collegeAlmost everything about beginning the college experience can be stressful and overwhelming. From choosing which college to go to and what to study, to dealing with roommates, to deciding exactly which college movie one's higher learning experience should emulate ("Revenge of the Nerds?" Or perhaps "Animal House"?), there are a seemingly endless series of decisions to make.

Preparing some serious financial plans are the hallmark of beginning any college experience, and figuring out exactly how to pay for college is probably among one of the most important long-term decisions you'll make, with consequences that can follow you well into adult life.

Welcome to adulthood. Won't this be fun? You know it will...
When it comes to using financial aid to pay for college, there are four big categories: Student loans, work-study programs, grants, and scholarships. These four concepts are likely to be familiar to every college student, as most college educations are paid for using a variety of these methods.

This article concerns itself mainly with grants and scholarships, which, in this context, are much the same thing: financial awards from am individual, corporation, or government body which the student recipient will not have to pay back.

There's a good deal of results online when one does a search for scholarships, but it's extremely difficult to separate the good information from the bad. Some sites seem to exist to genuinely want to help, while others are merely expertly done advertisements designed to look like something helpful while collecting your information to sell to third-party advertisers. With everything else going on, you need a quick, basic rundown of genuinely helpful and vetted online sources, as well as some tips to avoid red flags when it comes to searching for grants and scholarships.

As far as scholarship information goes, it may seem obvious, but it's really easy to miss: FAFSA doesn't show up when you enter a simple search term like "scholarships," but, really, it should be your first stop online.

Any student applying for financial aid is going to want to fill out a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) and a SAR (Student Aid Report) form. The great thing about the FAFSA Web site is that it's a government site, and any links you'll find here are approved and official unless otherwise stated.

Familiarizing yourself with the information on the FAFSA Web site is a great idea, as you'll have a better understanding of what to expect as you continue your search for other scholarships and grants.

While there, you'll get educated about the different types of Federal student loans available, as well as learn more about some of the major grants. The Pell Grant (named for its champion, the late Rhode Island Sen. Claiborne de Borda Pel) is an award of up to $5,500 based on financial need. The main FAFSA site has plenty of information about other grants and scholarships, and when in doubt, you can always compare the information you've found elsewhere against the site.

For another approach to finding scholarships that are offered by state or private institutions, there are a few options. First of all, check in with the college or university that you plan on attending. Often, the school will offer its own need based scholarship, or a scholarship for those pursuing a particular major. It's best to check your school's financial aid department site or talk to a counselor directly.

If you're in high school, always ask a guidance counselor for some information about scholarships. They may have access to information about merit scholarships and grants that are specific to your area. If not, check in with your state's Education Department for more info.

Use caution in your scholarship and grant search. Sadly, there are those who prey on naive students and families who are looking for financial help for school. Remember these facts when you're doing your search:

  • You'll never have to pay to fill out or submit a FAFSA , and you shouldn't have to pay a fee to be granted a scholarship.
  • Never give your credit card or bank account information to anyone who claims they're awarding you a scholarship.
  • When in doubt about a business, website, or other service, check their standing with the Better Business Bureau or do a search on the Federal Student Aid Web site.
It's easy to get lost in a sea of unfamiliar terms, and it's important to feel secure and that you're finding information you can trust. Using the resources discussed above, you can be sure that you're searching safely. Once you have the financial aid situation under control, that's when you can start tackling the really important college decisions, like whether to be a jock or a nerd, and the best possible pastries to use in a food fight.

And we all know how high lemon cream pies should rank, correct?

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