Getting scholarships and grants to pay for college may seem like a long shot, but they’re actually easier to score than you think. The trick is to do some research and apply for those that best match your profile to increase your chances of success.

If there’s one thing I regret from my college days, it’s probably the fact that I didn’t apply for scholarships or grants. In my mind, these were only for super-talented or outstanding students, so why even bother, right?

Boy was I wrong.

Turns out that there are scholarships and grants for just about anything. I mean, College Board even has a scholarship for exploring other scholarships. Need I say more?

Why scholarships and grants are the best types of aid

Scholarships And Grants: How To Score Free Money For College- Why scholarships and grants are the best

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When you’re a college student, you usually get access to four types of financial aid:

  • Scholarships.
  • Grants.
  • Work-study programs.
  • Student loans.

Unlike student loans, which need to be repaid after you finish school, and work-study programs, which allow you to earn money while in school, scholarships and grants are both a form of “gift aid.” In other words, money that’s available to you for FREE.

Getting free money for college means…

  • You could graduate with less debt — or none at all.
  • You’ll have more time to focus on your studies, as you could cut down the number of hours you work to pay for college.
  • You’ll have less money-induced anxiety knowing that some of your expenses are taken care of.

How much gift aid you’ll get, however, will depend on several factors. But just to give you an idea, Rick Castellano, a spokesman for Sallie Mae, says that last year, scholarships and grants helped students and their families cover about 25% of the costs of college.

So, yeah, you have a lot to gain and basically nothing to lose by applying (except maybe a little bit of time).

Scholarships vs grants: what’s the difference?

Although both scholarships and grants belong to the same financial aid category, there are some key differences between them, including eligibility requirements, and where to get them.


Scholarships are awarded by schools, community groups, for-profit, and nonprofit organizations. They can be merit-based or need-based, and awards range from a few hundred dollars to the full cost of tuition.

Merit-based scholarships

Merit-based scholarships are those that are given to you based on your skills, achievements, or for meeting certain criteria. They’re also the most common type of scholarship.

You could qualify for merit-based scholarships if…

  • You excelled in academics, athletics, or extracurricular activities, like writing poetry or gaming (yes, as in eSports).
  • Belong to an underrepresented group.
  • Are studying a career path that could benefit the community, like teaching or nursing.
  • You’re majoring in a high-demand field, such as technology or engineering.

Need-based scholarships

Need-based scholarships are given to students who demonstrate a lack of financial resources to pay for college.

You could qualify for need-based scholarships if…

  • You’re an independent student who doesn’t earn much — or nothing at all.
  • You come from a low-income family.


While some are awarded based on merit, grants are often awarded to students based on economic need.

Grants are typically given by the federal and state government, in addition to colleges and universities. Award amounts range from a few hundred dollars to several thousand, but rarely cover the full cost of tuition.

One of the most popular grants available is the Pell Grant, which is awarded by the federal government to students who “display exceptional financial need,” and has a limit of $6,495 per academic year.

Are there any drawbacks to applying for these forms of aid?

Neeta Vallab, founder of MeritMore, a website that helps students get matched with colleges that offer merit-based aid, says that the only major drawback to applying, particularly in the case of private scholarships, is that your school could reduce the amount they give you in institutional aid.

“That’s called scholarship displacement. So, oftentimes it’s better to figure out where you’re going to school, reach out to their office, and then ask them, ‘Do you allow candidates to bring private scholarships without being penalized?’” 

Another thing to consider is that some scholarships and grants require an application fee, which is non-refundable.

How to apply for scholarships and grants

Scholarships And Grants: How To Score Free Money For College - How to apply for grants and scholarships

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The first thing you need to do, whether you’re looking to apply for scholarships or grants, is to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, famously known as the “FAFSA.” Castellan, from Sallie Mae, says:

“The FAFSA can help students and families potentially unlock thousands of dollars in aid, and not filing can be one of the costliest mistakes a student can make throughout the entire college process.” 

Filling out this application will allow you to see which forms of financial aid you’re eligible for, like federal, state, and school grants, work-study programs, and federal student loans.

If you don’t know how to fill out the FAFSA, here’s our quick guide to help you out.

Applying for scholarships

When it comes to applying for scholarships, there isn’t a “one-size-fits-all” way to go about it, as each of them has its own eligibility requirements.

However, there’s some common ground in terms of what you’ll need to fill out your profile.

Scholarship application profile

To fill out this profile, you’ll need to provide the following:

  • Personal information. Name and contact details, your gender, information about your citizenship status, whether you belong to a minority group, and if you have any disabilities.
  • Academic information. Your current level of education, for what degree level you’re seeking a scholarship (undergraduate or graduate), your GPA, and the field of study you’ll be pursuing.
  • Affiliations. Whether you or your parents are members of any associations or other organizations.
  • High school transcripts and standardized test scores (if you’re applying for a freshmen year scholarship).
  • Your parents’ financial information — or yours, if you’re an independent student (for need-based scholarships only).
  • Letters of recommendation.
  • A copy of your resume.
  • Proof of membership if you’re applying for a scholarship awarded by a certain group.

Additionally, some scholarships require you to write and submit an essay along with your application, explaining why you’d be the best candidate to receive the award. 

Applying for grants

Since most grants are awarded based on your financial need and are awarded by schools, federal, and state governments, the process to apply is much straightforward and simple than applying for scholarships.

To apply for grants, you’ll typically just need to fill out the FAFSA, and then the schools and Ed Department will take it from there.

Some colleges and universities also use College Board’s College Scholarship Service Profile (CSS), to determine your eligibility for institutional grants. If your school is one of them, you’ll have to create a user account and provide some details, including information about your family’s income.

Check out the complete list of schools that require this form

Unlike the FAFSA, which is free, the CSS does have an application fee of $25 and $16 per each additional report you request, however, there are fee waivers available.

Read more: How To Fill Out the CSS Profile

Where to find scholarships or grants

When looking for gift aid, Erin Powers, a spokeswoman for the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA), recommends starting local and doing some research in your community to see if there are local businesses, community organizations, private foundations, philanthropists, or unions that offer scholarships.

Besides that, you could also try the following:

  • Sign up for free scholarship search platforms like Fastweb, MeritMore, ScholarshipOwl, and College Board’s Big Future.
  • Talk to your school’s counselor or financial aid officer, as they can help you find the right scholarships and grants that best match your profile.
  • Check out if your parents’ employer — or yours if you’re working, offers some sort of aid to help pay for college.
  • Join an organization related to your field of study, as these usually provide scholarships or grants for their members. 
  • Visit the Department of Education’s website.

Getting your money

Scholarships And Grants: How To Score Free Money For College - Getting your money

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Okay, you’ve applied, and you’ve conquered. So, how do you get paid?

Well, both scholarship and grant money tends to go straight to your school’s account to pay for any outstanding balances regarding your tuition and fees. Any leftover money is then given to you either in a check or through direct deposit.

Your award may also come in a lump sum or installments. Regardless, the best way to find out how you’ll get paid is to reach out to the organization granting the award.

Tips to maximize how much gift aid you get

Don’t make assumptions

Sallie Mae’s most recent study revealed that roughly one-third of the families surveyed skipped filling out the FAFSA for the 2020-21 academic year. “The lowest number recorded since Sallie Mae’s first report in 2008,” Castellano says.

The main reason? They thought they wouldn’t qualify for aid, which Castellano says couldn’t be further from the truth.

“The reality is, nearly all who apply will qualify for something.”

Apply as soon as possible

They say that the early bird gets the worm — the same thing goes for gift aid.

Castellano points out that many federal grants, as well as state grants, are awarded on a first-come, first-served basis. 

Don’t overlook small amounts

Yes, there are scholarships worth six figures, like this $100k one from Dr. Pepper, but just because a scholarship or grant is only worth a couple of hundred dollars, that doesn’t mean you should walk away from it.

“Every little bit helps when it comes to reducing the total cost of college,” Castellano says, and, since there isn’t a limit on how many scholarships you can get, smaller amounts may turn into a jackpot when combined. 

Work hard on your grades

Many scholarships and grants are contingent on the fact that you meet certain GPA requirements, or that you stay in good academic standing. Some can even be renewed each year based on your grades, so make sure you keep up the good work.

Ask for more

Yes, that’s right, you can always ask for more aid

Vallab, from MeritMore, says that many students and families don’t know that they can file an appeal to ask for more money if they think that the amount of financial aid they’re being offered isn’t going to be enough.

“Colleges are often set up to process those sorts of requests. Even if you get $1,000 more per year, that’s $4,000 over the course of four years, which is a significant amount.”


Scholarships and grants are basically the Cadillac of financial aid, as they are both sources of free money. If you’re unsure about whether you may be eligible or not — apply anyway! You’ve got nothing to lose.

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About the author

Heidi Rivera
Total Articles: 33
Heidi Rivera is a Puerto Rico-based personal finance reporter. Her areas of expertise include credit, student debt, and higher education. Heidi’s work has been featured on Money, Yahoo, MSN Money, and Money Talks News. When she isn’t writing, Heidi likes to watch horror movies, enjoy a slice (or four) of pizza while sipping on some wine, or chilling at home with her cats. You can reach her on Twitter @_HRivera or on LinkedIn.