If you or your child is hoping to enter college in the fall, it’s a good time to be looking for a scholarship. Take the Ivy leap now.

Scholarship and grants form the bedrock of my college financing philosophy: Get as much of a discount upfront on college bills before you step inside those ivy-covered walls.

I’ve always disliked loans, which can hobble young adults for years. Grants don’t have to be paid back and should be your first financing option. There’s a method to the Ivy leap that takes a great deal of diligence. Scholarships don’t magically appear in the mail, and you’ll need to fill out a lot of forms.

For the persistent, taking the Ivy leap pays off. I know one young man who got enough scholarships to cover his first two years of college and he’s now working on getting the money for the rest of his degree.

There are few people who know more about landing college funds than Mark Kantrowitz, the founder of the college money search engines Fastweb and Finaid. Kantrowitz has distilled some of the tips he’s learned over the years in his new book Secrets to Winning A Scholarship.
Kantrowitz says that more than 1.5 million scholarships and grants worth $3.5 billion are awarded by organizations every year. He was able to pay for his college education (through his PhD work at Carnegie-Mellon) entirely through fellowships and grants.

Preparation is the key to winning “free money” since only about 20,000 students annually are able to cover all of their college expenses through outside funds.

“Your chances of winning a scholarship depend on your efforts, your academic and extracurricular background and how well you prepare your applications,” Kantrowitz says.
What do you need to do to take the Ivy leap? Here are five tips that Kantrowitz suggests:
Pick your major carefully. Some fields of study have more money available than others. Those entering programs in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics are more likely to find money available. The top category for awards? Math and statistics, where the average grant was more than $4,000. Compare that to business majors, where the average award was about $2,800. Society still needs scientists and technicians and any number of groups are willing to educate them.

Test scores still matter. The better the college-entrance test score, the better your odds will be of getting a grant. Those scoring 1300 or better on the SAT were six times were likely to get aid vs. those obtaining scores under 700. Take tutorials and prep course before you take these tests. It will increase your chances of lowering your college bills.

More selective schools can offer more aid. If you have a choice between an inexpensive state college and an expensive school, look at the financing available at the pricier university. Highly selective schools typically have larger endowments and more scholarships available. But you still need to be an above-average student to qualify. Top-tier colleges also tend to award more merit-based aid to students from private high schools.

You don’t have to be poor. Middle-income students are more likely to gain aid than upper- or lower-income families. Thousands of merit-based grants are available that have nothing to do with wealth. You may need to write an essay or be a member of an ethnic group.
Community service matters. The most selective and grant-rich schools want to enroll well-rounded students. So volunteering is important on an academic record. Pick something you’re passionate about and addresses a social need.

Kantrowitz is honest about how difficult it is to find meaningful money for college. It’s a “numbers game,” meaning the more applications you send in, the better your chances of finding money. You won’t succeed unless you target groups that are likely to give you money and you keep those forms flying out the door.

The only guarantee in the Ivy leap is that you won’t get anything unless you spend a lot of time at it. And be prepared for rejection. That’s a key part of the education process. The sting goes away though, once you achieve your ultimate goal: Getting a degree without going into debt.