As college application season opens, the unknowns accumulate. Will there be fewer spots available due to this fall’s deferrals? How will applicants be evaluated with many schools making tests optional? Will campuses re-open in full for the 2021 year?

One thing is for sure: Despite rough economic times, most universities aren’t prepared to substantially cut tuition. And many incoming students are surprised by the actual costs of college: A new report from nonprofit organization UAspire finds that “indirect expenses,” which include non-tuition costs such as books, technology, transportation and more, can take up more than half the cost of college.

That’s where scholarships of any size can be useful, and it's never too early to map out a strategy for earning scholarship money. This is the time to see what programs you might qualify for and take note of any requirements you can still fulfill to make yourself a better applicant, such as earning a requisite number of community service hours.

The good news is that there are thousands of sources of funds available to a student (or parent) who is willing to do the searching. Here's a look at where to start to finding college scholarships.

LOOK TO YOUR DESIRED UNIVERSITIES FOR THE TOP DOLLARS

Your best bet for real money — maybe even enough to cover your complete tuition — comes from standing out as a stellar applicant. Most colleges offer merit aid to students they are trying to woo, and in some cases it can cover the majority of your costs.

If you’re hoping to cash in based on your academic record, some schools cite their metrics right on the website — for example, this GPA combined with this standardized test score will earn you this amount. Others adapt their criteria depending on the incoming pool of applicants. But whether you are aiming for a known goal or just trying to put your best foot forward, merit aid bestowed by your school is likely to be your best option for the real bucks.

PRIORITIZE SCHOLARSHIPS THAT ARE BASED ON QUALIFICATIONS

Once you move past your university offerings, the field opens wide up. And, yes, it seems easy to just click a button and be enrolled in a “sweepstakes” type competition, but it’s best to focus on scholarships that require you to prove your competitiveness, says Jocelyn Paonita Pearson, founder of The Scholarship System.

“Scholarships requesting essays, transcripts, recommendation letters and more are clearly basing their decisions on students’ qualifications,” she says. “If you take the time you would otherwise spend applying to sweepstakes, which are basically games of luck, and instead put it into a competitive essay that you can re-use for other programs, you’re likely to see a better payback.”

LOOK LOCAL

Some of the best options might be — literally — in your backyard, says Denise Thomas, CEO of college coaching service Get Ahead of the Class. “Local scholarships will typically have fewer applications and thus less competition,” she explains.

Start with your high school guidance counselor, who probably knows the groups that routinely offer scholarships, like the Rotary or Booster clubs, says Lindsey Conger, an independent college counselor at MoonPrep.com. You can also research additional scholarships that former students have won by looking online, if your school archives past honors assemblies. “Applying to these programs can give you an edge because the scholarship committee is already familiar with your school.”

She also suggests checking out the college counseling page of other local high schools, since some smaller scholarships might only be posted on one or two websites rather than every school in the district. “But that doesn't mean that you can't apply, too; just check the wording carefully to make sure you are eligible,” Conger adds.

Thomas recommends literally driving around town and noting all the companies you pass — from grocery stores to banks — and going online to see if they offer scholarships. “Some may reserve them for employees’ families, but others are for the community,” she says. She also advises searching the term “community foundation scholarship” and the name of your city or state to see what’s available.  

Also, look into heritage groups based on your ethnicity and trade groups to which your parents belong or that support your proposed field of study.

USE BIG DATABASES, BUT JUDICIOUSLY

Another option you’re sure to hear about are the big scholarship clearinghouses like Fastweb and Scholarships.com but, as Pearson mentions, those are often saturated with many students chasing the same honors.

However, that doesn’t mean you can’t find gold, notes Mark Kantrowitz, publisher and vice president of research at Savingforcollege.com and author of “Secrets to Winning a Scholarship.” That’s because sites like Fastweb also include local scholarships, coded to match students by zip code or who attend specific secondary schools. 

“There are no unclaimed scholarships,” says Kantrowitz, who served as publisher of Fastweb until 2013. “Every scholarship provider seeks the student who best matches their selection criteria.”

Thomas recommends focusing on your unique qualities and characteristics to begin your search. “List specific activities you’ve participated in, physical characteristics or disabilities, community service organizations you’ve helped, expected college major and where you live to uncover potential matches,” Thomas says.

PERFECT YOUR PROCESS

The typical high school senior is going to match 50 to 100 scholarships, estimates Kantrowitz, and, yes it’s possible to apply to all of them. That’s because you’ll start to see commonalities that ease the process. “After your first few scholarship applications, you’ll find you can reuse parts of your essays,” he says. “Just remember to adapt each one to the particular scholarship entry; for example, don’t mention the name of the wrong program.” You’ll also have your transcripts and recommendation letters in hand, making it easy to provide the supplemental information they request.

Remember that the more generous the scholarships, the fiercer the competition. “If you have a limited amount of time to apply for scholarships, go for the ‘high-hanging fruit,’ the less-popular ones that require more work to apply or have lower top awards,” Kantrowitz suggests.

And just remember that in the scholarship game, every dollar counts.

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