Planning on paying for college? With tuition skyrocketing each year, finding the funds to further your education might seem like a difficult task. Even if family members are going to help you pay, they’re probably shaking their heads too. Especially with prices as high as $23,890 a year on average for out-of-state tuition (according to the College Board).

Behold: Scholarships and grantsGirl filling out paperwork

You’ve heard the terms before, but what do you really know about them? Both scholarships and grants are forms of gift aid, or free money that doesn’t need to be repaid. However, they’re pretty different. Grants are usually based on your family’s financial need, while scholarships are often based on merit, such as academic, artistic, or athletic talent.

In a recent Student Health 101 survey, 38 percent of students said they weren’t sure whether they would apply for a scholarship or grant. But 100 percent of you should. Financial aid can save you big money when it comes to college, and it might be a lot easier to figure out than you think.

Let’s talk about getting a grant

You can begin researching grants early in your junior year. To determine your eligibility for a grant, you must first fill out a FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Every high school junior and senior (or anyone who plans to go to college in the next two years) is encouraged to fill out a FAFSA—even if you don’t think you qualify, chances are you do qualify for some aid, such as work-study. 

What types of grants are available?

Once you fill out a FAFSA, there are many ways to find grants. Most often, grants come from state and federal governments. Nonprofit organizations, colleges, and even research and travel programs offer grants. Federal grants, such as the Pell program, usually have a maximum dollar amount that can be awarded over a person’s lifetime. 

The federal government offers the Pell Grant to low-income families. The maximum Pell Grant for the 2016–2017 academic year is $5,815, and it changes each year. The amount students will be awarded depends on their financial need, cost of attending their chosen school, status as a full-time or part-time student, and plans to attend school for a full academic year or less.

The TEACH Grant provides up to $4,000 per year to students who are completing (or plan to complete) the coursework required for a teaching career and who agree to teach for at least four years in a low-income area.

The government also offers work-study jobs, part-time positions on or off campus. These are coordinated directly with your school. The money you receive for working is intended to go toward education costs, such as tuition, fees, and housing.

There’s also the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG), which can range from $100 to $4,000 a year, depending on how much other aid you receive, as well as grant funds available at the college you’ll be attending.

If your parent or guardian died as a result of military service after September 11, 2001, in Iraq or Afghanistan, then you may qualify for the Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grant.The amount of money received would be equal to the yearly maximum of the Pell Grant but can’t exceed your cost of attendance for the year in which you were awarded the grant.
Find out about grants offered in your home state here. 

Where and how do I apply for a grant?

The most reliable place to find a grant is the government’s free website,, which consolidates information from more than 1,000 government grant programs. You may want to stay away from other sites when searching for grants, especially if they charge you service fees to use them. If you think you’re being scammed (being asked for money is a big red flag), you can file a complaint with FTC online or call 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357).

Once you register with, you can search for grants and download application packages for any you qualify for. Typically, to apply for a grant, you’ll need to submit a grant proposal explaining your background and eligibility and what you intend to do with the money if you win. You may also need to submit additional papers such as tax or work documents. If you need help, ask to meet with your school counselor.

“The [grant] application will typically ask for the student’s and parent’s demographic information, asset information, and financial information,” says Darcy Keller, director of student financial services at the City University of Seattle. “The application will also need the student’s and parent’s social security number.” Once submitted, you can track your application on

What types of scholarships are available to me?

Thousands of scholarships exist for every kind of student. They are usually awarded based on something you’ve achieved, such as good grades, excellence in sports, or community involvement. But there are some wacky scholarships out there too. For example, if you’re particularly creative, you might try to find a scholarship that requires unusual skills, such as making a prom costume out of duct tape (seriously, this exists). Scholarships take a bit of research, but if you work at it, you should be able to find some you qualify for.

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Where to look for scholarships

  • Talk to your high school counselor, advisor, coach, or teacher. They’re likely to have info on a few options.
  • The library. “Librarians are an excellent untapped resource that can provide a lot of great information,” says Keller.
  • Your state’s education agency. Find it here.
  • Local businesses, foundations, or civic groups, such as Key Club or Rotary International.
  • Workshops and college fairs. Here, you’ll often find nonprofits, community organizations, and universities all under one roof.
  • Ethnicity-based organizations, such as the Hispanic Scholarship Fund or the Ron Brown Scholar Program.
  • Places of worship, such as your church, mosque, or synagogue.
  • This free scholarship search tool by the US Department of Labor.

Apply for as many as you canApply to every scholarship, especially ones that require essays, as they have less competition. Also ones that don’t offer as much aid and local scholarships—the less popular ones, basically.” —Melissa, fourth-year undergraduate, San Diego, California

Many times, where to find a scholarship depends on what type of scholarship it is. For example, the financial aid office at the college you plan to attend may award scholarships on a university-wide basis or targeted to attract a particular major.

Apply for every scholarship for which you’re eligible,” says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher and vice president of strategy at Cappex, a free website about planning and paying for college. “You may think you’re a shoe-in, but in reality, it’s extremely competitive. Thousands of valedictorians or people with 4.0 GPAs and perfect SAT scores apply. The more you apply to, the greater your chances are of winning one.”

Athletic scholarships

To get an athletic scholarship, you have to be recruited by a college. You cannot ‘apply’ for an athletic scholarship,” says Ryan Curtis, college counselor and head varsity lacrosse coach at Westminster School in Connecticut. “It’s at the discretion of that program’s coach to offer athletic aid.”

However, if you play a high school sport and are interested in attending a particular school that has that sport, you can contact the university’s coach directly to inquire about scholarships. “Supply the stats associated with your sport, and you may be surprised at the response,” says Victoria Otto, coach and teacher at Highland Park High School in Illinois. “Many of my track and field athletes have received scholarships by starting a dialogue with the coach.”

Athletic scholarships often come with stipulations. If you receive an athletic scholarship, it’s likely you’ll need to commit to playing on the team in order to receive it.

“If you receive an offer for an athletic scholarship, you do not have to commit,” says Curtis. “However, once you sign a National Letter of Intent (NLI) or financial award letter, you’re ‘bound’ to that school. Typically, to break an NLI would require you to have to sit out a year from competition.”

To determine your eligibility to play college sports, register with the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

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Tips to up your chances of winning a scholarship

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the competitiveness of scholarships, don’t fret. Here’s how to improve your chances: 

1  Clean up your online presence. “More and more scholarship companies are checking out their finalists online or requiring them to friend them on Facebook,” Kantrowitz says. “They want to see their finalists in a more natural setting and look for any red flags, like inappropriate remarks or underage use of alcohol or other illegal activities.” Tip: Google yourself to see what comes up. Then try to edit anything from your online presence that doesn’t portray you in a positive light.Facebook app button

2  Follow directions. Typically, you’ll be asked to write an essay or answer questions relating to what the scholarship offers. Make sure to read the directions, qualifications, and fine print carefully beforehand. Professionals want to know that you can follow simple directions, according to Kantrowitz.

3  Pay attention to deadlines. “Scholarships have various deadlines and are unique to each scholarship application,” says Keller. However, many scholarships require admission about one year before you start college, so it’s best to research and apply during the summer between your junior and senior years. “Be sure to check each scholarship application carefully to be sure the instructions are followed correctly,” she says. 

4  Answer the optional questions. When applying for a scholarship or grant, you’ll usually come across some optional questions that you may want to skip over. “Answer all of them,” says Kantrowitz. “It’s a little tedious, but students who answer the optional questions tend to match twice as many scholarships on average than those who answer just the mandatory ones.” 

5  Make yourself webcam friendly. Many scholarship interviews these days are conducted using Skype or a webcam. “Clean the lens if it’s dirty, or take a picture with your webcam so you can see what’s in view behind you. If there’s anything inappropriate, remove it,” Kantrowitz says.

6  Focus on what you love and do well. Scholarships are looking for people who match their selected criteria. Depth matters more than breadth—that means if you’ve done volunteering for the same organization for many years, that will matter a lot more than three weeks volunteering because your high school requires it,” Mark explains. “It’s better to have a more significant accomplishment than minor participation in half a dozen things.”

Beware iconBeware of scams!

Most high school students will run into a scam or two, says Kantrowitz. The biggest sign of a scam is if you’re asked for money.

“You should never have to pay to apply for financial aid,” Kantrowitz says. Never give away your social security number, your bank account number, or your credit card number on any sites that aren’t reputable, he says.

Other signs of scams include

  • Typos and spelling errors
  • Receiving an email from a scholarship you don’t remember applying for
  • Requiring an application fee
  • Guaranteeing that you’ll be awarded the scholarship

Learn more about common scholarship scams here.

Note: If you win a scholarship that’s more than $600, the scholarship organization will need your social security number to report it to the IRS before you receive your money. Before providing it, ask your parent to help you check out the legitimacy of the organization.

What can freshmen and sophomores do to get a head start?

Check out College Greenlight, a site that will match you up with potential scholarships based on your profile. “I think it’s the best database for scholarships,” says Eduardo Brambila, managing director of partnerships at the Illinois Student Assistance Commission in Deerfield.

The site provides tuition fees, how much financial aid schools usually give, graduation rates, contact information for admissions offices, deadline dates, and more.

Schools also use College Greenlight to identify students they may like to recruit. “This works like a friend request. For instance, the University of Minnesota can send out a note through College Greenlight that they are interested in a student, and if the student accepts them, the college will send them information about the school,” explains Brambila.

Student tips for finding scholarships or grants“Know how much the school you plan on attending costs first in order to know how much money you need.” —Kaitlyn, junior, Brooklyn, New York

“Look to see if your bank offers a scholarship, and ask your counselor.”
—Melanie, Tyngsborough, Massachusetts

“Our school counselors send out a bunch of emails throughout the year to tell us about any new scholarships. You could also easily look them up.”
—Cristina, senior, Brooklyn, New York

“Ask your teachers, college counselor, and parents questions.”
—Eric, senior, Tyngsborough, Massachusetts

“My high school counselor helped me find scholarships. Schools like well-rounded students, so get involved early and take advantage of leadership opportunities.”
—Marissa, fifth-year undergraduate, Lincoln, Nebraska 

“Make sure you’re writing specifically to the question that is asked. For example, if they ask what you have done for your community, don’t go talking about how you love doing community service but then never mention anything about what you have done. Also, apply to as many as possible, because some scholarships don’t receive many applicants.”
—Jennifer, second-year undergraduate, Pasadena, California

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Article sources


Darcy Keller, director of Student Financial Services at the City University of Seattle in Washington.

Eduardo Brambila, managing director of partnerships at the Illinois Student Assistance Commission, Deerfield, Illinois.

Mark Kantrowitz, publisher and vice president of strategy, Cappex, a free website about planning and paying for college.

Federal Student Aid. (n.d.). Grants and scholarships. Retrieved from

Federal Student Aid. (n.d.). Finding and applying for scholarships. Retrieved from (2016, October 13). Applicant tools and tips. Retrieved from

College Board. (n.d.). College costs: FAQs. Retrieved from

US Department of Education. (n.d.). Federal Pell Grant program. Retrieved from

Scholarship America. (2011, March 3). 4 tips before you pursue athletic scholarships. US News & World Report. Retrieved from

Student Health 101 survey, December 2016.