Everything You Need to Know When Hunting for Scholarships

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We recently looked at the basics of merit-based scholarships and how institutions determine what you'll be able to pay. Now it's time to make a battle plan for winning scholarships.

Where to start? We asked Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of the financial aid education site Edvisors and co-author of "Filing the FAFSA." Below are his 10 tips for students seeking merit-based scholarships to pay for college.

1. Create an accomplishments resume. Kantrowitz advises students to think of applying for scholarships as akin to applying for a job. That means making a resume that summarizes awards, interests, activities and accomplishments. "It can help the student write a better application and teachers write better letters of recommendation," he says.

2. Don't miss deadlines. "Half the scholarships have deadlines in the fall and half have deadlines in the spring, so start searching for scholarships ASAP," Kantrowitz says. And for those who aren't high school seniors? Kantrowitz says scholarship opportunities are available to students as early as elementary and secondary school. Other awards require applicants to already be enrolled in college. Either way, vigilance pays.

3. Complete the scholarship-matching profile thoroughly. Edvisors offers a free Personal Financial Aid Help Tool to provide students and their parents with college savings tips tailored to their financial situations. Says Kantrowitz: "Many of the questions [in the form] trigger the inclusion of specific scholarships."

4. Apply to as many scholarships as possible. There's no magic formula to winning scholarships. You'll need to apply a lot if you want to truly boost your odds of winning. That said, there are ways to streamline the application process. "Reuse essays to save time, customizing them for each new application," Kantrowitz says. "Answer the essay question out loud and transcribe a recording of the answer to avoid writer's block and proofread carefully before submitting the application."

5. Look for scholarship listing books. Just because the Internet is chock-full of tips and listings, you shouldn't simply forgo paper directories. "They can be found in the jobs and careers section of the library or the campus Career Center," Kantrowitz says. Spend a day sifting through what's on the shelf and write down everything that looks interesting, checking copyright dates as you go. Why? Any directory more than a year or two old could have out-of-date information that needs confirming.

6. Find local scholarships on bulletin boards. Some awards are aimed specifically at locals. You'll find them where students conduct business. "Look near the high school guidance counselor's office, outside the college financial aid office and campus academic departments and in the local public library," Kantrowitz says.

7. Tap into family connections. Big companies frequently have some sort of scholarship fund. Clubs, fraternities and other membership organizations are equally invested. Kantrowitz says students should be looking for opportunities in each to apply.

8. Read the paper. "Check out the coupon section of the newspaper for local and national corporate-sponsored scholarships," Kantrowitz says -- and he's serious. Banks, credit unions and even the newspapers themselves may be offering funds to local students.

9. Maintain a professional online presence. Again, think like a candidate applying for a job. Your online presence is how the selection committee is going to get to know you. A professional-looking website and social media presence could give you an edge over those who haven't put in the same effort. Says Kantrowitz: "Some scholarship providers now require finalists to friend them on Facebook. Also, use a professional email address to make a good first impression."

10. Dress to win. You wouldn't go to a job interview not looking the part. Take the same attitude when applying for merit-based awards. Says Kantrowitz: "If selected for an in-person or video interview, dress as if you would be a proud recipient of the award."

Let's Hear Your Success Stories!

With millions of scholarships offered annually, you're bound to find a few in unexpected places. Where have you unearthed funds for school? What was your strategy and why did it work? Tell us all about it in the comments section below.

With his eldest headed for college soon, Motley Fool contributor Tim Beyers is about to become a scholarship junkie. Find him on Twitter as @milehighfool and try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. Check out our one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.
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