How Free Financial Aid Works

Scholarships and Fellowships

Anyone interested in attending college should take a close look at the thousands of scholarships and fellowships available every year. Scholarship money can come from many sources, and once scholarship money is awarded, it never needs to be repaid. Unlike need-based aid, scholarships (and fellowships, which amount to scholarships for graduate students) are typically awarded based on the accomplishments and attributes of a prospective student.

The good news is that a 4.0 grade point average and a perfect score on college entry exams aren't the only things that can earn you scholarship money. For instance, a stellar jump shot or a perfect backhand can help you become one of more than 120,000 student athletes who receive student aid each year from Division 1 and 2 schools in the United States [source: NCAA]. Prospective students may also qualify for scholarships by doing community service, participating in religious and cultural organizations, coming from certain ethnic backgrounds and pursuing certain fields of study.

With so many different types of scholarships out there, you may wonder how to even begin finding the ones that are right for you. High school students can start by visiting their school's guidance counselor or financial aid office. Students can also find information through sites like, which match them up with potential scholarships after they create extensive profiles about their interests and qualifications. Lastly, think about your own situation and see if you qualify for special scholarships. Do the companies your parents work for offer scholarships? Are there any essay contests centered on your favorite authors? A lot of scholarships are out there, and finding the ones that fit your interests is a big part of the process.

Once a student finds a scholarship worth pursuing, he or she should pay close attention to the scholarship requirements. Unlike some other forms of aid, a scholarship can require the student to uphold a set of criteria year after year to maintain it. For instance, you may need to enroll in a certain number of credit hours or maintain a minimum grade point average to maintain the scholarship. Those types of stipulations will be clearly stated by the group awarding the scholarship, and some scholarships have no stipulations at all. Scholarship applications vary widely, too, with some requiring accompanying essays and academic information, and others requiring little more than basic personal information. A great place to start when applying for scholarships is by filling out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Many scholarships are based off FAFSA information, and even if the scholarships you're looking at don't need a FAFSA, the next type of free financial aid on our list certainly will.