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  • Grant and scholarship applications have a ton of moving parts, so it’s crucial to stay organized.
  • Start early and get key components, such as the FAFSA® and teacher recommendations, done as soon as possible.
  • Keep applying for more aid, even after you’ve started school.

Finding and winning college grants and scholarships are a great way to help pay for college. After all, they don’t have to be repaid and are essentially “free money” toward your education. But with so many options out there and each requiring different application materials, the process can seem a little daunting. Here’s how to get started and stay organized, so you can give yourself the best shot at winning those funds.

Step 1: Fill out the FAFSA if you haven’t already

Regardless of whether or not you think you’ll qualify for financial aid, you should fill out the FAFSA. It’s necessary for getting federal grants, and some state and institutional grants, too. It’s even required to be eligible for some merit-based awards and scholarships. Complete the application as soon as you can after it becomes available on October 1 of each year because some aid is awarded as “first come, first served.”

Step 2: Search for student grants and scholarships

There are millions of grants and scholarships available from a variety of sources, including employers, foundations, religious groups, clubs, colleges and universities, and federal and state governments. Schools will automatically consider you for some federal, state, and institutional grants when you complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). But you may want to expand your search beyond what the school provides.

You should also:

  • Learn more about federal grants at
  • Investigate grant aid opportunities in your state.
  • Use a free online scholarship search tool help tailor your search for grants and scholarships that are right for you.

Step 3: Construct a timeline

Once you’ve identified an initial batch of programs to apply to, you should read through all the requirements and deadlines carefully. Write down any interim deadlines, as well as the final dates to submit your application. Note any materials that will take time to gather, like a recommendation you’ll need to get, an essay to write, or forms to complete. Then make yourself a timeline with all these dates and tasks and a schedule for getting it all done. This way you won’t be scrambling at the last minute and will give yourself ample opportunity to put your best foot forward.

Step 4: Create a résumé of your accomplishments

Make a list of all of your achievements, academic and otherwise. This can include:

  • Good grades
  • Academic and athletic awards
  • Community service activities
  • Leadership roles
  • Club and team participation
  • Jobs you’ve held
  • Special talents

Periodically update this résumé to ensure your achievements are accounted for on your applications—and to make sure you don’t forget anything.

Step 5: Gather letters of recommendation

Like your college applications, some scholarships require recommendation letters from someone who knows you, such as a teacher, counselor, coach, or employer. Think carefully about who you will ask, and then give them plenty of notice. After all, if the recommender is rushed, they may not have time to write as thoughtful of a letter or the person may have to decline altogether due to other requests and obligations. You’ll also want to provide a copy of your achievements résumé for reference when they write your recommendation. Remember to send a thank you note to the recommender to show your appreciation.

Step 6: Collect other necessary materials

Applications will likely ask for other documents, including:

  • Transcripts
  • Test score reports
  • Financial information

Take the time to request all of these documents, so you have them when you need them. Some materials—such as test score reports and transcripts—can be sent directly to the program you’re applying to.

Step 7: Work on your essays

As you look through the applications for various awards, you may start to see some themes emerge and find opportunities where an essay can work for more than one application. As you write your essay responses, make sure you clearly communicate who you are, your goals, and what distinguishes you from other applicants. Share your unique stories and experiences to create a memorable essay. And don’t forget to proofread them before submitting.

Step 8: Keep applying!

The more student grant and scholarship applications you submit, the more chances you have to earn free money for school, so continue to apply—even after you start college. Also keep in mind that you will have to complete the FAFSA each year you are in school to determine eligibility for financial aid, including grants and scholarships.

FAFSA® is a registered trademark of the US Department of Education and is not affiliated with Discover® Student Loans.

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