record.

Federal Pell grants and other scholarships are also awarded on a more-or-less automatic basis when you fill out the FAFSA. The Federal government starts accepting FAFSA applications on January 1 for semesters beginning in September of that year. Be aware that grants and scholarships are often awarded on a first-come, first-served basis—so it’s critical to fill out the form as close to the deadline as possible.

What Sets You Apart?

What you’re given isn’t necessarily the only student aid you should get, however. Finding extra aid for things like books, tuition, and living expenses can involve a lot of research and writing. In most cases, you’ll have to submit an essay as well as a transcript and possibly a few letters of recommendation—but the more scholarship aid you earn now, the less you’ll have to pay back in loans later.

What challenges do you face? Funding institutions love to give out aid that promotes diversity and gives opportunities to those dealing with adversity. So think about your life story. What about you could be a “hook” to get funders interested?

If you’re an ethnic minority, there’s probably a scholarship fund out there tailored to you. If you’re from an economically underserved area—such as an inner city or rural region—you may be eligible for scholarships that promote disadvantaged youth. If you’re a female student planning to study in an area that’s traditionally male-dominated—like math, science, engineering or technology—you may be able to get funding that way as well. If you have a military background or are a handicapped or nontraditional student, that background may also get you some scholarship money.

What are you good at? In addition to adversity, funding organizations often give out awards to talented students in a range of fields, from athletics to the arts. If you’re heavily involved in anything community outreach to community theatre, you may be able to get funding focused on that. Your extracurricular passions could translate into cash for college.

Where to Look for Extra Aid

Start with what sets you apart from other students, either in terms of adversity or talent, and do an online search for scholarship aid for students like you. Check out scholarship and grant databases such as FastWeb, CollegeBoard’s FundFinder, or FinAid’s compilation of scholarship funding by major [].

In addition, consider the organizations you’re involved with. Do you attend a church, synagogue or other religious organization? Are your parents members of a fraternal organization? Do you participate in clubs such as the Boy or Girl Scouts? Are you involved with a community outreach program or nonprofit? Extracurricular organizations you volunteer for or participate in may offer scholarship funds for students—all you have to do is ask.

Local and national businesses can be a source of funding as well. Some national companies, including Coca-Cola, Best Buy, and McDonald’s offer scholarships to students. However, competition for these is fierce and they often draw a national pool of thousands of applicants. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t apply—but you should consider funding closer to home as well.

Local businesses often support their employees and communities by offering scholarships to area students and family members of employees. Check with your parents or family members to see if their employers have a scholarship program.

There are thousands of organizations and businesses out there looking for students to give scholarships to—chances are, more than a few of them are looking for someone like you. Do your research early, and you may find you can cover a significant part of your college costs through grants and scholarships.