Here's a word of advice for those currently enrolled in college or high school students who will soon be paying for their college educations.
First and foremost, apply for the FAFSA.
In my 4 years of college, I was awarded $20,903 in federal and state grants. HUGE HELP. How much you're eligible for largely depends on your parents' income. In my case my parents do not make a lot of money... about $30,000/year. But even if your parents make a lot of money, you can still benefit by filling out the FAFSA. It qualifies you for low interest federal loans that do not begin accruing interest until you are out of school.
Apply for scholarships like crazy! And start early.
I started applying for scholarships when I was a senior in high school during my Christmas break. For those 2 weeks I wrote essay upon essay, some had specific topics others were more generic (what do you want to study, what inspired you, what is your financial situation, etc...) and I could use the same essay for more than one scholarship. During the weeks before Christmas break, I went to a couple of my teachers as well as my guidance counselor and asked if they could write me recommendation letters. Many scholarships require at least 2.
I applied for 22 scholarships before even stepping foot in college, and won about half of them, totaling $8,300. I stayed at home my first year of school, and so this easily paid for my first year of college. I continued to apply for scholarships throughout college, but did not apply for so many at once! I have won 25 scholarships in all and earned myself $20,229.. So my suggestion is to do just as I have done.
What will you need?
1. Transcripts. Have a bunch printed off and made official. Include one with each application, even if it doesn't appear to be required.
2. Recommendations. Try to get 3, and keep them current, you'll have to ask for more once you're in college (ask your advisor, professors, and even one from your manager at work)
3. Scholarship applications! Go to your guidance office, or visit your school's financial aid office website. I also used FAME (Financial Authority of Maine) and this where I found the majority of scholarships I applied for. You can probably find a similar website specific to your state. What to search for? Find scholarships that are specific to certain majors.
4. A list of your high school/college honors and activities. Many scholarship programs request this information.
5. Your essay. Many essays are not hard to write. As I stated above, most want to know your financial situation and where you are headed after high school, or want to know the field you want to go into and about your major and why you chose it. If you find one scholarship that requires this generic type of essay, always find more like it. Subsequent scholarships will be easy to apply for when all you have to do is make a couple minor changes to an essay you have already written. Another tip... be enthusiastic! No one wants to award someone a scholarship when they are not excited about the major they chose. Also, have someone look over your essay and edit it.
6. Big envelopes to put all those papers in. Instead of stuffing them all into a regular sized envelope, purchase those big yellow envelopes so you won't have to fold all your papers together. This appears more professional than a bulky regular envelope.
7. Make a list. Making a list of the scholarships you have found will help keep you organized. Make a chart and include the due dates, essay requirements, scholarship amount (it will provide a lot of motivation), and whether or not the scholarship requires recommendations, transcripts, etc. Cross them off when you mail out the application. You'll feel a great sense of accomplishment!
Avoid loans while you can.
When you get your financial award letter from your school, it may be tempting to accept that Stafford or Perkins loan even if other financial aid and scholarships can cover all your costs. We would all like to have a little extra cash for other spending. But don't do it. You'll end up paying for it later.
If you don't have enough money to cover your school costs and need a loan, but you don't need the full Stafford or Perkins amount, you don't have to accept the full amount. Go to the financial aid office or give them a call and request to only use a portion of the loan amount you were awarded.
That said, federal loans are the way to go if you need a loan. What you want to avoid as much as you can are alternative, private loans. They build interest immediately while you're in school, and often have higher interest rates. Borrowing costs are much higher for alternative loans.
I did not apply for a loan until my second semester, sophomore year. Not everyone is able to avoid loans that long, so do your research and ask for assistance with alternative loans from your financial aid office. They are there to work for you, so put them to work! They will be able to explain to you the pros and cons of applying for different alternative loans.
Will doing all this really help?
Using these techniques I made $41,132. I currently owe $24,000 in student loans, and that number could have been a lot higher. I know writing essays and filling out applications over Christmas break sounds pretty boring and sounds like a lot of effort, but it will all be worth it when you get out of school and realize how much money you have saved yourself.