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How To Apply For College Scholarships in the US

Scholarships need not be complicated and there are many scholarships most people in the US. Some people assume that scholarships are only for recent high school graduates who are entering college. But the fact is that there are scholarships that are applicable for most people even in their 30s, 40s or 50s and more.

In this article, my primary aim is to simplify the scholarships process,  enable you to choose the right ones, and then help you to quickly apply for college scholarships.

Something to Avoid

Apply for College Scholarships But Don't Do This

To ensure that you find and apply for the best scholarships out there, please do not search for scholarships with providers that have tie-ups with individual colleges, or with student loan providers. This one simple tip will ensure that you obtain an unbiased list of scholarships and choose those which are a good fit for your individual needs.

What is FAFSA?

The FAFSA is the first application you need to fill for determining your scholarship eligibility. The federal government and many states utilize this information for determining a student’s financial need and thereby offer the required scholarships.

In addition to federal aid, FAFSA is also required before applying for many of the state-specific scholarships. So it is always a good idea to get the FAFSA sorted out as soon as you receive your college acceptance letters.

The FAFSA needs to be filed for each year of college to receive the financial scholarship aid. The 1st year application requires the most effort as you can simply renew the application in the future years if none of the information has substantially changed since then.

FAFSA Documents

Before beginning the FAFSA application, you need to generate an FSA id on the Federal Student Aid site. You will need to provide information pertaining to you and also your parents’ information if they will be assisting with some of your college expenses.

Keep These Documents to Apply for College Scholarships

Here are the documents/ information you need to keep handy for you (and parents) before starting to fill out your FAFSA application:

1) Social security number

2) Drivers license if available

3) Bank and brokerage accounts

4) W2 information

5) Current salary details

6) Your household information and details on any dependents you may have

7) Tax returns for you or your parents

8) Mortgage, other loans and investments

9) For non-US citizens, the alien registration number of the permanent resident is required.

For further questions on FAFSA, take a look at FastWeb.

FAFSA Application

FAFSA can be submitted as early as October of the senior year of high school. This will ensure that you able to send the generated SAR (Student Aid Report) to the colleges to which you are applying. The college will look at the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) listed in the report to determine the student aid package.

To start the FAFSA application, go to the Official FAFSA application website.

Upon completion of the application process, check the generated Student Aid Report for any possible errors and get any such errors corrected immediately.

Your Financial Aid Package

Starting with your SAR, the college will generate a Federal Aid package that is unique to you. This will have all the information on any grants, scholarships and federal loans that you are eligible for. Pell grants of over $5000 per year are given for students with extreme financial need.

Merit scholarships for sports or excellent grades are given to the deserving students. Depending on the extent of student performance, the merit scholarships can vary widely across students. Some students may receive part of the tuition money whereas others may have all of their tuition and related expenses fully covered by the merit scholarship.

Not everyone is comfortable taking loans even if they are federal student loans. If you feel this way, you can accept only the scholarships and grants and are free to reject the federal loans you are offered. The student aid package is mainly for your review and you can accept or reject anything from your offered aid package.

State-Sponsored Scholarships

For receiving state scholarships, you are required to be a resident of that state and to also be enrolling into a college in the same US state that you are a resident of.

There are two approaches to take with state scholarships and it is best to follow both one by one as follows:

1) Go over the best scholarships offered by your state and maximize scholarship money from those. By best here, I’m referring to the scholarship programs that offer the most money to the largest section of students such that there is a far greater likelihood of your being approved for receiving the scholarship.

For this approach, the most effective resource I’ve found is CollegeScholarships.org. This site does a very good job of highlighting the best state scholarships and in explaining in detail all of their nuances, features and requirements.

2) Go over all the tens or hundreds of scholarship offered by your state and apply to all the ones that you are personally eligible for.This might take  more effort and time but it will be well worth it once you receive adequate scholarships through this effort. Since you will be applying to so many of them, there is a good chance that you will be approved by at least a few of these programs.

The State scholarships page of Unigo is a good place to search for a whole list of scholarships offered by each US state. Just search for your specific state, check out their requirements and start applying!

College/ Institution Scholarships

Many colleges require the completion of the FAFSA application. But for a lot of students, the federal student aid tends to be insufficient to meet their college expenses and so the student would need additional financial aid to supplement the federal aid.

The CSS Profile is required by over 400 colleges across the US for determining the eligibility of the student for receiving scholarships and grants that are directly offered by the college itself.

Apply for College Scholarships But Stay Away From Student Loans

Also, the FAFSA is specifically for students residing in the US who have a Social Security number. However, the CSS Profile can be submitted even by international students. The CSS Profile is often the best form of financial aid that international students can apply for.

Most other financial information required by the CSS Profile are similar to the ones you would fill for the FAFSA, though in the CSS Profile, the international students can enter their financial information in their own local currency.

To understand more about the CSS Profile, go to CSS Getting Started Page on CollegeBoard or check out the CSS Profile Student Guide. For a complete tutorial on the CSS Profile, take a look at this presentation.

To apply for aid via the CSS Profile, go here.

Other Scholarships

Cappex is a good site to search for a multitude of non-federal and non-state-restricted types of scholarships and grants. The site allows you to search based on the amount of aid required, eligibility requirements and application requirements.

Some of these grants are need-based, others are merit-based, and a huge number of them are specific to a category of students. The category could be ethnicity, minority students, gender, location, disabilities and so on. So this is a great way for finding additional scholarships as its quite likely you will be eligible for a few of these student aid programs.

Unigo.com is a great site for finding good college matches and their financial aid options. To get started, for more information and to apply for this aid, go here.


Finding and applying for scholarships need not be complicated. Just start with the FAFSA, then the best State scholarships and then do a wide search to find all the other scholarships and grants you can apply for.

But please be sure to avoid student loans at all costs. Even if they are federal loans with lower interest rates, any form of loans can be a huge burden and should be avoided at all costs. Instead, just focus on finding colleges with affordable tuition and then apply for all the possible scholarships and grants.

To find the most affordable US colleges, take a look at this article titled Colleges with Top 10 Online College Degrees. Also speak with the financial aid office at your college for additional scholarship options.

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