The Secret to “Free Money”: Apply Early and Often

With the holidays behind us and college enrollment coming up, what better way to start the new year than with a scholarship? There are many ways to secure potential gift-aid—that is, grants, scholarships or any other money that is “free” from the standpoint that you do not have to pay it back—but all require investing time and effort, and in a few cases, money. Let’s look at the options available.

Private Scholarship Searches Yield Big Rewards

There are hundreds of private scholarship search databases. A few include: CollegeView, Broke Scholar, and FinAid. Each allows users to create a profile from which they will alert you by e-mail if a scholarship matches your profile.

Most private-search databases don’t charge a fee; however, they are often owned by third-party organizations such as banks or financial institutions. This means students commonly receive multiple offers for credit cards, magazines, and other deals. Be sure to create a separate e-mail address for searches so these offers don’t crowd your personal inbox.

There are also several private scholarships that require nothing more than meeting certain criteria that are not necessarily tied to academic accomplishments. For example, the Chick Evans Caddie Scholarship requires the recipient to be a golf caddie, while the U.S. Bank Scholarship is simply a random drawing.

Merit-Based Funds: Money for a Job Well Done

Merit-based aid rewards students for high GPAs, strong test scores, winning essays, athletic talent, or other involvement in activities such as leadership and community service. Merit-based aid is separate from need-based financial aid as determined by the FAFSA.

Outside the college financial aid office, you can locate other merit-based awards through the private-search database route, or other avenues. Outside organizations like your parents’ employers may offer financial scholarships to children of employees. The same could hold true for your church, synagogue, or organizations that you or your parents belong to such as the Elks, YMCA, or Boy/Girl Scouts.

More Scholarship Search Points to Consider

• With minor changes, one essay can cover several different applications.
• Treat this as a job. Set aside time daily or weekly to apply for scholarships.
• Any awards that you receive outside of the college financial aid office should be communicated to the college.
• It is never too late to search for scholarships, but many deadlines are in the spring, so it is advisable to apply early and often.

Other Cost-Reducing Programs

For families who are looking for additional ways to save on college expenses, here are some reliable options to consider: is a free service that allows students to earn money for college by shopping with participating merchants such as Home Depot and eBay. This bonus money can be applied toward tuition or used to pay down existing loans.
The SAGE Scholarship Program is a point-based program that awards students $1 in private school tuition for every point earned under various investment programs. Not all private schools participate in the SAGE program, so check the SAGE website for participating institutions.

All of these represent viable alternatives to consider for potentially reducing your out-of-pocket expense for college. The only thing left to decide is: When are you going to get started?


This article was written by Todd M. Kelly

Todd M. Kelly, MBA/CCPS, is a financial advisor with Summit Financial Group. He has spoken to thousands of people nationwide about financial topics including short-term and late-stage college planning. Co-founder of College Planning Relief, Mr. Kelly is one of the leading financial planners in his field. He can be reached at


  1. Wendy Hersh

    Fastweb is the scholarship database i most use. scholarship (or is it scholarships?) is another…

  2. Susie Watts, Denver, Colorado

    As a private college counselor, I think you have provided some great advice for high school seniors. Paying for college has become the biggest concern for families today. Whatever scholarships they can apply for, and hopefully receive, can make a difference. Those little amounts can add up and at least pay for incidental expenses and books.

  3. samantha burke

    what if you are on ssi is there a financial aid for that?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.