It's not uncommon to hear of unwon scholarship awards just waiting for a lone student application. But how do you tap into this seemingly free money?
"There really is a lot of money out there," says Penny Petersen, director of school counseling for the city of Hampton, Va. "But a lot of young people won't follow through with an application process for $500 or $1,000. They don't think it's worth the time, especially if there is an essay involved. But when they go to buy their college books for the first time, they realize how much they need that $500."
Experienced parents will tell you that finding that money is its own homework assignment. But if you're diligent — and juniors, you should start looking now, say most guidance counselors — anyone can get financial help, says Petersen.
"I don't want students to think that they can't get a scholarship because they don't consider themselves the brightest of the bright," Petersen says. "Don't be scared of the competition. There are scholarships for everyone."
And the best way to find that money is to concentrate on your local contacts.
"Most of the scholarships are not from national searches," Ed Irish writes on his financial-aid blog. Irish is the director of financial aid at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va.
"They come from local sources such as high schools, community organizations, parents' employers and places of worship," he says.
Here are a few opportunities to get you started.
Look for volunteers
Where there are active volunteers, there is fund-raising. And a portion of that money often goes into creating scholarships for local students. Think about local organizations — like Kiwanis, Lions Club or community groups — in your neighborhood. Ask family friends for suggestions, and conduct an Internet search for local volunteer clubs.
Think about your associations
When you're searching for college scholarships, try to think of every association and membership you have. Churches, neighborhood associations and credit unions commonly offer scholarship opportunities to members.
Ask your employer
Many companies have scholarship programs in place, so, make sure your parents talk to their human resources department about opportunities.
Think about your goals
If you're entering college with a career track in mind, seek out profession-specific scholarships. From engineering to hospitality to teaching, professional organizations work to further their field by offering financial aid to promising students.
Rely on the school
Guidance counselors are the best resource for students and their parents. Many school districts pass out scholarship bulletins to their high school seniors and gather the information on their Web sites. If you know which school you will attend, be sure to check the school's Web site. A face-to-face interview with a college financial-aid officer is always a good idea as well.
A number of experienced parents, as well as Petersen, recommend the nationally focused Web sites fastweb.com and collegeboard.com for scholarship searches.
Petersen recommends that students start searching for scholarships as early as their sophomore year.
"Waiting until the end of your first semester of your senior year is not a good time," she says. "You're in panic mode. You really need to get serious about it during your junior year of high school."