Getting Started: How to Find the Right Colleges, Financial Aid, Scholarships & Grants

Let Citizens Bank help guide you through the college search and student loan process

The school you attend will ultimately determine your borrowing needs, so it's important to choose your top college choices early. Once that's out of the way, the hunt for college financial aid should always begin with a search for free money, such as scholarships, grants and institutional aid from the school of your choice. Use the helpful tips below to aid in your search for the right college and financial aid package.

  • Choosing the Right School
  • Differences: Loans, Scholarships, and Grants
  • Taking Advantage of Grants & Scholarships

Choosing a College

How to find the right college for you

With over 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States, there's never been a greater range of choices for college-bound students. But sometimes a wide selection leads to complication and confusion, so how do you find the right college for you? Fortunately, we have some tips and advice to help you with your decision.

Think hard about the college criteria that are most important to you:

  • Location. Do you imagine attending an urban school, or one surrounded by rolling hills? Would you prefer to be several states away from home, or within a short drive?
  • Attributes of the institution. Do you picture yourself at a co-ed or single-sex institution? Are you thinking of joining a fraternity or sorority? Do you want to play sports in college? Do you like big, lecture-style classes or do you prefer smaller classes? has a college search tool that shows you the schools which match the attributes you find important.
  • What you want to study. Start your search by matching your interests with the schools that are historically strong in those areas. To learn a college's academic strengths, talk to your school's college counselor and consult college websites.
  • How much you can afford. Experts say it's best to try not to focus too much on this issue when choosing a college. You may qualify for more financial aid than you think and federal and private student loans can help, as well.

Once you've thought about what you want, take a look around:

  • Find out what students are saying. Look for testimonials, visit Facebook or explore other social sites to see if current students are talking about any of the schools you're considering.
  • Attend a college fair. This is the perfect opportunity to talk with numerous recruiters from various schools.
  • Schedule campus visits. Get a real feel for what the school is like. Many schools will be happy to let you stay overnight in the dorms, too.

Financial Aid for College

What are the differences between scholarships, loans and grants?

Along with family savings, loans, scholarships and grants will almost certainly be the three leading methods for funding your college education. Learn more about the differences between scholarships, grants and loans to determine the right combination for you.


Scholarships are a form of financial aid that do not have to be repaid. Scholarships for college are granted based on a variety of criteria, including academic merit, athletic involvement, extracurricular activities, essays, ethnicity and financial need. You should be able to find scholarships on both a national and local level.


Grants are monetary awards which, like scholarships, do not need to be repaid. Grants are funded by federal and state governments, like the Federal Pell Grant, as well as many schools that have their own money to award. Unlike grants in graduate school, most grants for undergraduate students are need based rather than merit based. Competition will be tough, so apply early and to multiple grant programs to increase your chances of receiving these funds.

College loans

Finally, student loans are borrowed funds which you, or your parents or guardians, are obligated to pay back over a certain agreed-upon period, with interest. They can be borrowed either from the federal government or from private sources, like Citizens Bank. Federal student loans, such as the Federal Direct Stafford Loan, do not examine your credit score and as such may offer better rates, but they are also for limited annual amounts, and should be exhausted first because of this. Most students will still need additional funding after maximizing grants, scholarships, and federal student loans — this is where private student loans come in.

How to Find Scholarships and Grants

Take advantage of free money by applying for scholarships and grants

As any college financial aid expert will tell you, before looking into student loans, you should first maximize all the free forms of financial aid for college you can find, such as grants and scholarships. But how do your find scholarships and grants that you're eligible for?

Applying for education grants

Education grants refer to various forms of student financial aid that don't need to be repaid. Some are awarded based on financial need, while others are based on anything from academic merit to a parent's employer or fraternal organization.

Examples of college grants include:

  • Institutional Grants. Sometimes called merit awards, these grants are given by colleges and universities themselves from the proceeds of their own fundraising efforts.
  • Federal Pell Grants. A cornerstone of the federal student financial aid system, these grants are based on a student's financial need and the particular school they'll be attending.
  • Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants. Awards for undergraduate students with acute financial need.

Finding college scholarships

Use Peterson's helpful scholarship search to locate various scholarships that you may be eligible for and check out our tips for writing scholarship essays and more to prepare for the application process. You can also ask your guidance counselor about local scholarships previous students have received that may be a good fit for you. Below are several local organizations that often have scholarships available:

  • Chambers of commerce
  • Local businesses or civic organizations (Kiwanis, American Legion, Lions Club, etc.)
  • Churches or other faith organizations
  • Ethnic organizations
  • Parent employer plans

Avoid scholarship scams

Do your homework before using a scholarship search service. Remember, you should not need to pay for information on scholarships. Check with the Better Business Bureau and your state attorney general if you have any concerns about the legitimacy of a scholarship and keep an eye on helpful watchdog sites like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to identify possible local scholarship scams.


Helpful Tools & Information
Student Loan Glossary A quick guide to various terms you'll encounter in the student loan process.
Education Financing Calendar You'll find important milestones students and parents should keep in mind including deadlines for applying for financial aid for college.