Now that you understand the basic types of financial aid available, let's talk about how to get your grubby paws on it.
Ask the Government
The number one resource for free college dollars is this guy right here. Before hitting up scholarship search sites, head to Fafsa.ed.gov to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The “FAFSA” as it is known in the super secret underground world of financial aid administrators, is the one application that can qualify you for government grants, a work-study job, AND a boatload of low-interest student loans all in one move. Sweet.
The catch is that the FAFSA is a numbers game. Loopholes and hacks abound. Understanding how the system works and using it to your advantage can significantly increase the amount of government aid you receive. For info on how to increase your FAFSA eligibility, click here. The second hitch is that some federal money is handed out on a first come, first serve basis. To get the biggest slice of the financial aid pie, fill out the FAFSA as close to January 1 of the year before you will head off to school. Your bank account (and probably your mom) will thank you.
Ask Your School
Right after you have filled out the FAFSA, call your college's financial aid office to find out about need and merit-based scholarship and grant opportunities available through your institution. To qualify for need-based awards, your schools will most likely require you to fill out the FAFSA; however, certain private institutions also require students to fill out the CSS Profile. Once you have filled out the paperwork to apply for need-based aid, ask your school's aid office what types of merit awards they offer and how to get them. The key to making this work is to actually speak to a financial aid officer, either by phone or in person, and to be extremely polite. While schools publish most of their award information online, colleges and universities often receive last minute donations that become unpublicized scholarships. Getting in front of a financial aid counselor, putting your best foot forward, and being nice can be one of the best financial decisions you've ever made.
One more thing, do not just stick to the school's financial aid page. As a financial advisor would tell you—Diversify! In addition to posting scholarship opportunities on the financial aid page, many schools also offer other awards through specific academic departments, sports programs, and extracurricular activities. If you are thinking of joining the drama club, majoring in biology or taking a swing on the baseball team, head to those pages as well to see what kind of funds they offer.
Ask Your Community
Remember your old boss, your former track coach with the permanent pit stains, and the guy at your bank who always smells like cheese? Any or all of those people could be your ticket to college money.
Once the government and your college's resources have been exhausted, turn to local resources next. While national scholarship competitions hog all the limelight, local awards offered through your community, region, or state are more likely find their way into your pocket than national awards that draw thousands of applicants. So where do you find local scholarships? Open your eyes, kid. Organizations including your high school, your employer, your parents' employers, religious groups, volunteer organizations or civic clubs could offer scholarship opportunities for those bold enough to ask. To find out what's available, ask organizations you work with about what's available and do some geographic-specific scholarship searches at places like Fastweb.com and Scholarships.com. We have highlighted a bunch of them here at Shmoop.
Ask Everyone Else
If and only if you have exhausted all other possibilities, now is the time to attack those coveted national awards. To improve your chances of crushing your competition like the insects they are, seek out national scholarships designed for specific groups of students—the more specific, the better. Let's face it: there will be significantly less competition for awards designed for Hispanic biology majors with parents in the military than for science majors attending a four-year college or university.
While you are narrowing your scholarship search, check out merit aid. The third biggest misconception of our time (just under the ideas that toilets flush counterclockwise in South America and that Einstein was a terrible math student) is that merit scholarships are only given to the best, the brightest, and the most athletically gifted. Yes, there are substantial merit awards for brains, brawn, and artistic achievement, but there are also scholarships for those with more outside-the-box qualities, including awards for future sci-fi writers, those blessed with spot-on duck-calling skills, and students who can jatlh tlhIngan—that's “speak Klingon” for all you earthlings. You do not need to be a shining star from your high school to land a merit scholarship, but you do have to do some research. Meritaid.com is a good place to start, but once again, call your college's financial aid office to see what's available. Just do it so we do not have to keep sounding like your mom.