Financial 101: Scholarships Explained

Financial aid is money lent or given to you to you help you pay for school. Scholarships are often referred to as “gift aid” because they do not need to be repaid upon graduation.  

Scholarships can be awarded by private organizations, governments, and colleges or universities. They are often merit based. This means that they are awarded on qualities, like academic merit or athletic ability.  

Sources of Scholarships 

Colleges and Universities 

Many colleges and universities offer scholarships to their students. They can be merit-based, need-based, or a combination of the two! Scholarships offered by colleges and universities may also have certain requirements to continue scholarship for your entire time on campus. These terms and conditions are outlined when you are awarded the scholarship.  


Some state governments may fund scholarships for residents attending college in their state. Your high school counselor will have more information regarding the kinds of scholarships your state may award.  

Private Organizations 

May companies, foundations, community organizations, and clubs sponsor scholarships. Scholars from these private organizations are called outside, or private, scholarships. Possible sources of outside scholarships include:  

  • Your parent/guardians’ employers or labor unions 
  • Your family’s religious center 
  • Organizations like 4-H, Girl Scouts, or Key Club.  

How to Find Scholarships 

To apply for scholarships, you will mostly likely start by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and the CSS Profile, if the schools you are applying to require it.  

Outside scholarships typically have their own application forms and processes. Start by talking with your school counselor about how to find outside scholarships. Be sure to also use online tools from reputable places, like the Encourage App! Outside scholarships typically have their own application forms and processes.  

Finding and applying to scholarships may take some time and effort, but we promise it will be worth it in the end! 

What is the CSS Profile?

As you are exploring your financial aid options, you may come across the CSS Profile. CSS stands for College Scholarship Service which is administered by College Board (The same organization who administers AP exams, PSAT, and SAT). Hundreds of colleges and universities nationwide require it as a supplement to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Be sure to check if colleges you are interested require you to submit the CSS Profile! Read on to learn more about CSS Profile:  

Why do I fill out the CSS Profile? 

The CSS Profile allows you to be considered for need-based financial aid from certain schools. It is more in-depth than the FAFSA, so colleges can see your true financial need on a deeper level.  

When do I fill out the CSS Profile? 

The CSS Profile typically opens on October 1 for the upcoming school year. You will want to submit your CSS Profile no later than two weeks before the earliest college or scholarship application deadline. 

What do I need to fill out the CSS Profile? 

Since the CSS Profile and FAFSA application are similar, they will require a lot of the same documents. It’s wise to go ahead and get the following items together:  

  • Your College Board login, if you took the SAT, PSAT, or AP exams, you should already have this. 
  • Federal tax returns (your guardians’ and yours if you file taxes) 
  • Your SSN and guardians’ (if applicable) 
  • Record of any untaxed income 
  • Bank statements 
  • Mortgage information 
  • Investment records 
  • Your debit or credit card. 

The initial cost of the application is $25. To send reports to additional schools, it is $16. If you qualify for a free SAT waiver, your application fee will be waived, and you will have the ability to send your CSS Profile to up to 8 schools for free.  

If you ever run into any questions while filling out your CSS Profile, take advantage of the email support, live chat, and phone support that College Board offers! 

Your Guide to the FAFSA as a First-Time Applicant

The FAFSA or Free Application for Federal Student Aid allows you to be considered for financial aid from federal and state governments, and many colleges and universities.  Each year, the FAFSA opens on October 1 for the following school year, so mark your calendars or set a reminder in your phone. It’s best to complete the FAFSA as soon as possible, so you can be considered for the maximum amount of financial aid possible. Follow our steps below to complete and submit the FAFSA:  

Step 1: Create Your FSA ID 

Your FSA ID is the username and password that will grant access to certain Department of Education websites. It will also help verify your identity and serve as your digital signature for your FAFSA. If you are a dependent student, then your parent/guardian will need to create an FSA ID as well. 

Step 2: Gather Important Documents 

You’ll need to dig in the archives for the items below: 

  • Your Social Security Number 
  • Parents’ Social Security Numbers (if you’re a dependent student) 
  • Driver’s License Number (if applicable) 
  • Alien Registration Number (if you are not a U.S. Citizen) 
  • Federal Tax Information including W-2 information for you (and your spouse, if you are married) and your parents (if you’re a dependent) from two years prior (i.e. 2022-2023 school year will use 2020 tax info) 
  • Records of your untaxed income, such as child support received, interest income, and veterans noneducation benefits, for you, and for your parents if you are a dependent student  
  • Information on cash; savings and checking account balances; investments, including stocks and bonds and real estate (but not including the home in which you live); and business and farm assets for you and for your parents if you are a dependent student 

Once you’ve input all this information, be sure to keep these documents in a safe, but accessible location in case you  

Step 3: Start the FAFSA 

You created your FSA ID, you tracked down your documents, and October 1 is here! It’s now time to start your FAFSA. Head on over to and click “Start Here.” Be sure to use ONLY From there, you can also use the myStudentAid mobile app. Unfortunately, there are scammy websites out there that are named and look very similar to the real website that will charge for filing your FAFSA. You should NEVER pay to file your FAFSA! Once you start a new application, you can create a save key. Make sure you don’t skip this step, so you can save your work and return where you left off, if you don’t complete the FAFSA in one sitting. 

Step 4: Are You a Dependent?  

The FAFSA will ask you several questions to determine your dependency status. In general, you are considered a dependent for FAFSA purposes if:  

  • You are under the age of 24, 
  • Unmarried,  
  • And not a member of the military.  

If you are classified as a dependent and feel you have an extenuating circumstance, we’d recommend connecting with your college financial aid office regarding your individual situation. 

Step 5: Input Financial Information 

This section is where you input your tax and financial information. If you are considered a dependent, you will input your parents’ information as well. Pro tip: if you have the option to use the “IRS data retrieval tool,” do it! This allows your tax return to automatically sync with your FAFSA. 

Step 6: Select FAFSA Recipients 

Colleges need your FAFSA information to be able to award financial aid. You are required to list one school, but you can add up to 10. Some states have specific requirements for how you need to list schools on your FAFSA in order to be considered for state grant aid, and you can review those guidelines on the Federal Student Aid website. The colleges on your list will then use your FAFSA to determine both the type and amount of aid they’ll offer you upon acceptance.  

Step 7: Sign and Submit the FAFSA 

One last thing: you must sign your FAFSA application using your FSA ID and hit “submit.” You’ll know you’ve successfully submitted your FAFSA once you’ve seen the confirmation page. You will also get an email confirmation of your submission. If you happen to have a sibling in college who is also a dependent, this confirmation page will allow you to transfer your parents’ info to their FAFSA as well. Be sure that your parent(s) sign your FAFSA, too!  

If you’re ever stuck on anything FAFSA related, you are not alone! Be sure to seek help from your high school counselor, college admissions counselor, or your prospective college’s financial aid office. Good luck! 

Applying to College 101

Applying to college? LOOK AT YOU! So proud. The college application process can be confusing and overwhelming, especially if you’ve never been through it before. But have NO fear, as always, we’ve got your back by gathering some common questions that students have about the process. By the end of this article, we’re hoping for solid confidence moving into the application process!

Some Common Questions

1. When should I start applying for college?

The timeline of college applications typically requires planning, due to the nature of how early the portals open for applicants! Most applications open about a year before you attend school.

Here’s a simple example: If you hope to go to college in the fall after your high school graduation, your application will open in the summer before your senior year or in the fall of your senior year. What can you do to best prepare for application season? Decide what schools you want to apply to, take the ACT/SAT, read some stellar examples for college admissions essays, and ask for some letters of recommendation from your favorite teachers and counselors. Oh, and breathe – you’ve got this.

2. Where do I find application(s)?

Straight up, you’ll want to hit up the website of the college you’re applying to. Great place to start your search. From there, you’ll either be directed to a common application software or apply directly on their website. When you discover this info, you’ll also see the other requirements for getting into the program you want. This typically will highlight essay topics, application fees, test score range requirements, and how many letters of recommendation you may need.

3. Which semester should I apply for?

Typically, you’ll find yourself so excited that you’ll jump into fall semester applications without even thinking. PLOT TWIST: You have some other options! Let’s say you want to take some time to yourself to work before going to save up some cash; Spring may be a more viable option for you. Keep in mind that some colleges require a mandatory summer session so you can kick things off sooner! There are SO many perks to starting during the summer semester so you can have a sneak peek of what campus has to offer before the whole squad unpacks for fall.

4. What do I need to apply, though?

A short, but necessary list of things you’ll need:

  • Essays
  • Letters of Recommendation
  • Application Fee/Fee Waiver (Ask your school counselor about these!)
  • High School Transcripts
  • Vibes, Just Vibes

5. I’m done with my application, now what?

Now’s the time to tap into other parts of your to-do list:

  • Have you scheduled a chat with your counselor? Now’s the best time to remind them just how cool they are for giving you their lifehacks.
  • Filling out your FAFSA information sooner than later is the move, so be sure to create a login sooner rather than later.
  • Submit those updated ACT/SAT scores, it’ll only take a quick sec.

Types of Applications

Early Decision

Some pros, some cons. This gives you a chance to apply early (typically around November) to your first-choice school. You’ll receive your admission decision in advance of the regular notification date (usually December).

! Heads up: Be mindful that with early decision, you can only apply to one school under early decision. If you’re accepted, you must agree to attend if you’re given an adequate financial aid package. You can submit regular decision applications but must be withdrawn once accepted.

Early Action

Like Early Decision, Early Action allows you to submit your application earlier than the regular deadline and receive an admission decision early in the admissions cycle. Unlike Early Decision, Early Action is not binding. You still have the opportunity to apply elsewhere and weigh all of your options before making a final choice.


When colleges are test-optional, they are waiving the requirement of ACT or SAT test scores. This gives you the choice to submit testing scores or not. If you’re not sure if you should apply test-optional, read these tips.

Deferred Admission

When you receive your admission letter, there’s a possibility you will see the word “deferred.” The word “defer” means to delay. You’ll usually see this if you apply early to a school. If you’re deferred, your application will be deferred into the regular decision pool. As an applicant, you can be deferred for many reasons, so don’t be discouraged.

Rolling Admission

Colleges with rolling admission keep applications open for a large window of time. They also process applications as they are received, rather than after a hard deadline. This usually means the earlier you submit, the earlier you know your admission decision.

How to Pick a Career (That Makes Sense For YOU)

If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you’re trying to figure out how to pick a career that makes sense for you. Sometimes it’s easy to listen to the noise everyone in your life has been telling you… “Be this”, “Do that”, and everything between. The only way you can truly know is by asking the right questions, getting your hands dirty, and trying some career options through a part time role, internships, shadowing, and more. Consider asking these questions when deciding which career makes sense for you!

What are the pros & cons about this career choice?

Like anything, you’re likely to face some positives and negatives regarding your decision. Above all, you career should reflect your core values. Positives will seem like “wins” to you, while negatives may seem as though you may be sacrificing something in order to work there. Be sure to evaluate the pros and cons from your perspective, and if the positives outweigh the negatives, you’re likely going to find more joy in the career you choose.

Is there a work/life balance?

Sure, we spend a HUGE chunk of our week at work, but you can’t forget – it’s not your whole life. Know how much personal time you need when looking into a career and take note of this when you are experiencing the work/life balance in the job.

What does your schedule look like?

This goes hand in hand with the aspect of work/life balance because many careers go beyond your typical 9-5 workday. This makes total sense because you’re not a workhorse and you deserve some time to relax every day! A great example of a demanding workflow is that of a nurse or firefighter; an 8-hour shift is simply not in their description! When you make a career choice, consider the hours you’ll need to work. Does this align with the lifestyle you’re hoping to achieve?

Is location important?

Short answer: probably. You want to have a real moment with yourself and consider your geographic preferences when talking about location and what it means to you. Some careers are more widely available in larger cities, while others can be found anywhere! This is the best time to be real with yourself on the kind of lifestyle you’re wanting to achieve so you can enjoy your environment.

What are the educational requirements?

Most careers are going to require some extent of training and educational background in order to qualify for the role. Consider your time and money as an investment. Will this investment help pay the bills AND make you happy? If considering a formal education for the role, keep in mind of the options to pay back any debt you take on while earning the necessary credentials.

When you’re exploring your options, it’s important to gain multiple perspectives and really take into consideration what’s important to you. It’s normalized these days to change careers throughout a lifetime, so never forget to keep an open mind and stay true to YOU!

7 Ways Your Counselor Can Help

You already know how important it is to make your school counselor your BFF, but you may not recognize just how much of a useful resource for you and your family during your time in high school. Their whole intention is to provide support and help you plan and succeed in your future, beyond academics. It’s highly encouraged to visit your high school counselor early and visit them often! Need some motivation to make an appointment? Here are a few reasons why you should consider making some time on your schedule to meet up with your new bestie.

1. Selecting courses and fulfilling graduation requirements

Have questions about class schedules, your transcripts, graduation status, or really… anything? Your counselor has your back. They can help balance your schedule and align you with challenging coursework and electives based on goals to get you right on track.

2. Helping you talk through the tough stuff

Sometimes the stress comes from beyond the books. This looks different for everyone, and if you find it to be a struggle, your counselor is equipped to make sure they’re supporting you through it all. It could be some challenges at home, troubles with interpersonal relationships, or a mental health funk – whatever it is, they’re certified and trained to help guide you through best practices to manage emotions, relationships, and hardships in time of need.

3. Striking a balance

You’ve got a lot going on, and we commend you for all the awesome things that keep you going through the week. A high school schedule is highly underrated! It can be difficult to maintain a balance between schoolwork, meetings, sports, part-time work, volunteering, and social commitments. Your counselor is the ideal coach to guide you as you work out a healthy balance to keep you from burning out.

4. Planning for YOUR future

Everyone’s future is different, and your school counselor is no stranger to the different paths students take post-graduation. Want to join the military? They likely have details for a recruiter to get you in contact with. Need a job right after high school? They can assist with some resume building. Want to attend college or trade school? Guaranteed, they have some insight on how to best get you there. No matter your path, your school counselor may have opportunities for you to explore your options. At the very least, they can ensure that you are progressing towards graduation! 

5. You need a reference, right?

Need we say more? In all seriousness, you need someone to vouch for your excellence. This could be used as a recommendation letter for college or acting as a reference for a job interview. Either way, it’s vital to have an adult in your corner who can attest for your character, work ethic, and overall will to grind.

6. Making big decisions

You’ll have a lot of major decisions to make while in high school, big or small. No matter what, the decisions are in your hands, but your counselor can walk you through some decision-making tips so you can feel confident in making an informed decision.

7. Encouraging you

Most importantly, keep in mind that your school counselor is your biggest fan and cheerleader. It takes some patience, kindness, and a whole lot of love to be a counselor after all. These leaders on campus will always empathize with you through difficult times and clap for you when you win.

Like most things in life, the more effort you put into something, the more you will get out. Your school counselor has so much to give you, all you need to do is communicate what you need. As you build your relationship with your school counselor, don’t forget to thank them for all their help and hard work!

Everything You Need to Know Before Your First College Visit

Visiting colleges is a great way to get a feel for what college is like, and help you decide if a particular college is the right fit for you.  

We’ve developed this guide to help you make the most of your college visits:  

Arrange Your Visit 

All colleges and universities have admission offices that can help you plan your visit. Your school may even organize group visits to campuses nearby. To get some tours on your schedule:  

  • Visit the websites of colleges you are interested in to see if they publish a calendar of their scheduled group tours. If you can’t find the calendar, you can always contact the admission office by email or phone to schedule a visit.  
  • Check with your school counselor to see if there are any organized campus tours you can take part in.  

If visiting a campus in-person isn’t an option, virtual visits and tours have become popular. Check in with the admission offices at colleges you are interested in to see if they offer visit events or tours for future students, like you. The good news is that these virtual resources can give you a sense of life on-campus through webinars, virtual panels, and video presentations.  

What to Expect During Your Visit 

Campus tours can range from a quick hour-long tour, webinar, or overnight immersive experience. Most in-person campus visits include the following:  

  • Information Sessions: These are typically led by admission representatives and cover the admission process of the specific college prior to the actual campus tour.  
  • Campus Tours: These are typically led by current students and showcase the highlight the main features of campus.  

At many colleges, you can also arrange the following to enhance your visit experience:  

  • Classroom visits 
  • Special information sessions hosted by different academic areas 
  • Meet with a financial aid officer 
  • Meet with your admission counselor 
  • Eat in the dining hall 
  • Spend a night in a dorm 

Whether you are visiting a campus in-person or participating in a virtual event, this is a great time to ask questions and interact with college staff and students. Stuck on what questions to ask? Here are some suggestions:  

  • What is your biggest piece of advice for a new student at XYZ University? 
  • Do all first-year students live on-campus? If so, are students guaranteed housing? 
  • What do most students do during the summer? 
  • What kind of hands-on experiences are built into my major? 
  • Are study abroad programs offered? 
  • What kind of on-campus jobs are available? Where do students work near campus? 
  • Is there tutoring I can access? 
  • Most popular majors/minors? 
  • What kind of services does the career center offer? 
  • Who will my advisor be? 
  • What kind of campus safety resources exist? 
  • What is there do on the weekends? Do a lot of students stay on campus on the weekend? 
  • Best tradition on campus? 
  • What do you wish you knew about the school before you came as a freshman?  

After Your Visit 

Take notes 

Right after your college visits, jot down some first impressions and thoughts about the school. This is especially useful if you’re using the same trip to visit multiple schools. You may find that a lot of the colleges blend after a few tours. Having notes to review later will be useful when it comes time to compare your options.  

Notice the weather 

If the weather is not ideal during your visit, think about how it might impact your opinion of that campus. You want to make sure you choose a college that is ideal for you, so don’t rule out a school too quickly if the weather left you with a bad impression. 

Collect contact information 

When learning about a school, it’s easier to reach out to people you’ve already met. That way, you can continue a conversation and show demonstrated interest. When on your campus tour, ask for your guide’s name and email. You may also want to ask for the card of your admissions counselor, so you can have their contact information as well. 

College Rankings: What They Really Mean

From US News to the Princeton Review, there are hundreds of different college rankings based on hundreds of different factors. They all seek to answer the age-old question: is one college better than another? It seems like a clear cut question, but what does it even mean for one school to be better than the next? How do you know what components they use in their rankings and if they line up with your preferences? And how can you even compare a small, private liberal arts college in a rural area, to a big public university in the middle of a city? Here, we will unpack what actually goes into college rankings, what they mean, and how they can guide your college decisions.

How do they work?

To make a college ranking, organizations assemble data on the many different aspects of each school. These facets may include average class size, average GPA, graduation rate, or financial resources. All of these data are then fed into a weighing system that averages the score of each category (Academic Reputation, Financial Resources, etc), and analyzes the importance of each division. For example, US News weights Academic Reputation at 22.5%.

The most important thing to remember is that each college ranking uses a different rating system. For example, US News does not take the cost of tuition into its ranking at all, which may not be very helpful if you’re looking for more affordable college options. Each ranking uses different data and weighs things differently, so it’s important to know what goes into a college ranking when you use one.

One more thing to remember: college rankings try to compare colleges that may be extremely different from one another. Two similarly ranked colleges provide different experiences, and it’s important to remember this when examining them. Also, remember that a higher college ranking does not mean a college is better. It just means that a college scores higher in that particular rating system.

Tips for Using College Rankings

Don’t rely on the rankings

No college ranking should determine your college decisions. They serve as a useful tool, but your final decision should come down to reasons beyond the rating, such as campus life, location, and academic profile. Be careful of relying too much on the rankings!

Use them as a starting point

While college rankings shouldn’t have the final say in your decision, they can be a great starting point in finding the school that’s right for you. If you already have some schools you like, you can look at rankings to find similarly ranked schools that may interest you. Also, many ranking websites have tons of helpful information on all the universities, such as average class size, student population, and average salary after graduation.

Don’t try to compare extremely different colleges

College rankings can give the illusion of being able to compare very different college experiences. For example, a small private liberal arts school may rank similarly to a large public university. Though they are ranked the same, the colleges offer contrasting experiences. You should look carefully at the type of college experience offered, rather than just its rating.

Look at specific rankings

By looking at rankings based on a specific major or certain type of school, you can compare colleges in areas that matter to you. If you know which factors that are most important in your college decision, you can look for rankings based on those. Some examples: rankings by major, by type of institution (public, private), and by affordability.

Be aware of the rating system

Finally, make sure you look at how each agency creates its rankings. The data should be listed on its website, including the process and how the rankings are weighed. This will help you better understand what the rankings actually reflect, and whether they measure the things that matter to you.

Rankings are a good place to start your college exploration journey, but be sure to focus on fit when searching for your dream college. We can help! Download Encourage to get your college matches today!