Financial Aid Awards: How to Find and Win Them

Almost all students in the United States are eligible for some sort of financial aid when attending school at the undergraduate or graduate level. Possibilities include grants, loans, scholarships and other types of aid, any of which can be used for paying for classes and other expenses to attend school.

Financial aid awards can be found through loans, scholarships, grants and work-study programs. Some programs are based on need, others on merit or other qualifications; students should also be aware of what types of aid must be repaid and which ones do not.

Finding Financial Aid Awards

Financial aid is won through a variety of pathways, and students should begin by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The FAFSA, a federal document used by almost all 2- and 4-year schools across the country, determines students' financial need and how much they will be awarded. The Federal Student Aid website reports that it provides more than $150 billion per year in student loans.

Financial Aid Types

Some types of financial aid include need-based assistance, which is for students who don't have the money to pay for school, and merit-based awards, which are given to students with excellent academic standings. The most common financial aid is given to students at the postsecondary education level and is often determined through institutional, federal and state guidelines. Financial aid can be separated into a number of awards, such as:

  • Grants
  • Loans
  • Work-study employment
  • Veteran's benefits
  • Scholarships


Federal loans, including the Federal Stafford Loan, the Federal Perkins Loan and other federal and state loans, are provided for students who meet several basic criteria:

  • Holding a high school diploma or GED
  • Being enrolled in an eligible postsecondary educational program
  • Being registered for the Selective Service (males age 18 to 25)
  • Having a valid Social Security number, or demonstrate permanent residency status

Students must also demonstrate financial need. Financial need is calculated by determining the difference between the student's Expected Family Contribution (EFC), a figure that is determined by the FAFSA, and the total cost of attendance at the student's school.

Students who have participated in military service may have a number of loans from which they can choose for postsecondary and other schooling. There are also alternative and private loans that students can take for school if they need additional funds beyond the financial aid they are awarded by their institution.

There are also private loans available, but they may have variable interest rates and charge loan fees, so students should carefully consider their financial options before taking out a private loan.


Scholarships do not need to be paid back and are typically merit-based, though they may also be given to a student based on athletic skills or financial needs. Some schools offer scholarships for individuals in particular majors. Schools may also offer scholarships to individuals who have excelled academically, show leadership skills or have participated in community service.

There are also scholarships available through private foundations and companies. They may seek students who belong to certain demographic groups or who have particular academic interests.

Many websites discuss scholarships and provide links to specific offerings. Scholarships may require a transcript and letters of recommendation to apply.


Grants are similar to scholarships in that they do not have to be paid back. There are many grants that students can find if they are members of certain groups, including minorities, women, low-income families, disadvantaged individuals or other categories. There may also be grant-for-service programs that students may look into. Some federal grants include:

  • Pell Grant
  • Academic Competitiveness (AC) Grant
  • National Smart Grant

Other grants vary by state and can be found through an Internet search through the student's official state government website. Grants may also be offered through the student's college or university.

Work Study

Work-study programs on campus are also available, in which the student essentially is employed by the school. The money earned by students for these part-time jobs can be used toward education and living expenses and does not need to be paid back. Students are often encouraged to find a work-study job that is related to their major or career goals.

For students who are searching for financial assistance for school there are a variety of aid options from which to choose, including government-sponsored loans and grants, as well as school-based funding options and awards from private organizations.

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