By: Ivette House


Did you know that approximately 2 billion dollars in grants and 1 million dollars in scholarships go unclaimed each year? Yes, you heard that right! This means that there are large quantities of money left on the table each year that could be going towards your college education.


Understanding how to fund a college education can be a daunting process. With so much terminology (grants, scholarships, work-study, and loans) to understand, it is no surprise that many families dread this part of the application process. Let’s be real, it often seems like the realm of financial aid has its own language. 


Whether you are searching for need-based aid to help cover the cost of college or applying for a merit-based scholarship, preparation is key. If you take the time to understand how to maneuver through the process, you're already one step closer to obtaining funds that can make your college dreams a reality.


Merit Aid:


Let’s dive into merit-based financial aid. As the title essentially indicates, this type of funding takes into consideration a student’s achievements and talents rather than their financial need. This also means that merit-based scholarships do not consider your family’s income bracket. Merit-based aid focuses solely on a student’s personal achievements and talents, including but not limited to, academic performance, special skills, community service, and extracurricular activities. These scholarships allow you to leverage what you have accomplished to secure funding for college. 


Are you a SUPERSTAR?! Did you compete at the Scripps National Spelling Bee? Have you won endless awards on your debate team? Perhaps you have placed at an arts competition, participated in a national poetry contest, or are a star athlete. These are only a few of the categories that make up the abundance of merit scholarships available. Regardless of whether or not you fall into one of these, ask yourself where your talents and strengths lie, and explore scholarship opportunities that align with those. 


Things to keep in mind: 


  1. Talent/Accomplishments: Institutions want to see what sets you apart from other students and reward this through merit scholarships. Therefore, it is important to engage in extracurriculars that bring you joy and that you excel in during high school to ensure these become part of your narrative later. When applying to colleges, you can leverage these accomplishments for aid. Be intentional with the activities you decide to pour your time and energy into and utilize your accomplishments to demonstrate how you are the perfect candidate for the merit scholarship you are applying for. Some key traits scholarship committees will consider are the longevity of your activity, your passion and commitment, and your skill level.
  2. Flexibility: Merit-based scholarships give you, the student, an opportunity to be selective about which institution you decide to attend. When it comes to awarding campus-based grants and scholarships, institutions consider your entire application and personal narrative to decide which buckets of funding you may be eligible for (based on your accomplishments and interests). If you are competitive for this type of funding, you may find yourself with various scholarship awards in your financial aid award letter. Exciting! 
  3. Search Engines: You can find merit-based scholarships just about anywhere. A simple Google search will lead you to various scholarship databases like Fastweb,, and College Board. However, my best recommendation for getting the most out of your time is researching the scholarship websites for the schools you are thinking of applying to, or have applied to, even if you have not been accepted. Familiarize yourself with the types of institutional aid they offer, including merit-based scholarships, and make note of any additional requirements and/or supplemental essays. This knowledge will come in handy if you are accepted and may need to apply for any of their merit-based scholarships. 


Need-Based Aid:


Most likely, you will be required or encouraged by colleges to complete some type of financial aid application. Let’s take a look at some of these applications.




The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA for short, is administered by the U.S. Department of Education and considers a student's financial need to determine eligibility for various types of financial aid. Grants, scholarships, work-study, and student loans are all awarded based on family income. It is important to remember that because the grants and loans administered by the U.S. Department of Education are based on “financial need”, they have specific income requirements. These funding resources may help a student close the gap between what their family can afford and the actual cost of college attendance. I always recommend that you complete the FAFSA even if you think you may not qualify to ensure you are covering your bases.


Things to keep in mind: 


  1. It is FREE: Applying for federal and state financial aid through the FAFSA is free. Be wary of any site that requires you to pay to file your FAFSA. 
  2. Minimal to No Student Loan Debt: If you qualify for any of the funding resources that the U.S. Department of Education provides, you can essentially reduce the amount of student debt you may incur after college graduation to little to none. This is because grants and scholarships DO NOT have to be paid back. 
  3. College Affordability: College can be expensive and the sticker price may deter many students from applying to certain institutions that they may otherwise be able to afford if they applied for federal financial aid. Applying for need-based financial aid allows many students to attend college who have limited financial resources. 


You can find more information on how to apply for federal financial aid here.


CSS Profile:


The College Scholarship Service Profile or CSS Profile is an application that private colleges and universities utilize to award non-federal or state institutional grants, scholarships, and loans. This application is administered by the College Board. It is important to note that if you are interested in applying for institutional financial aid and your private college or university requires the CSS Profile, you must apply by their specified deadline. Keep in mind, every school is different and some private colleges and universities may not require the CSS Profile at all. You can check here to see if your college or university requires this form.


Things to keep in mind: 


  1. Cost: Unlike the FAFSA, the CSS Profile does require a fee for each school you add in order to file the application.  However, if you are experiencing financial hardship, the College Board does offer fee waivers to help you cover some, if not all, of the filing costs.
  2. Broad Range: The CSS Profile opens the door to a broad range of scholarship opportunities a school may offer. In some cases, even if you are a high-income family, schools may still offer a tuition discount in the form of a scholarship, based on the financial data you provided on the CSS Profile. This is why it is always a good idea to apply even if you are unsure of your qualification status.
  3. Loans: Some families may not qualify for federal student loans; however, many schools offer institutional loans to help families cover a tuition gap. Therefore, a college or university that utilizes the CSS Profile may require a student to file an application if they are interested in institutional loans. 


Whether you are in search of need-based or merit-based financial aid, both processes will take time, patience, and diligence. In addition, each institution is unique and has its very own set of policies and guidelines that govern aid administration. It is imperative that you understand the process for each school, take note of deadlines, and complete all required documentation as requested. Remember, you are in the driver's seat on this adventure; you determine the energy you will invest in a process that can be so rewarding in the end!