The best kind of financial aid is money you don't have to pay back, typically called scholarships, grants, or fellowships. (Be careful to check the fine print. No matter what name they give it, money that you have to pay back is a loan.)
At least 40 percent of grad students get some free money. They get it by:
1) Creating a bidding war for themselves by applying to several graduate schools, including at least a couple for which their grades, test scores, or other qualifications are above average. Schools are more likely to add a financial lure for applicants who bring up the school's statistics, rankings, and prestige.
2) Filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid and, if their prospective schools ask for it, the CSS/Profile or the Need Access forms to see if they qualify as low-income enough to receive need-based aid.
3) Asking their university department or grad school adviser for help in finding aid.
4) Tracking down and applying to charities and government agencies that fund graduate study in their fields. This is a great option for those in the sciences, education, and languages.
5) Getting their employers to contribute to their education. This is a great option: At least half of all workers receive education benefits from their employers.