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How Qualifying For Financial Aid Works


Free Money: Qualifying for Scholarships
Grants and scholarships don't have to be repaid.
Grants and scholarships don't have to be repaid.
RK Studio/Katie Huisman/Getty Images

There are thousands of scholarships awarded each year for a variety of reasons. Scholarships are gifted to athletes, performers, artists, scientists, the academically exceptional, students from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, students from particular regions, students with financial need and for almost any other imaginable reason. The Frederick and Mary Beckley Scholarship awards up to $1,000 each year to two left-handed students [source: College and Finance]. Free databases, such as FastWeb.com, match parents and students with dozens of applicable scholarships.

Although need is generally determined by your expected family contribution (EFC) score, need-based scholarships sometimes have more flexible eligibility requirements than federal grants. Families who find themselves ineligible for federal grants should check with a financial aid advisor (FAA) to see if they might qualify for non-federal need-based scholarship fund.

Eligibility requirements for merit-based scholarships vary widely, so be careful to make sure you meet all of the necessary criteria before applying. Here are a few general tips that will improve your odds of qualifying for a merit-based scholarship:

  • Start Now: Begin your research early, in your junior year of high school or before. Deadlines for non-federal aid are often much earlier than federal deadlines. Starting your research early can give you a leg up on other applicants.
  • Emphasize Your Uniqueness: If you have a special skill, exceptional grades, or a certain religious, racial or national background, ask your guidance counselor, the FAA at your future college, and your coaches, instructors and community leaders if scholarships are available for a person with your unique qualities and gifts.
  • Get Active: Even if you don’t have a special skill, you may qualify for a scholarship simply by getting involved in your local community and participating in service events.
  • Shine on Paper: Your application, especially your essays and letters of recommendation, should really set you apart from the crowd.
  • Apply Yourself: Apply for every scholarship for which you are eligible -- regardless of how esoteric it may seem -- and you'll improve your odds of snagging one [source: FinAid].

You're not always required to fill out the Federal Application for Student Aid (FAFSA) when applying for scholarships; however, most sources strongly recommend you do, since most aid -- both federal and nonfederal -- requires a completed FAFSA.

When free money doesn’t work out or won't cover all of your expenses, there are still plenty of options for financing your education. In the next section, we’ll explore student loans and work-study options.