Many people estimate their Student Aid Index (the renamed Expected Family Contribution) and then automatically assume that because it’s so high, their student isn’t eligible for scholarships. In fact, every student is eligible for scholarships. And every college offers scholarships, though not to every student. So it’s up to students and their families to understand what types of scholarships are out there, so that they can tailor their college search to where they’ll get scholarships.

Scholarships largely fall into three categories: financial aid, institutional merit, and outside scholarships. They’re all slightly different, and not available everywhere, but students can get get one, two or even all three types of scholarships.

Financial Aid is scholarships, grants and self-help programs (student loans and work-study) that fill the gap between Cost of Attendance at a college and the student’s Student Aid Index. Financial aid can come from the college, the federal Department of Education, and state funds, but the most generous financial aid packages are those with institutional scholarships and grants. (Institutional means the college’s money.) Most colleges that offer financial aid include federal aid programs– Pell grants, student loans and work-study– in their aid packages, although some colleges meet 100% of need with institutional grants. In order to be eligible for financial aid, your Student Aid Index must be less than the Cost of Attendance. In order to get financial aid, you need to apply to colleges that meet students’ need, “need” being the difference between SAI and COA.

To get a good sense of how much financial aid you’re likely to get at a school you’re interested in, do their Net Price Calculator. Every school is required to have a net price calculator on its website; if you can’t find it, just google the school name and net price calculator. Punch in your information and you’ll see what students like you pay to attend the college in the current year. This isn’t a binding estimate, but it can be very helpful in eliminating colleges that are not generous with financial aid.

Institutional Merit aid is scholarships colleges offer to attract the students they want to enroll. The vast majority of merit scholarships go to students with good grades and test scores– yes, even in the test-optional admissions world, many scholarships still require or favor students who submit test scores. But colleges offer merit scholarships for other attributes too: many colleges offer athletic scholarships, or scholarships to students with other desirable skills. And “desirable” is in the eye of the beholder: my son received a scholarship for playing on a video game team– every teenage boy’s dream!

Merit scholarships are often thought of as a very opaque tool used by private colleges to discount tuition; however, most public colleges offer merit scholarships as well– and many offer merit scholarships to out-of-state students, too. In fact, public colleges generally offer merit scholarships automatically to all students whose GPAs, and sometimes test scores, are above certain thresholds, so it’s very easy to find out what it takes to get a merit scholarship at your in-state schools.

Furthermore, don’t let “good grades” scare you off. “Good” doesn’t mean you have to be valedictorian of your high school; it means your grades have to be good relative to the college you’re applying to. Typically students in the top 20-25% academically are eligible for merit scholarships at colleges that offer them. (You can find GPAs by looking up a college on Collegedata and scrolling to the bottom of the Admissions tab. Go to the Financials tab to see if the college offers merit scholarships.)

How do you get these scholarships? Good news: your college application and FAFSA (and CSS Profile if applicable) quality you for most institutional scholarships. There are often others available by application, so it’s also a good idea to visit the college’s scholarships page to find out whether you would be eligible for any additional scholarships.

Outside Scholarships are scholarships offered by anyone other than the college. That could be your employer, civic organizations, club activities, professional associations– the list is almost endless. You can find huge scholarship databases online at places like Fastweb and the College Board, but many students are best off starting closer to home: your high school’s college and career center. There you’ll usually find information about all kinds of scholarships, many of which are only open to applicants in your immediate area– maybe even just your high school or just students who participate in a specific activity at your high school. Your odds are much better there than in big online databases that attract hundreds of thousands of applicants. And of course, ask your employer whether they offer scholarships for employees’ children. Ask teachers, coaches, people involved in the activities your student participates in if they know of any scholarships.

For students receiving need-based financial aid, outside scholarships can reduce institutional or federal aid by 50% of the value of the scholarship; however, it’s up to the college to determine which part of the student’s financial aid package gets reduced– grants, loans or work-study. Given that, it usually makes the most sense to focus on larger scholarships, because a $300 scholarship that reduces other aid by $150 might not be worth the time it takes to apply.

Want to make a plan for your college search and maximize scholarships and financial aid? Grab a copy of my book, How to Pay for College. You’ll learn all the ins and outs of saving money on college without sacrificing your student’s education– plus worksheets will help you to put a plan into action.