Whether you’re a high school junior or senior looking for funding to help pay for your college education or you’re an adult looking into going back to school, you can definitely benefit from learning a few scholarship basics. After all, finding funding for your education can be a daunting task, whether you’ve never sought out financial aid before or whether it’s been years since you were in school.

More and more resources for finding scholarships and applying for financial aid are available online every day, but this wealth of information and scholarship opportunities can be just as intimidating as it can be helpful. However, if you know a little bit about the process, your eligibility, and other scholarship basics, you won’t feel nearly as overwhelmed. In fact, you might find the scholarship hunt and application process fairly easy. As they say, knowledge is power.

Need-Based vs. Merit-Based Funding

First of all, let’s discuss the kinds of funding you may be eligible for. You’re certainly already aware of student loans, and you probably want to avoid them as much as possible. Those bills are unwelcome graduation presents to most college students, but you have other options for finding funding that you won’t have to pay back when you graduate.

Basically, these types of funding break down into two categories: grants and scholarships. Grants are usually sponsored by the government, though some corporations, institutions, and foundations maintain grant funds, as well. Grants are usually need-based, whereas scholarships are usually awarded based on merit and achievements. Scholarships are also more often funded by private institutions, corporations, and other organizations, as well as by colleges and universities.

If you can demonstrate financial need, you may qualify for a number of grants, especially if you represent a minority in your school or field of study. If you cannot demonstrate this need, you may qualify for a number of scholarships based on your leadership and/or academic achievements.

Government-Funded Grants

Your first step in finding scholarships and/or grants should be to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). You’ll need your tax and income information, your social security number, and other identification and financial information. If you don’t have everything you need to complete the application, you can just save the application and log back in later to complete it when you have everything to complete the application.

Why is FAFSA so important? When you fill out the FAFSA, you’ll be sending your financial need information to the federal government, and they’ll determine how much federal aid you qualify for, including Pell grants and FSEOG. This information will also be given to the schools you’re applying to, and they’ll be able to determine whether you are eligible or how much financial aid you are entitled to through each school.

School-Funded Grants and Scholarships

After you fill out your FAFSA, you can contact your college or university’s financial aid office to discuss any financial aid you may be eligible for through your school. Some programs apply automatically through FAFSA. For example, in-state students who maintain a 3.0 or higher average in Georgia and plan on attending a state school (e.g., the Georgia Institute of Technology, Georgia State University, the University of Georgia, etc.) qualify for the HOPE scholarship funded by the state’s lottery system.

Like many state-funded scholarships, HOPE is linked directly through FAFSA. Students who qualify for it and attend a HOPE-qualified school will automatically be enrolled when they apply for federal financial aid. However, some programs are not quite this straightforward, so don’t hesitate to call, email, or visit your school’s financial aid office to learn about scholarship basics and application requirements for their funding opportunities.

Independent Scholarships

Federal, state, and college-funded scholarships aren’t your only choice, though. If you don’t qualify for any of these grants or scholarships, you still have a very good chance of finding funding opportunities for your college career if you just do some digging into independent scholarships funded by corporations and other organizations.

Some of these scholarships are more widely advertised than others. So don’t be shy about approaching the company you work for or the companies your parents work for to ask about any scholarships they may offer. If you’re involved with any community outreach organizations or you’ve worked with any other groups or organizations in your community, you may be able to find some funding opportunities through them, as well.

In addition to visiting your college or university’s financial aid office, you may also want to meet with your high school’s guidance counselor. He or she will have information on some scholarships you may not have ever heard of before and can advise you on how to search for scholarships that you’re eligible for.

Finding Scholarships Online

Of course, you can’t ignore the power of the Internet when it comes to finding scholarships and learning about the scholarship basics for different schools and organizations. There are several databases of scholarships and funding opportunities online, including the US Department of Labor’s scholarship search site. When you use this site or any other searchable database, be sure to use any and all keywords that apply to you, and do several searches to narrow down your hunt for the best scholarships.

For example, if you’re a single mother looking for funding to get your master’s degree, you can search “mothers”, “women”, “graduate”, “single mothers”, and/or a combination of these keywords to find the best scholarships for you.

Scholarship Basics for Individual Scholarships

When you find a scholarship you want to apply for, be sure to read its description thoroughly, including all application requirements, deadlines, etc. If a deadline has passed or you find that something precludes you from being eligible, move on to the next funding option. You’ll find several that apply to you, and you can choose the ones that best fit your goals and your achievements to get the most funding for your college career.

Search and Apply for Scholarships on ScholarshipChart.com

ScholarshipChart.com helps students and parents search and apply for scholarships, grants, awards and other financial aid options to help pay for college. Whether you are a high school senior starting college or a single mom going back to school, you can find money for college through ScholarshipChart.com.