Scholarships and Grants
As you consider how to pay for college, the very first place to start is with college grants and scholarships. Unlike student loans, grants and scholarships generally do not have to be repaid. There are billions of dollars of grants and scholarships available from hundreds of thousands of organizations – the key is doing your research and starting early.
Grants are based on a combination of financial need, and in some cases, academic performance. For example, the federal Pell Grant offers up to $4,050 (for the 2006-07 school year) depending on your financial need and the cost of attendance at your school. Applying for the Pell Grant and other federal grants is done through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or the FAFSA, which is a free financial aid form. Your FAFSA results, called the Student Aid Report (SAR), will inform you if you're eligible for a Pell Grant, and for how much. Other grants controlled by the FAFSA include the Supplementary Educational Opportunity Grant, the National SMART Grant, and the Academic Competitiveness Grant.
College scholarships are another source of funds for education that don't have to be repaid. They are typically offered to students who meet specific requirements, and are typically funded by private benefactors. Though many scholarships are awarded on the basis of academic merit or financial need, not all are. Some scholarships are random drawings, while others have requirements designed to focus on improving access to specific demographics, like minorities or certain fields of study.
There are millions of need- and merit-based scholarships worth over $10 billion. There are many websites listing scholarships - StudentScholarshipSearch.com currently has over $7B in scholarships available for visitors. In addition to the Internet, meet with your high school guidance counselor who may have a list of local scholarship opportunities.
It is important to research these student scholarships early since many require an application and/or interview. Although you will not apply for college until you are a senior in high school, start to research scholarships in your sophomore or junior year. This will allow you to identify potential scholarships and give you time to meet all the qualification criteria. Be as specific as possible – the more targeted your search, the less competition you will have from other applicants and the more likely you are to stand-out to the organization providing the scholarship. For more details about how to search effectively, read the free Scholarship Search Secrets e-Book available at StudentScholarshipSearch.com.
Apply for as many scholarships as possible – there is no limit and every dollar of scholarship funds you accrue will limit your need of student loans. Many scholarships require you to submit an application and/or participate in an interview, so be sure you qualify for the scholarship before applying. Try to set a specific time each week to apply for at least two scholarships - every Sunday afternoon, for example. In a year's time, you will have applied for over 100 scholarships.
Another key fact often overlooked is that in the end, what matters most is how much scholarship money you have been awarded, whether it comes from a single scholarship for $1,000, or 10 scholarships for $100 each. Apply for large and small scholarships alike; the larger the scholarship, the more competition there likely is for it, so you may find in your search that applying for many smaller scholarships will improve your chances of being awarded money.
One last word of caution – be sure to avoid scholarship scams. Typical signs of scholarship scams include asking for very detailed personal information, such as a Social Security number or date of birth. Any scholarship award that asks you to pay money of any dollar amount is likely not legitimate. Awards which require you to give any kind of financial information such as bank account numbers or credit card numbers are almost certainly scams. Receiving a notice that you're a finalist in a scholarship you never applied for is almost certainly a scam. Generally speaking, scholarship search services, while not necessarily scams, don't offer value above and beyond what a search engine like Google can provide, so it's usually not worth paying for them. Above all else, trust your gut instincts - if something feels like a scam, it probably is.