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  • On average, scholarships and grants for college cover $7,500 of tuition per student, per year.
  • Almost two-thirds of all undergrads receive at least one scholarship or grant.
  • It’s worth applying for grants and scholarships, regardless of your GPA or extracurricular résumé. They can reduce the amount of money you’ll have to pay out of pocket.

If you’re getting started on your college journey, chances are you’ve been advised to apply for scholarships and grants. They can be a great way to reduce your out-of-pocket costs—and unlike other forms of financial aid, they don’t need to be repaid. Tracking down scholarships and grants can take time, but may be well worth the effort. The first step is understanding how much money may be available, where to find it, and how to apply. Here are some must-know facts about grants vs. scholarships.

Grants vs. scholarships

When it comes to paying for college, it can be helpful to think of your costs as a pie chart: Money may come from:

The bigger one piece of the pie is, the smaller the others will be. Digging into grant and scholarship opportunities can be valuable because you don’t have to repay those funds since both are considered gift aid. When comparing grants vs. scholarships, keep in mind that they aren’t exactly the same. Grants, which are available through schools, the federal government, and state governments, are typically reserved for students with financial need. Scholarships are available through private organizations and schools, and can be awarded based on many things—such as need, merit, family background, and more.

How do I find grants and scholarships for college?

The US Department of Education offers a variety of federal grants to students. Many of these, such as Pell Grants, are awarded to students who demonstrate significant financial need. The FAFSA® (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), is used to determine federal grant eligibility. It’s available beginning October 1. Submitting the FAFSA sooner rather than later is wise since some aid is distributed on a first-come, first-served basis. On average, scholarships and grants cover $7,500 of annual academic costs per student, according to the Education Data Initiative.

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 FAFSA, but you may want to expand your search beyond what the school provides.

How do scholarships work with financial aid?

If you’re receiving financial aid, it’s your responsibility to notify your school of any scholarships you receive because they may reduce your financial aid package. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It could just mean that you’ll have to borrow less money to pay for college. If you fail to report a scholarship, you may be responsible for paying back the over-award.

What are your chances of getting scholarships or grants for college?

Your chances may be better than you might think. Between public and private scholarships, there’s enough available money to give every full-time enrolled student over approximately $9,700, according to the Education Data Initiative. As of April 2022, almost two-thirds of undergraduate students receive at least one grant or scholarship.

Does grant and scholarship money really go unclaimed?

According to the National College Attainment Network, the high school class of 2022 left $3.58 billion in Pell Grants on the table. Why does this aid go unclaimed? By failing to fill out the FAFSA, many students are likely missing out on grant money. Filling out this form can help you cover your bases and unlock important financial aid opportunities.

How to apply for scholarships and grants for college

Once you’ve completed the FAFSA and identified a batch of grants and scholarships you’re interested in, the next step is getting organized and completing applications.

Step 1: Construct a timeline

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, along with a schedule for getting it all done. This way you won’t be scrambling at the last minute.

Step 2: 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 your résumé to ensure your achievements are accurately reflected on your applications.

Step 3: Gather letters of recommendation

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. You’ll also want to provide a copy of your résumé for reference when they write your recommendation. Remember to send a thank-you note afterward to show your appreciation.

Step 4: Collect other necessary materials

Applications will likely ask for other documents like:

  • Transcripts
  • Test score reports
  • Financial information

Be sure to request all of these documents well in advance. Some materials, such as test score reports and transcripts, can be sent directly to the program you’re applying to.

Step 5: Work on your essays

You may find that one 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 6: Keep applying!

The more college grants and scholarships you apply for, the more chances you’ll have to earn free money for school. Continue to apply—even after you start college. Keep in mind that you will have to complete the FAFSA each year you are in school to be eligible 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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