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What You Need to Know Before Applying for Scholarships

May 19, 2014
Loans, Student Loans
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Who doesn’t dream of a full-ride scholarship to college?

For a few, it happens — whether it’s because of stellar grades throughout high school, being a star athlete or applying to the right organization at the right time.

But most students are left grappling with how in the world to afford school.

»MORE: How to Get a Scholarship

Consider the following advice before throwing all your eggs into the scholarship basket.

Fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid

A common misconception is that in order to benefit from filling out the FAFSA, college hopefuls must come from a low-income family, but this couldn’t be further from the truth.

The FAFSA is the recommended first step for anyone applying to college, university or career school. It takes about 30 minutes to complete, and it can open doors to federal and state financial aid, grants, low-cost student loans, work-study programs and even scholarships.

NerdScholar’s FAFSA Guide helps you know what to expect when filling out the form. And our FAFSA Tutorial is a walk-through of the questions on the form and the kind of information and documents you should have handy.

Once complete, the information from a student’s FAFSA is placed on file at the schools listed on the application. State offices of education, which can provide additional financial assistance, also receive the data.

Schools that accept the applicant use the FAFSA information as part of their formula to determine how much, and what kind, of tuition assistance the student is eligible to receive. This includes any grants and scholarships from the school.

Applying for scholarships

For students who need more ways to reduce their out-of-pocket college expenses — or who would prefer not to be burdened with paying off student loans — many outside organizations also offer scholarships or gift aid.

Often, this can be merit-based, when a combination of grades, community involvement, college major or other factors are taken into consideration.

Our Scholarship Search engine, which is frequently updated, provides links at your fingertips to gift aid.

If you decide to pursue scholarships, have on hand everything you used to fill out the FAFSA, as well as letters of recommendation, transcripts and test scores.

Letters of recommendation, according to, should come from professionals who are familiar with your character, such as teachers, coaches or employers.

Transcripts, which prove your grade point average, should be official and come from any schools you attended.

Also, be prepared to write essays. In some cases, the same essay can be used more than once.

Beware of scholarship scams

In your search, avoid services that charge you for help when applying for scholarships.

This issue is so pervasive the Federal Trade Commission dedicated an entire Web page to the subject. The agency urges caution when companies promise a money-back guarantee or add a processing fee.

The FTC also makes clear that because filling out the FAFSA is free, you shouldn’t pay for the service. Although there are legitimate programs that can help, be careful to avoid scams.

Image of scholarship applications via Shutterstock.