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  • A scholarship provides financial aid that doesn’t have to be paid back.
  • There are millions of scholarships out there, and each one has its own eligibility requirements.
  • Starting your search early, and sticking with it, can help increase your chances of getting a scholarship.

You don’t have to be a star athlete or valedictorian to win free money for college. When it comes to scholarships, there are millions of opportunities and billions of dollars available. Scholarships are an ideal way to help fund your education because they don’t have to be paid back. Doing your research and applying early can give you a competitive edge. Let’s look at some important things to consider when starting your scholarship search.

When should I start applying for scholarships?

The sooner you begin preparing, the better. Below are some steps you can take throughout high school:

Freshman year

  • Get involved on campus: The activities you participate in throughout high school can help you qualify for different awards. Look for activities, clubs, and teams you can see yourself sticking with for four years. If you take on any leadership roles, all the better.
  • Start building your résumé: Think of this as a running list of your accomplishments and activities. It should include everything from clubs and sports to leadership positions and awards. Keeping track of these things can help streamline the scholarship application process.

Sophomore and junior year

  • Begin researching scholarships: Scholarship databases can help narrow your search. The Free Scholarship Search tool from Discover® Student Loans uses your background, goals, activities, accomplishments, and intended major to generate a list of scholarships that may be a good fit.
  • Keep track of deadlines: Some scholarships have early application due dates. Consider making a spreadsheet of all the awards you’re interested in, along with their deadlines and application requirements.
  • Ask for letters of recommendation: Some scholarship applications require a letter of recommendation. Teachers, guidance counselors, coaches, and employers can all be good people to ask. It’s best to reach out early so they have enough time to write you a personalized recommendation letter.

Senior year

  • Check with prospective colleges: Many schools offer scholarships to students who meet certain criteria. Check with the colleges you’re applying to and see what opportunities may be available.
  • Keep up your search: Senior year is usually a busy time, but keeping up your scholarship search can pay off in a big way. Just keep in mind that scholarships might reduce your financial aid.

How do I find scholarships?

With so many scholarships out there, you may be unsure of where to start. Here are some ways to begin:

  • Look at your résumé: Your academic achievements and the community service activities, clubs, and teams you’ve participated in could point you toward a scholarship. For example, the National Honor Society offers scholarships to participating seniors.
  • Think about your background: There are scholarships for first-generation college students, underrepresented populations, military families, and more. Tap into your background to see if there are any opportunities available.
  • Consider local and regional scholarships: Don’t forget to zero in on awards within your community—they may be less competitive than national ones.

How can I get more scholarship awards?

When searching for scholarships, put the following action items on your list:

  • Cast a wide net and apply for any scholarships you may qualify for.
  • Don’t rule out small scholarship awards. They can add up to a significant amount of aid.
  • Double-check your scholarship applications for accuracy—and make sure you’ve included all the necessary information.
  • Put time and effort into any required essays. This is your chance to show who you are, so be sure to proofread them carefully.
  • Keep applying for scholarships throughout your college journey. New scholarships are constantly being added to databases, and you can often tweak previous application materials to fit new opportunities.

Winning college scholarships usually takes some persistence. Stick with it and ask for help when you need it. High school guidance counselors and college academic advisors can be great resources.

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