While college is a dream for many high schoolers, the mounting cost of tuition, fees, and living expenses to achieve a college education can price many talented students out of an amazing education experience. While an increasing number of students are taking on private or government subsidized loan debt, to the tune of an average $29,650 for a four year degree, scholarships remain a vital tool for many to pay for a college education.

For many students, finding college scholarships can seem like a daunting task. In this article, we will walk you through the steps of planning for and applying to scholarships to pay for undergraduate education. While most of these tips are geared towards students still in high school, these same tools can be a great first step for anyone looking to get a college degree.

Step 1: Planning Out College Costs

While most of us know that college is expensive, the true cost of a college education can be hard to pin down. For this reason, we highly recommend searching the colleges you wish to attend in the National Center for Education Statistics’s College Navigator. This powerful tool lets you look at the direct and indirect costs of education at the institutions you are interested in and also provides updated information regarding accreditation, student populations, teacher-student ratios, campus security, and graduation statistics.

Step 2: Complete Your FAFSA Application

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a mandatory application for federal student aid and is often required by your future university to determine what school based scholarships you might be eligible for. It is important to note that you can only fill out your FAFSA if you are expecting to attend your college or university in the next year. Your FAFSA will generate a Student Aid Report which will detail your family’s expected financial contribution to your college education. It is the difference between this number and your expected cost of attendance that determines how much federal financial aid you are eligible for, including grants, loans, and federal work-study programs.

Example FAFSA SAR
Example SAR Curtesy of ACPE
Step 3: Prepare Your Letter Writers

Almost every merit-based scholarship you come across will require at least one teacher recommendation. It is important to speak with the teachers you feel will write you the strongest recommendation letters early and often so they are prepared when application deadlines start appearing.

Most letter writers prefer at least two weeks notice and may ask to have certain information from you in advance, such as a copy of your resume, a summary of your academic interests, and an idea of what colleges are you applying for/accepted to. Having an up front conversation with these letter writers before a deadline is looming can make the difference between a rushed letter and a quality recommendation letter.

Step 4: Apply, Apply, Apply!

Now that you have an idea how much federal need-based aid you are eligible for, it’s time to find and apply to as many scholarships as you can to supplement your need-based aid. While you can apply for many merit-based scholarships without a FAFSA aid report, most need-based scholarships require either a FAFSA aid report or copies of a tax return to prove your need.

In order to find scholarships you are eligible for and get more money for college, you should consult scholarship search engines such as FastWeb, College Data, College Board, and Scholarships.com. If you are in still in high school, your guidance counselor can also be a great resource for additional scholarships. It is important to approach each application with an open mind regardless of the amount. Many smaller scholarships have limited applications so your time spent applying can really boost your likelihood of walking away with cash for college.

Are you in the thick of searching for scholarship money? Make sure to check out the Balkhi Foundation Higher Education Scholarship to see if you are a good fit for our scholarship opportunities.