Securing the right financial aid for you

Scholarships, grants and loans can be key to affording college—but they’re not all created equal. Here’s what you need to know.

College is one of the bigger investments you’ll make as an adult, but it can pay off – and ultimately be more affordable with the help of financial aid. Whether your financial aid is given, lent, or earned, it’s important to know exactly what you’re getting into—including what you’ll owe (if anything), and any interest fees if you’re taking out loans. 

Before you commit to financial aid, do your research, know the terms and conditions, and get started early on the application process with the following important steps.

Step one: Fill out the “FAFSA” form

Every student should go online and fill out a form called the “Free Application for Federal Student Aid,” or FAFSA. It’s often the first step to applying for nearly every type of financial aid—including grants and scholarships. Learn more about FAFSA and how it works.

Important: Pay attention to deadlines. The deadlines for your state or schools may be different from the federal deadlines and you may be required to complete additional forms. 

Step two: Explore your options

There are lots of options to help you pay for school. Be sure to explore them all—they can be mixed and matched to help you cover your costs. 


You can get a student loan from a bank, lending company, the federal government, or your state government. Loans come with interest charges, so the longer it takes to pay off, the more you’ll be paying in fees. 


These are financial awards given by service organizations, religious groups, employers, colleges and governments. Some are specifically designated for students who meet particular criteria—a star soccer player, an artist or filmmaker, an aspiring scientist or mathematician—or those who come from a particular ethnic or family background. Many are based on financial need, academic achievement (or both) and others have less conventional criteria. 

Start your search early. Most scholarships are pretty competitive, and getting your applications in early can be your key to success. Also, make sure the scholarships are reputable ones by searching for them through the College BoardSallie Mae, and FastWeb.


Like scholarships, grants are gifts of money that don’t have to be paid back. Some are offered only to students who qualify based on low income; others are given based on “merit” such as high scholastic achievement. One of the most common grants to consider is a federal Pell Grant. Millions of students receive Pell Grants that can be as much as $5,550. Eligibility is based on financial need (a total family income less than $50,000) and enrollment status (you must be attending school at least half time).

Work-study programs 

In the Federal Work-study program, open to both middle-income and lower-income students, students earn part of their tuition by taking a part-time job on campus. The income is capped, so students may need to earn extra money by getting a separate part-time job.

Note: Not all schools participate in federal student aid programs. Check with the school you plan to attend.

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