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How to Get a Pell Grant: Apply and Win


You may have heard of Pell Grants, which can be really important in helping students fund their college educations. Although the Pell sounds enticing, figuring out how to actually get a Pell Grant may be overwhelming. How do you know if you're eligible? Where do you apply? How do you keep track of your application? 

As it turns out, getting a Pell Grant isn't too difficult if you know where to begin. Follow the steps in this guide to optimize your chances of receiving Pell Grant money. 

Step 1: Determine Whether You're Eligible to Apply for Federal Aid

Because the Pell Grant is a federal student aid program, you need to meet all federal requirements in order to be eligible. The major requirements are that you must:

  • Have a high school diploma or GED
  • Be a citizen or US national
  • Be enrolled, or accepted to enroll, in a school that participates in the Pell Grant program

There are other federal requirements that you must meet in order to be eligible, however; you can get more detailed information about those requirements here. Make sure you have all these requirements locked down before you apply, or else you risk delaying your application.


Step 2: Determine Whether You Meet Specific Pell Grant Requirements

The Pell Grant is primarily meant to help low-income students pay for college. As a result, most recipients are students who do not already have a bachelor's or vocational degree. Check out our Pell Grant eligibility guide for more information.

You also need to meet certain financial requirements to be considered eligible for the Pell, which are addressed in the next section. 


Step 3: Estimate Your Own Financial Need to Determine Eligibility

When you apply for the Pell Grant - which happens when you submit your Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA - the Department of Education will generate a number called the Expected Family Contribution, or EFC. The EFC determines whether you're financially eligible to receive the Pell Grant.

For the 2015-2016 academic year, the EFC cutoff is $5081. So, if your EFC is at or below $5081, you will receive some Pell Grant money. You can use your family's financial information (your parents may be able to help with this) to estimate your EFC before you even apply for the Pell Grant

If you aren't feeling up to estimating your Pell Grant by calculating your EFC, you can use these very general guidelines:

  • Most Pell Grant awards are granted to students whose families make less than $30,000 per year
  • 25%-35% of Pell Grant awards are granted to students whose families make between $30,000-$60,000 per year

The smaller your EFC, the more Pell Grant money you're likely to receive; you're also likely to get a larger award if you're a full-time student. For the 2013-2014 academic year, the average Pell Grant award was $3541. 



Gathering pieces of your family's financial info is an important part of applying for the Pell Grant. This step could be streamlined with the help of a patient parent. 


Step 4: Apply for Federal Aid via the FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid  

You apply for federal aid by submitting a FAFSA, a form that you have to submit annually if you want to be considered for any aid, including the Pell Grant. If you estimated your EFC and think you'll receive Pell Grant money, you're probably excited to submit the application. But what if you don't think you'll be eligible for the grant? Should you still apply?

The short answer is: yes. It's totally free to apply for the Pell Grant, and you may be losing out on valuable aid by skipping on the application. Many states, colleges, and universities also use information generated from the FAFSA to award their own financial aid. It's in your best interest to submit a FAFSA even if you don't think you'll get the Pell. Check out the online version of the FAFSA - it's the fastest way to submit your application. 

Most students submit their FAFSAs soon after they get their acceptance letters. The federal aid deadline for the 2015-2016 academic year is June 30, 2016, but don't wait that long to submit your FAFSA; you may be missing out on aid opportunities that exhaust quickly if you apply too late. You can get more information about submitting a federal aid application here.


Step 5: Manage Your FAFSA

After you've submitted your FAFSA, you'll receive what's called a Student Aid Report, or SAR. This official report will have all the information you need about your aid eligibility. The school(s) you listed on your FAFSA will also have access to your SAR.

If you submitted your application electronically and don't get a SAR within 3 days, there may have been an error in processing your FAFSA. Fortunately, it's pretty easy to check the status of your application online. 

Your school will put together a financial aid package based on your SAR. It may include Pell Grant money in addition to other forms of aid, like student loans or work-study. 



The electronic version of the FAFSA is, as you can imagine, much easier to manage than the paper version


What's Next?

 If you're already looking at how to get a Pell Grant, you may already know about the program; if not, you can read about everything you need to know in our Pell Grant guide

Eligibility requirements for federal aid in particular can be difficult to navigate. If you could use a step-by-step outline for determining Pell Grant eligibility, I have good news for you


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Francesca Fulciniti
About the Author

Francesca graduated magna cum laude from Harvard and scored in the 99th percentile on the SATs. She's worked with many students on SAT prep and college counseling, and loves helping students capitalize on their strengths.

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