Round out the dish

One of the factors that increases anxiety around how to pay for college is this notion that the best way to get financial assistance is to find, apply for, and win scholarships. But that’s not where you’re most likely to find a financial boost.

When people talk about applying for scholarships, they’re usually referring to outside or private scholarships. These are little-known awards from private companies, foundations, community organizations, churches and other benefactors. But while there is money to be had from those sources, the largest percentage of scholarships comes from those provided by federal and state governments and from the colleges themselves. And the best way to access those funds is to apply to colleges where you have a very strong chance of admission, and to file the appropriate financial aid forms (which begins—and for many colleges, ends—with the FAFSA).

There’s nothing wrong with applying for outside scholarships. Every dollar in scholarships you win helps, and the more concerned you are about how to pay for college, the more important it is to seek all viable sources of assistance.

But those scholarships account for a very small slice of the overall financial aid pie. To focus all your efforts there would be like investing all your dessert making effort on the whipped cream. Whipped cream makes an excellent addition, but it can’t carry a dish alone.

Start by finding the colleges where your chances of admission are strong to certain. Then have your counselor vet the list. Follow each college’s instructions on applying for available aid. Submit your forms well before the deadlines. And throughout the process, apply for outside scholarships to round out the financial aid dish.