Tips for Getting Financial Aid and Scholarships in College

college student girl on phone reading and smiling at messageWith the rising costs of higher education, finding extra resources can be a daunting task. But take heart in the spirit and words of Confucius, "The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones."

Here are a few tips for scoring the most financial aid you possibly can through scholarships, grants and beyond.

  1. Get Organized - Start with a notebook to keep all your reference materials handy. Clear plastic sleeves and a three-ring binder will become your new lifesaver offering easy visibility and access to documents and brochures.
  2. Don't Delay - If you're reading this article, it's probably not too early to start. Sophomore or junior year of high school is the average time to start applying for aid, but don't be discouraged if you've passed that mark. Just jump in.
  3. Schedule the Research Time - It's going to take more than a few hours, so prioritize it by scheduling dedicated time (students and parents together if possible) to strategize.
  4. Complete Your FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) - Many schools won't even look at a student's application for aid or scholarships (even merit-based ones) without a completed FAFSA on file, so make sure you fill it out.
  5. List Out Your Activities - Consider school, community, sports, church, scouting and any other organizations. All can be important in identifying scholarship sources.
  1. Identify all Leadership Roles - Scholarship committees want to see evidence of dynamic students who go the extra mile. You may not have been captain of the football team but think back to any mentorship roles you've held such as Girl Scouts, leading a group at Vacation Bible School, or coaching a Little League team.
  2. Develop Your Core Reference Writing Team - Reach out to teachers, administrators, club and church leaders to ask for their help in advance, so they will be ready when you need them.
  3. Prepare a Brief History for Your Reference Writers - It's helpful to provide notes on your past activities and achievements, since they may only know you in their specific roles as a coach or teacher. Give them an overview of your strengths to help guide their letter-writing process.

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  1. Schedule Conference Times with School Counselors - Counselors are invaluable resources, as they not only have the latest lists of available scholarships, but also excellent guidance on where to place your greatest focus.
  2. Contact Financial Aid Offices at Your Top Schools - Find out how their process works, ask about school-sponsored scholarship awards and important deadlines.
  3. Create a Targeted List - Look for the best-fit scholarships and focus on these ones first.
  4. Build a Comprehensive Calendar of Due Dates - You're not in Kansas anymore, and they won't allow extra time, so keep track of dates and be responsible.
  5. Seek the Big and Small - Many students make the mistake of focusing only on the large national awards promising big returns, then miss out on accumulating smaller awards that often have less competition and still provide valuable support.
  6. Check Out the U.S. Department of Education - Their website can provide additional information and resources.
  7. Locate Your State's Grant Agency - Understand what is available at the state level and the requirements to be granted these funds.
  8. Contact Professional Organizations Related to Your Field of Study - Many have junior versions of their organization providing valuable internship opportunities and scholarships. Plan to get involved in these during your junior and senior years.

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  1. Investigate Employer Opportunities - Ask about scholarship opportunities through students' or parents' employers.
  2. Explore First Generation Scholarships - If you are the first in your family to attend college, there are several funding opportunities including academic, sports and lower-income programs.
  3. Look into Funds from Religious Organizations - Many churches award annual scholarships based on service or need.
  4. Consider Ethnicity-based Organizations - Depending on your field of study, there are a variety of specific scholarships available, especially for minority students entering medicine, math or science.
  5. Check into Military Service Benefits - Make sure you are aware of any unused GI Bill funds. The laws have changed, and dependents are eligible for more than they were in the past. There are also many scholarships available based on your family's past military service.
  6. Ask Extended Family Members and Friends - Prepare an email to extended family explaining your scholarship pursuit and your planned field of study. Never underestimate the connections of your out-of-state aunt, or perhaps your grandpa's fraternal organization that gives away scholarship money each year.

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  1. Write an Essay that Stands Out from the Rest - Scholarship committees read thousands, so it's vital to make it personal and grab their attention from the start.
  2. Rework Your Essay - Then do it again. Fine-tune it more than you think possible.
  3. Enlist Proofreading Help - Ask parents and teachers to help you make sure your final essays are as polished as possible.
  4. Understand Each Application's Specific Requests - Be aware of any mishaps that could deem your application ineligible from the start. Though it seems completely obvious, many students have lost opportunities by not sticking to specific word count requests on essays or forgetting to answer a question in full.
  5. Raise Your SAT and ACT Scores - Unless you already have a merit scholar score, this is always going to be an important element in qualifying for scholarships.
  6. Beware of Scholarship Scams - Although you want to be open to all existing opportunities, don't be swayed by the shameful number of scams. If the application charges a fee or asks for unusual identifying information online such as your social security number, avoid it at all costs.
  7. Examine Your Online Presence - Many will check. Make sure your online content and social media accounts represent what someone on a scholarship committee wants to support.
  8. Express Your Gratitude - Don't forget to promptly send thank you notes to teachers, counselors, relatives or anyone else who writes you a recommendation letter or helps you with scholarships. They will remember your appreciation when other opportunities come along.
Persistence will carry you far on your college scholarship search. And remember that this journey doesn't end with the start of the first semester. Keep on applying because there are still lots of funds and financial aid to explore throughout your college career.

Laura Jackson is a freelance writer based in Hilton Head, S.C. with her husband and two teenagers.