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Scholarship opportunities for college aren't just available to freshmen. And believe it or not, you could actually end up with a surplus in funds by applying for them throughout your years in college.

When Should You Start Applying for Scholarships?

You can apply for some scholarships as early as a year before college starts, but the answer is really any time and all the time. Nick True, a 23-year-old mechanical engineer, managed to graduate college with almost $30,000 in excess scholarship money after all of his expenses were paid.

True, who chronicles his money adventures on the blog True Tightwad, knew his parents weren't going to be able to provide much financial support for his college education, so he started searching for scholarships while in high school. By the time he graduated, he had already secured funding for 75 percent of his college education and he didn't stop there.

"By the time I graduated college, I got 150 percent of college paid for," he said, netting $28,922 after all tuition expenses for his degree had been paid.

"Every single year in school I applied to more than 15 scholarships that weren't associated with my university," he continued. Because True had a large portion of his tuition covered by the school, the additional scholarships he won ended up not only covering the difference, but also left him with a surplus to use for living expenses.

True credits being a STEM major as a factor in his scholarship success. He and his cohorts were in high demand, which correlated with ample scholarship opportunities. But even for students with other interests, there are plenty of scholarships out there.

Scholarships Don't Always Need to Be as Relevant as You'd Think

Like True, Jocelyn Panoita, 25, graduated college debt free thanks to scholarships, which she quickly realized didn't necessarily even need to be related to her major or background.

"The strangest scholarship was a golf scholarship that had nothing to do with me playing golf," said Panoita. The scholarship itself, which awarded her $4,000 a year, was given by the Jimmy Rane Foundation and based on leadership skills. It was funded by a golf tournament. Panoita had to go through an extensive process of essay writing and interviewing to win the scholarship.

Paonita used her experience paying for college with scholarships to become a college funding expert and start her own business called The Scholarship System. Now she helps other students figure out how to pay for college without debt and how to get scholarships for college. Part of the strategy is letting students in on a little secret: competition for scholarships isn't so fierce after freshman year.

Upperclassmen Often Fail to Aggressively Apply for Scholarships

Paonita as well as Jason Butler, financial aid counselor at Georgia State University, both agree that students seem far less likely to apply for scholarships after freshman year. This may be due to laziness or a misconception that there aren't as many opportunities for upperclassmen. Yet, this may be one of the best times to start applying for scholarships.

"I believe the competition is much more slim once [students] get to college so, if anything, that is the best time to apply," Paonita said.

Where to Find Scholarships

Carissa Uhlman, 37, is the Vice President of Student Success at Inceptia, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting financial literacy and reducing student loan default. Uhlman recommends you start your scholarship search with your college's financial aid office as they may be able to help connect you with institutional aid, on-campus employment opportunities or even local or national scholarships. She also encourages students to work their network by asking loved ones if any of their groups, churches or local organizations offer scholarships. Uhlman herself won a scholarship from the Army for children of military parents.

True recommends joining and networking within organizations related to your course of study. "The number one way I found scholarships was by joining professional organizations as a student member," he said. "Nearly all different engineering organizations had a few scholarships they gave out every year. So I joined every single one I could find."

Once you've exhausted those resources, you can turn to online options. Uhlman suggests, and Unigo — which allow you to search by school year, making it easy for upperclassmen to find relevant scholarships. She also recommends the U.S. Department of Labor sponsored site CareerOneStop, which allows you to search for scholarships, as well as grants and fellowships. You can also use the Discover Student Loans Free Scholarship Search Tool, which helps you search 3 million scholarships worth more than $18 billion. There's no registration required.

Paonita also suggests scouring company websites in your field of interest to see if they offer scholarships.

Not to mention, some opportunities may be completely unrelated to your field of study or even a skill you thought you possessed. Uhlman points to the Duct Tape sponsored scholarship which offers up to $10,000 for making prom clothes out of duct tape.

No matter how you elect to search for scholarships, be wary of scams. Uhlman warns that you should never be paying to look for scholarships.

Ultimately, Getting Scholarships Does Take Hard Work

Although you now know that there's no time like the present for when you should start applying for scholarships, True offers some advice as you get going: "If you really want scholarships," he said, "you should keep your GPA up, learn how to write well, build good relationships with professors and try to get experience in your profession."

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