College Planning

How to Get Financial Aid for College

Many students use financial aid to cover the cost of college. Understanding where financial aid comes from and how to apply for it keeps you on top of the process.

What is financial aid?

Financial aid is money given or loaned to you to help pay for college. Most full-time college students receive some type of financial aid, which makes college more affordable.

The four main types of financial aid are grants, scholarships, loans, and work-study. Financial aid often comes from the federal government, state governments, colleges and universities, and private organizations.

What’s the difference between grants and scholarships?

Grants and scholarships are financial aid you don’t need to pay back. Grants are usually based on financial need. They come from federal and state governments and from colleges.

Scholarships are often merit-based. This means they’re awarded for things like academic and athletic ability. Some are based on membership in an ethnic or religious group. They can come from governments, colleges, and private organizations.

Where can I find scholarships?

There are many scholarship sources. Set aside time to search for and explore scholarship opportunities. Here are places to find scholarships:

  • Use the BigFuture Scholarship Search tool to find scholarships from over 6,000 programs, totaling over $4 billion scholarship dollars yearly.
  • Take part in BigFuture Scholarships, a program that guides you through the college and career planning process and offers you a chance to earn money for college for each action you complete. 
  • Check the websites of colleges you’re applying to. See what scholarships they offer and how to apply. Schools may consider you for scholarships after you submit your FAFSA® and, if needed, your CSS Profile.
  • Ask your school counselor about awards for students graduating from your high school and for residents of your town, county, and state.
  • Look into scholarships sponsored by your church, mosque, synagogue, or other religious community; local branches of Rotary or Kiwanis clubs; and your parents’ or your own employers.

What’s the difference between subsidized and unsubsidized loans?

If your scholarships, grants, income, and savings won’t cover the cost of college, consider taking out a loan. Subsidized loans are based on financial need. They won’t add on interest while you're in college. You won’t have to pay the loans back while you’re in college. Don’t lose sight of the fact that after you leave school, you start making payments. These payments consist of the amount you borrowed plus interest going forward.

Unsubsidized loans aren't based on need. These loans have interest added to them while you’re in school. You have the option to pay interest while you’re in school, which reduces your loan debt. Regular payments, which consist of the original amount plus interest, start after you finish college.

Don’t forget: Taking on loans is a multiyear commitment that lasts way beyond college graduation. Know exactly what you’re committing to: the amount you’re borrowing, the interest rates, and how long it will take you to pay the loan back.

What's work-study?

The Federal Work-Study Program offers students paid part-time jobs to reduce college costs. If your financial aid package includes a job, it means the aid office may find you a position on campus with which you can earn the amount included in your financial aid award. The money you earn typically covers, among other things, books and personal expenses.

Here’s some questions to get answers to if you receive a work-study position as part of your financial aid package:

  • Do I have a guaranteed job or do I have to find one?
  • How are jobs assigned?
  • How many hours per week am I expected to work?
  • What’s the hourly wage?
  • How often am I paid?
  • Do I get paid directly, or is my student account credited?

How do I get financial aid?

Here are three important steps to getting financial aid:

  1. Submit the FAFSA: The most important step in getting financial aid is completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as the FAFSA. Fill it out soon after it opens to make sure you get as much aid as possible.
  2. Find out if other financial aid forms are required: Some colleges may require additional forms, like the CSS Profile. Be certain you know what forms the schools you’re applying to require and that you meet the schools’ deadlines.
  3. Search and apply for private scholarships: Scholarships are an ideal source of additional financial aid. Search for scholarships. Apply to ones that may be a good fit.

What questions can I ask financial aid officers at schools I'm planning to apply to?

  • What’s the average total cost—including tuition and fees, books and supplies, room and board, travel, and other personal expenses—for the first year?
  • Will applying for financial aid impact my admission application? What’s the priority deadline to apply for financial aid, and when will I be notified about financial aid award decisions?
  • How is financial aid affected if I apply under an early decision or early action program?
  • Does the college offer need-based and merit-based financial aid?
  • Do I need to complete a separate application for merit scholarships if available? Does the college require me to fill out the CSS Profile?
  • If my family’s financial circumstances change after filing the FAFSA, should I contact the financial aid office? Will my financial aid award be adjusted? Do I need to apply for financial aid every year?

What could I do when my financial aid award isn't enough?

If a financial aid award doesn’t cover all your college expenses or your family’s finances change after you’ve completed the FAFSA

1. Contact the financial aid office.

  • Review the college’s financial aid website to see how you can provide more information. Look for guidelines or instructions for submitting a special circumstances appeal.
  • Call or email the college’s financial aid office—financial aid officers can help you explore more options.
  • Questions you can ask:
    • Is there additional financial aid that hasn’t been awarded to me? If yes, how do I apply for it?
    • Could my financial aid award be adjusted because of my family’s financial circumstances? If yes, what information do I need to submit an appeal?

2. Don’t be shy about asking for help.

When you’re not sure about your next step, contact the college’s financial aid office. Financial aid officers are there to answer your questions.

Our Financial Aid Checklist helps you navigate the financial aid process and get as much funding as you can for college. Visit BigFuture for free, comprehensive college planning resources.