Scholarships and Grants

When considering post-secondary options, the first three questions that often come to mind are: What do I want to do? Where do I want to go? And, how much will it cost?

College costs shouldn't stand in the way of you achieving your goals, which is why it's important to look into which grants and scholarships you might be eligible for.

"Both kinds of awards are considered "gift aid" since the recipients don't have to work for them or borrow them," says G. Michael Johnson, director of financial aid and scholarships at Portland State University. So, what's the difference between a grant and a scholarship, and how can you qualify for some of that sweet free money?

Grants: Grants are most often awarded based on a student's financial need, which is identified through completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Grants are funded through federal, state, college and university resources, and are often renewable for multiple years, but you must complete the FAFSA each year to qualify.

According to a study done by NerdScholar, part of the financial literary website NerdWallet, in 2013 alone, students left a staggering $2.9 billion in unused federal grant money on the table. This was due to the fact that 47 percent of graduating high school students didn't complete the FAFSA - the first step in qualifying for Pell Grant money.

Qualified students could have received a maximum amount of $5,920 in funding, if they had only tried. Don't let that be you! Because financial aid is distributed on a first-come, first-served basis, the sooner you submit your FAFSA, the better!

Scholarships: Scholarships are usually awarded without as much regard to a student's financial need. Instead, as Johnson explains, "Scholarships are typically awarded based on something noteworthy about the applicant, such as high academic achievement, community service, intended major or career, or more specific criteria such as graduation from a certain high school."

Because scholarships are funded through donors and a wide range of other resources, the specific qualifications and selection criteria can be quite varied. For instance, did you know that there's a Greeting Card Scholarship that awards $10,000 to the student who designs the most creative card? It's true.

Or, have you been promoting a vegetarian lifestyle in your community or school? If so, you could qualify for up to $10,000 via the Vegetarian Resource Group Scholarship. Then there's the fun and famous "Stuck At Prom" Duct Tape Scholarship, awarded to those students who fashion their prom attire completely out of duct tape.

"There are scholarships for a wide range of applicants, so regardless of what kind of student you are, where you've been a student, or what activities you've participated in, there are likely to be scholarships that you should apply for," says Johnson. "Many donors like to see good academic preparation, but even that can be defined differently - and perceived potential can be as important as past success."

You can apply for as many scholarships as time allows, so be sure to do your homework early by researching their criteria and submitting your applications on time. Johnson adds, "Related to that - don't wait until the last minute to apply, especially to write essays and to ask people who know you well to write recommendation letters on your behalf."

When compiling your list, remember that state and local scholarships typically have a smaller number of applicants, which means that you have better odds.

Unusual or niche scholarships generally have fewer candidates too, and are well worth seeking out. (For example, if you're a golf caddy, there's a scholarship for that.)

"Lastly, never pay to apply for a scholarship," warns Johnson. "Applications that require a fee can be scams." After all, if you're applying for free money, then you shouldn't be expected to pay to qualify.

Between all the grants and scholarships available, there's no reason you should have to cover all of your college costs from out of pocket. Even smaller scholarships are still valuable in paying for books, lab fees, parking, and room and board. With just a little effort up front, you'll quickly discover that there's all kinds of free money out there to help you pay your way.