Parent’s Guide to Scholarships and Grants

Scholarships and grants offer valuable sources of free money to families who need help paying for college. Though students are responsible for much of the application process, parents have an important role to play as well. It’s important for parents to have a solid guide to the financial opportunities available in the coming years, so the financial strain of college doesn’t have to weigh so heavily.

Understand Scholarships Versus Grants

The terms “scholarships” and “grants” are often used interchangeably, but these are two different forms of financial aid. Scholarships are awarded based on merit. Applicants are judged on a set of criteria, such as their skills or demonstrated aptitude, and awards are granted to those deemed the worthiest. There’s stiff competition for most scholarships and no concrete way of knowing which approach will give you the best chance of winning.

Grants are need-based. These funds are awarded in a more predictable and mathematical manner. Applicants provide their financial information, and awards are based on a complex set of calculations that determine how much financial need a family demonstrates. If you’re in a lower-income bracket, you’ll have a greater chance of getting college grants, while those with a substantial income are typically ineligible.

Watch the Deadlines for Grants

Applying early is the most important thing you can do to secure grant money. Federal, state, and school aid is typically awarded on a first-come, first-served basis. Though your application may reveal that you’re eligible for a significant amount of aid, this does not guarantee that you’ll actually receive that much money.

Instead of turning in your paperwork on the final due date for the FAFSA®, turn it in as soon as you can. Get your grant applications in as quickly as possible, so you’re at the top of the list for this type of aid if you qualify for need-based college funds.

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Launch Your Scholarship Search Early

Scholarships are available to all students. If your family makes too much money to qualify for grants, focus more heavily on the scholarship search instead. The application process for scholarships is much different than that for grants and often begins much earlier. Some scholarships accept applications from high school sophomores and juniors. Start your search too late and free money could pass you by.

Scholarships are based on your student’s merit. Start building a portfolio of merit-based awards, accolades, and achievements as soon as your child enters high school. Save outstanding high school essays, as you might be able to repurpose these for certain scholarships. If your student is interested in art, keeping a portfolio of his or her works will give you prime samples to draw on when you uncover talent-based scholarships in this area. Letters of recommendation and mentions in major publications can help round out your portfolio as well.

Start Your Search Locally

National scholarships have a lot of competition. The smaller the pool of qualifying applicants, the better your chances of getting the award. Start your search with local groups and organizations that may offer scholarships for your child. Ask about scholarships available from:

  • Your place of work – Many companies have scholarship funds for the students of their employees
  • Your child’s place of work – If your child has a job, he or she may have access to employee scholarships
  • Your child’s high school – The high school itself may offer a scholarship, or it may connect you with other local opportunities you’ve overlooked
  • Hometown organizations – Local businesses, clubs, and organizations, such as the Freemasons may offer scholarships both to members and the public
  • Religious organizations – Churches and other religious groups often maintain scholarship funds

Find Out What the College Offers

Check with your child’s future college and find out what scholarships are available. Keep in mind that school-wide scholarships aren’t the only option. Ask the financial aid office which departments maintain their own scholarship funds, and where the largest pools are. You may find fresh opportunities available within a particular area of study when you dig a little deeper. Campus organizations that are run independently of the school may have scholarships as well.

Ask about merit-based scholarship opportunities both for freshman and upperclassmen. Though you may only be worried about that first year of schooling right now, you’ll want to keep this information on hand for the future. Many students fail to keep up with the scholarship application process once they’re enrolled in school. However, there are several opportunities for upperclassmen to get merit awards throughout their college career.

Seek Major-Specific Scholarships

If your child has a declared major, focus on scholarships for that area of study. You’ll find the pool of applicants much smaller for a local journalism scholarship than for a state-wide scholarship available to all college students. Don’t dismiss any offerings, no matter how limited your student’s experience or expertise. You may be surprised to find that a single year as a staffer for the school newspaper is enough to land you some extra scholarship money.

Explore Your Niche

Niche scholarships always have a smaller pool of applicants than those with looser requirements. Think carefully about the demographic niches that you might fit into. Consider your heritage, ethnicity, and religious background.

Exploring more challenging parts of your family history will often reveal more scholarship opportunities. There are scholarships for survivors of crime, victims of domestic violence abuse, and students who have survived cancer or dealt with a family member’s cancer. Scholarships exist for veterans with PTSD, students with disabilities, and students who live with mental illness. Consider the hardships that your student has faced and how they have strengthened his or her character. You’ll often find that there are scholarships, which award the courage and perseverance that it took to get through these experiences.

Finding financial aid for college is an ongoing process that you should continue through your student’s final year of university. Keep up the search, and you’ll find there are countless resources to help you fund your student’s educational journey.