Editor's Note: This story originally appeared on Living on the Cheap.
My niece, Kendalynne Hohe, a kindergarten teacher in Independence, Missouri, is an expert at finding free money for college.
She not only paid for four years of college using nothing but grants and scholarships, but she also walked away with an extra $5,000 when she graduated with a degree in elementary education.
Here are her strategies for finding free money for college.
1. Apply for grants
Unlike student loans, grants are money that doesn’t have to be repaid. Some are based on financial need; others may be based on things like talent, field of study, grades, gender or geographic location.
Ask your college financial aid adviser for a list of grants for which you might be eligible.
After submitting the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, Hohe received a federal Pell grant and an Access Missouri grant each year she was in college.
2. Enlist help
“My high school counselor was a wealth of knowledge in helping me find scholarships that were offered by my school district’s foundation,” Hohe says.
“My dad helped me navigate through my university’s financial aid web page and find scholarships for which I was qualified.”
3. Get good grades
“The largest scholarship I received was a merit scholarship from my university,” says Hohe.
“The amount I earned was based on my high school GPA and my ACT score. My ACT score and choice of an approved college also made me eligible to receive the Bright Flight scholarship from the Missouri Department of Higher Education.”
4. Make your application stand out
“To get your application to stand out, it has to be ‘3D’,” Hohe says. “3D stands for direction, drive and determination, qualities you should showcase in your application.
“To show direction, let the scholarship committee know what you’ll be working toward in college and, ultimately, in your future career.
“Even if you haven’t decided on a major, let them know what fields you’re considering and why you believe it’s important to get a college degree.
“For drive, tell the committee about any extracurricular activities you’re involved in, especially any leadership positions. Talk about your goals, why they’re important to you and, most important, what you plan to actively do to reach them.
“Showing determination can be tricky. Some applications will ask for an example of how you’ve overcome an obstacle in your life. If you can’t think of a good example, find a way to highlight your ability to persevere when things aren’t easy.”
5. Pay attention to details
“Decide on a school very carefully,” says Hohe.
“Most colleges offer more money to freshmen as an incentive for them to apply. Most of that money is not available to students who transfer in from community colleges or other institutions.
“Also, look for scholarships that are renewable for more than one semester. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.”
Then make sure you meet the requirements to keep those scholarships, such as maintaining a certain grade point average or taking a certain number of credit hours.
6. Keep track of deadlines
“I found that many merit-based scholarship applications have to be submitted before the new calendar year, frequently by the first of December,” Hohe says.
“A lot of high school foundation scholarship applications are due in late winter or early spring. Make a list of the deadlines for each scholarship for which you’re planning to apply to help you keep track.”
7. Go for the long shots
“Apply for any and every scholarship, even if you just barely qualify,” says Hohe.
“Some scholarships will state a preference for applicants with certain skills, characteristics or career paths. But the key word here is preference.
“If nobody with the preferred skills, characteristics, or career path applies, the scholarship will be open to other applicants.”
Here are two sites you want to bookmark as you seek college aid:
- Your university’s financial aid webpage, where you will find grants and scholarships available only to people in your state, city or school.
- FinAid.org, the top online site for information about financial aid and scholarships.
LOTC tip: Don’t assume that all scholarships are listed online. Contact churches and civic groups in your community to see what scholarships they offer.