If you qualify for a grant or scholarship at the Federal level, you are also likely to qualify in your home state. States operate programs similar to the Federal Pell Grant Program in that they provide need-based funding that doesn’t need to be repaid. If your Federal financial aid doesn’t cover tuition, state grants may supplement it to pay your full cost of tuition.

State-funded grants for minorities promote diversity and increase access to college for traditionally Under-Represented Minorities (URM’s) such as African American, Hispanic, and Native American students. For example, Wisconsin’s Minority Undergraduate Retention Grants disburse funds to second, third, and fourth-year minority students.

Specific funding is also set aside by states for students whose access to a college education is severely limited by physical and learning disabilities. Other students also contending with exceptional hardship get special consideration for funding in most states. Those whose circumstances present the greatest obstacles to education are usually first in line for consideration. In many states, foster care youth are eligible for college aid that is earmarked for them.

Students pursuing degrees in high-need fields like nursing and teaching are eligible for assistance in many states. Grants are issued by states in return for an obligation to work in an under-served area of the state upon graduation for a specified period of time. By committing to work as a teacher or nurse within your state for two to four years, you may receive tuition abatement that amounts to a tuition-free bachelor’s degree. However, you must honor the agreement or your grant will convert into a loan that you must pay back with interest.

Applying for State Financial Aid

Every state has its own funds and process for distributing financial aid in the form of grants and scholarships. Some states only require that a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form be submitted as the only application necessary, while other states require families to submit a FAFSA plus a separate state application.

You can find your state’s deadlines for financial aid applications on the Federal government’s studentaid.gov website. Make sure to check your state’s Department of Education website too because some scholarships may have earlier deadlines than those listed on the Federal site.

Federal financial aid is never exhausted but financial aid from your state can run out of appropriated funds. If you apply late in the cycle, there may not be money available for you. Fill out the FAFSA as soon as it becomes available and submit it to the Federal government immediately upon completion. They will promptly send a copy of your FAFSA to your state’s Department of Education.

Overlooking one detail such as a required essay or recommendation letter can cost you thousands of dollars in state financial aid. Make sure to review all requirements carefully and note any exceptions such as scholarships with early deadlines or unique requirements.

In addition to the FAFSA, remember to submit all required state forms along with supporting documents such as essays and recommendation letters. An otherwise winning application can get thrown out if you fail to include a form or document that the state requires.

National Merit Scholarships and the PSAT

The PSAT is a standardized test administered by the College Board and co-sponsored by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation. The test serves a dual purpose: First, it helps prepare you for the more important SAT exam later in high school, and second, it can make you eligible for the National Merit Scholarship Program, which may award you a scholarship to a public institution in your state.

You’ll register for and take the PSAT at your high school. The test is composed of two Math sections, a Critical Reading section, and a Writing Skills section. Two hours and forty-five minutes are allowed for completion of the four sections. Your score on the test can be a maximum of 1520.

The PSAT is only offered once each year, but you may take the test in freshman and sophomore years to get accustomed to testing conditions and track your progress over time. However, only the score on the test that you take in October of your junior year counts for National Merit Scholarship consideration.

Earning a high score on the PSAT is the first step in qualifying for a National Merit Scholarship. To become a finalist, other factors like your GPA, letters of recommendation, and SAT/ACT scores are required. But it all starts with a high score on the PSAT. Less than 1% of the students who take the PSAT go on to become National Merit Scholars, but even competing for this honor and being named an Alternate National Merit Scholar is an achievement recognized by colleges.