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7 Steps to Landing a College Scholarship

There is such a thing as free money when it comes to paying for college -- if you know where to look. Between merit-based scholarships and grants for students in financial need, there is an abundance of college scholarships available to both rising and current students. A little time and dedication may pay off in the form of funding for a significant portion of your college tuition. Just remember that grants and scholarships are free, whereas loans must be paid back.

Contact your high school guidance counselor.

If you are an upcoming first-year student, make a date with your high school guidance counselor. He or she can point you towards the best resources for identifying scholarships you may be eligible for based on your geographic region, grades, and achievements. The counselor may also have historical data on specific grants and scholarships that indicate previous students' success in winning them. The counselor knows your record and may be able to provide personalized suggestions for finding the most lucrative college scholarships.

Ask the schools you are applying to.

You can apply for scholarships offered by the colleges you are applying to and also for aid packages sponsored by various organizations. Many schools provide comprehensive lists on their websites of both internal scholarships and external grants; this page posted by Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio is a good example. External scholarships can come from the federal government, state government, private or non-profit organizations.

Search for scholarships online.

Kevin Paskvan, director of financial aid at Ohio Wesleyan, recommends sites such as Fastweb and Salt when searching for scholarships and other tools that are useful in the financial aid application process. The Federal Student Aid office is a good resource for identifying federal grants.

Think creatively about the type of scholarships you may be eligible for.

There are scholarships for men, women, people with disabilities, students in the military, students interested in particular fields, and applicants from abroad. There are also specialized scholarships that exist outside these boxes. For example, we spotted a scholarship especially for vegetarians and one for students who are instrumentalists and vocalists.

Treat applying for scholarships as a job.

In order to increase your chances of securing financial assistance, Leann Kendzerski, associate director of admission and financial aid at Ohio Wesleyan, recommends setting aside time just to work on the scholarship search. She suggests looking for scholarships that speak to you and your background, such as those offered by organizations you have been involved with or some group you plan to be a part of in the future. She notes that the more scholarships you apply for, the greater the likelihood of success. Kendzerski knows a student who applied for close to 50 scholarships and secured nearly $11,500 towards the cost of her freshman year.

Find out colleges' policies on external awards.

Kendzerski stresses the importance of checking with the schools you're applying to in order to determine if they reduce internal grants and scholarships when you receive external awards. The total of your scholarships and grants cannot add up to more than the costs of attending school, so you must alert the financial aid office of any external scholarships you have secured to ensure you don't jeopardize any of your internal funding.

Take the essays seriously.

Many scholarships require some sort of essay or project that demonstrates your eligibility for the funds. While you often can use parts of one essay for other essays, it is essential that you do your research so that each suits the scholarship. Look for college scholarships and grants that speak to your personality and ones whose application essay and/or project will let you shine.

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