When you need to pay for higher education, it's best to explore your cheapest options first. College grants and scholarships don't need to be repaid, which shrinks the overall cost of your degree.


And there's plenty of free money to go around. During the 2018-19 school year, the typical family received $8,177 through grants and scholarships, according to Sallie Mae's 2019 "How America Pays for College" report. Here's how to find scholarships and grants to pay for college.

Types of scholarships

A college scholarship is a financial aid that doesn't need to be repaid. These can help you pay for school expenses, such as tuition, fees, and room and board, and they may cover the entire cost of your degree or just a portion of it.

During the 2015-16 school year, more than 1.58 million scholarships helped undergraduate students pay for college. Many are awarded based on a student's achievements, talents, and interests. So no matter where your skills lie - for example, in the classroom, on the football field, or on stage - there's likely a scholarship out there for you. Many are even geared toward unique interests and personality traits. Better yet, there's no limit to the number of scholarships you can apply for.

Most scholarships are merit-based and may fall under these broad categories:

  • Academic achievement: Academic scholarships are based on earning superior grades in the classroom, a high GPA, and/or excellent standardized test scores.
  • Arts: Creative students can search for scholarships geared toward music, visual arts, theater, and more.
  • Career, major, or industry: You may find scholarships designed for your expected field of study or career plans.
  • Family background: Some scholarships are awarded based on a student's traits or background. For example, you can find scholarships designed for first-generation college students, people in the LGBTQ community, and underrepresented minority groups.
  • School-based scholarships: Most colleges and universities provide their own scholarships as part of their ongoing financial aid programs. Ask your school's financial aid office about your options.
  • Sports: Many colleges offer athletic scholarships to standout student-athletes who agree to play on the school's team.

How scholarships work

With so many scholarship options out there, it's a good idea to set up a plan of attack. Here's what you can expect during the scholarship search and application process:

  1. Find your scholarships. Whether you're searching online or using scholarship databases like Fastweb, Scholarships.com, and Unigo, you can find any scholarship you'd like. Also, check around your community for local scholarships.
  2. Apply for scholarships. As you move through the scholarship applications, make sure you understand the requirements and follow all instructions. For example, if the scholarship requires an essay, write within the word count provided. Then plan to submit the application a few days before the deadline to give yourself a buffer.
  3. Accept the scholarship money. Once you win a scholarship, the scholarship provider sends instructions for accepting the funds. Make sure that the provider has the information it needs to disburse funds to you or your school.
  4. Check for extra steps or requirements. Some scholarship providers require that students do a little extra work after winning the scholarship. For example, you may need to submit a bio and photo for the provider's website, mentor future scholarship winners, or maintain a certain GPA to renew the scholarship.
  5. Notify your school's financial aid department. The total amount you receive in grants, scholarships, and student loans typically can't exceed the cost of your school attendance. So when you win a scholarship, your school may have to adjust your financial aid package. Ask your school's financial aid office how your aid may change once you've won a scholarship.

How do I find the best scholarships?

Not all scholarships are created equal. Use a variety of different resources to find the best ones for you.

Search the internet

Simply searching terms that fit the description of the offers you want to find can bring up a host of relevant scholarships. Try using a combination of interests, like "music scholarships," "LGBT scholarships" or "best scholarships for military families."

You can also search for scholarships near you. Community scholarships from local nonprofits and businesses may not be as widely broadcasted as national ones, but that can work in your favor. Sometimes these scholarships fly under the radar, making your chances of winning them that much higher. Explore religious organizations, civic groups, and other local businesses in your research.

Use scholarship databases to narrow down your searches, but don't be afraid to use regular search engines to find ones that aren't registered with databases.

Ask your friends and family

While the internet is a valuable resource, your connections and network are just as important. Your friends and other relatives might have knowledge about scholarships you aren't aware of.

Some scholarships are rewarded based on your family's history and status. For instance, you may qualify if you're a first-generation college student or the child of a military member. If you're eligible for one, explore similar scholarships. You may have a niche you didn't know about.

Check your school resources

Your high school guidance counselor, teachers, and administrators are more knowledgeable than you might give them credit for. They know about scholarships and opportunities you may not be aware of at the federal, state, and local levels.

You can also explore scholarship opportunities in your future school. Many institutions have school-specific scholarships for students; admissions offices can give you insight into where to look for scholarships.

Tips for applying to college scholarships

As you prepare to apply for college grants and scholarships, keep these tips in mind:

  • Get organized. Keep a list of scholarships you're researching, along with ones you've applied to, and include the major requirements and deadlines. Then set up a folder to keep your essays, details, and documents in one place. Having these ready can help streamline the process.
  • Focus on your unique traits. You may stand a better chance at winning local scholarships or ones with specific eligibility requirements. Your school counselors, teachers, and parents may also know of scholarships that are a good fit for you. You may even want to write down a list of these unique traits.
  • Keep an eye out for scams. Make sure the offers you receive are legitimate. You shouldn't have to pay for scholarships or for scholarship searches. And you definitely don't need to pay for the FAFSA - it's free.
  • Follow all instructions. Don't risk disqualification because you didn't read the directions or submit the application on time. Use the instructions as a checklist and check off each item to make sure that you've met requirements.
  • Apply as early as possible. While many students search for scholarships during their senior year, you can usually start applying much earlier. And when it's time to fill out the FAFSA during senior year, apply as early as possible. Some aid is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis, so once it's gone, it's gone.
  • Continue applying for aid. About half of available scholarships are for students already enrolled in college, so keep up your search while in school.
  • Check ongoing requirements. To remain eligible for the scholarship, you may need to maintain a certain GPA or renew your application each school year. For instance, you'll need to reapply for the FAFSA every year for aid consideration.

FAQ about college scholarships

How hard is it to get a scholarship?

National scholarships that are popular and highly sought after might be more difficult to qualify for than the ones offered at state and local levels. If you find scholarships that many students don't know about, you might have an easier time winning than you would with well-known scholarships.

When should I start looking for college scholarships?

You can start searching for college scholarships at any time. Some scholarships have no age limits, while others allow you to apply early in your high school career or once you're already enrolled in college.

Do all scholarships require an essay?

Many college scholarships require an essay, but not all do. Check the scholarship's requirements to find out. If you're having trouble writing, ask a friend, counselor, or teacher for help. They may inspire an idea, offer to edit your work, or suggest another resource.

How do I get scholarship money?

Once you find your scholarships and apply to them, you'll need to wait until winners are announced before finding out if you're lucky enough to receive scholarship money. Sometimes winners get checks mailed directly to them, and sometimes schools receive the funding directly. How scholarship money is disbursed is up to each individual organization, group, and business.

Can I accept more than one scholarship?

When applying for a scholarship, check the terms and conditions. The vast majority of the time, you can apply for and accept as many scholarships as you'd like. Some athletic and academic scholarships are "full rides" and you may not have the chance to accept additional funds. Each scholarship will state terms and requirements, which you should review before applying.

Can I still get student aid?

Federal student aid is available to those who complete the FAFSA. It's a good idea to apply for federal aid regardless of how many scholarship applications you complete in case you don't win as much money as you expected. That way, you can use federal aid to fill in any funding gaps. Keep in mind that scholarships are available at the federal level, too, and completing the FAFSA ensures that you are eligible for that free money as well.

What is the difference between a grant and a scholarship?

Scholarships and grants are types of free money to pay for schools that doesn't need to be repaid. But they aren't exactly the same.

Scholarships tend to be merit-based, while grants are need-based. You can apply for both and as many as you find necessary to fund your education. If you have a stellar GPA and high standardized test scores, look into scholarships. If your family may have trouble affording your education, look into grants.

Many organizations and groups use these terms interchangeably. Look into the requirements for each type of aid you're applying for to see what you need to qualify. Those that require evidence of academic achievement - like transcripts, GPA, and test scores - are likely scholarships.

Types of college grants

A college grant is considered "gift aid," which is free money that doesn't need to be repaid. Grants are usually awarded to students with financial need. According to College Board, during the 2018-19 school year, undergraduates and graduates received $135.6 billion overall in grant money. Students can use these funds to pay for school expenses, such as tuition, fees, transportation, and room and board.

The Department of Education offers four main types of federal student grants. These are designed to help low-income students pay for school expenses at colleges, career training schools, and universities. Beyond federal aid, you may also find grants through state programs and private organizations.

  • Federal Pell GrantsPell Grants are awarded to eligible undergraduate students who show exceptional financial need. Pell Grant awards are updated annually, and for the 2020-21 award year, each student may receive up to $6,345. The award amount depends on your family's expected contribution, your school's cost of attendance, and other factors.
  • Federal Supplemental Education Opportunity Grants (FSEOG): These grants help undergraduate students with exceptional financial need to pay for higher education. You can receive up to $4,000 a year, depending on whether your school participates in the program, available funds, your level of financial need, and other factors.
  • Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grants: TEACH Grants to provide federal grants to students pursuing degrees in education. You may receive up to $4,000 a year as long as you agree to later teach in a school that serves students from low-income families. But if you don't meet this obligation, the grant turns into a Direct Unsubsidized Loan that you must repay.
  • Iraq and Afghanistan Service GrantsThese grants are available if your parent or guardian died as a result of serving in Iraq or Afghanistan after Sept. 11, 2001; you were younger than 24 or enrolled in college at least part-time when they died, and you can demonstrate financial need. If you qualify, you can receive up to $6,345 for the 2020-21 school year.
  • State-based grant: Nearly every state hosts a financial aid program to help students pay for college. To qualify, most states require you to be a resident, fill out the FAFSA, and attend an in-state school. Some states even have regional tuition exchanges, which allow you to pay in-state tuition at a school in a nearby state.
  • Private grants: You can search for private college grants using the U.S. Department of Labor's free scholarship and grant search tool.

Tips for applying for a college grant

As with scholarships, it's important to stay organized by keeping track of all your grants. Use a spreadsheet to monitor the ones that interest you, the ones you've applied for, the ones you've heard back from, and the ones you've won. Also, keep tabs on how much money you've won and compared it to the cost of attendance at your school. The better organized you are with your grants, the easier it'll be to track your progress throughout the application and award process.

As you find grants based on your needs, remember that you can also find ones based on your standout traits. Consider your socioeconomic background, religion, sexual orientation, and other aspects about yourself as you search for available grants. If you don't think a grant exists for something, chances are it does - you just have to look for it.

Don't forget to review ongoing requirements for grants that get renewed every year. For instance, you may have to hold a minimum GPA or be enrolled at least part-time to continue receiving award money. Some other grants are one-time awards, which means that you may need to look for more money while you're still in school.

Final considerations

Scholarships and grants are your biggest assets when it comes to paying for school without going into student loan debt. Use as much free money as you can before tapping into other resources, like student loans. If you do need student loans, exhaust your federal student loan options first before applying for private student loans.

If you want to avoid going into student loan debt, get organized, and keep track of your scholarships and grants as early as you can. For some, that might be while still in high school. And you may need to continue until you've graduated to ensure that you don't need to find additional funds that require repayment.