Figuring out how to pay for college can be one of the most stressful parts. From student loans to grants to scholarships, it’s hard to figure out how to get the most bang for your buck, but we talked to some financial aid and admissions experts to get some tips on how to get the most out of your college financial aid package.

College financial aid tips - how to get the most out of your financial aid

Do your research before you apply.

As a source of money, colleges give out the largest amount of free money, second only to the federal government. To find these more generous colleges, students (and families) need to do research BEFORE they send in applications. Once applications are submitted, all that’s left is for a student to wait to receive financial aid packages. But you can’t get financial aid from a college you never applied to, so do your research to make sure you are applying to the schools most likely to offer the most financial aid.  – Debbie Schwartz, Founder of Road2College

Start looking for scholarships early!

Even before you apply to colleges, you can start looking for scholarship funding in your local area by asking your school counselor about local scholarship programs, asking your family members about employer scholarships, and searching online for local businesses or organizations offering scholarships. Many scholarship deadlines occur before you receive college acceptance letters, and most are transferrable to any school that you attend. – Lillian Simmons, Director of Financial Aid & Scholarships at Fielding Graduate University

Always apply to as many scholarships as you can. Search local scholarships that others might not be aware of (for example my local water company has one that is only available to students in my city). It seems like an obvious tip, but many people don’t apply to scholarships they could easily get because they think they won’t get it. Apply, and if you do get the scholarship, be sure to send a thank you letter. The people who choose scholarships remember these things and will most likely remember your name if you can reapply for the next year as well. – Sami Mast

Related: The Simple and Easy Guide to College Financial Aid

Consider STEM majors.

For female students, one way to get into a great school and get a lot of aid is to major in any of the STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields and/or apply to technical schools. Generally, tech schools and fields have at least twice the number of male students as females. Many campuses are looking to balance this out and many organizations are looking to get more women into tech fields like the sciences, IT, engineering and math-based majors. – Kevin N Ladd, COO of

Pay attention to the school.

When applying to schools, look at places that may not be the most famous, with best known names. There are literally HUNDREDS of great schools with amazing opportunities whose names may not be the ones you know. If you can find a school where your credentials are slightly above the median for a school, (and especially if you have a talent or skill that may be in demand or valuable to them), there are merit dollars waiting for you. Merit money is meant to attract students that will make a school shine! – Jodi Rosenshein Atkin, M.A.

To get more financial aid, apply to schools where a student’s test scores are in the top 25% of students admitted. This makes the student very attractive to schools looking to increase their academic profile. – Debbie Schwartz, Founder of Road2College

Look for scholarships all year!

Just because your school didn’t offer you a scholarship your first year doesn’t mean that you can’t get one from them during your sophomore year. Contact your financial aid office and find out what scholarships they offer and what the requirements are for each one. – Tori Canonge

Realize that your hard work can (literally) pay off.

Some departments offer scholarships to students who show great academic promise – and you don’t even have to apply for these opportunities. Do your best in classes, get to know your teachers and embrace your department and you could receive a (small) surprise scholarship like I did! – Casey Cromwell

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