Covering college costs can be a challenge for many students and their families.

Scholarships are a great way to help offset the cost of college since they don’t have to be paid back. While a number of merit- and need-based scholarships come from schools themselves, there is an almost endless number of independent scholarships—some worth tens of thousands of dollars—that you can apply for.

The first leg of your scholarship journey begins with scholarship research. Each award has its own requirements, criteria, and selection process, so you want to be sure you’re putting time and effort into the scholarship applications that are most closely matched to your qualifications. We break down how scholarships work and the top criteria when digging into your scholarship options.

1. The Deadline

Do you have ample time to give it your all? Finding a scholarship that seems like a good fit won’t help you if the due date is tomorrow. Since most scholarship committees are inundated with applications, getting your materials in late will likely send you straight into the rejection pile. Ideally, you’ll want a couple weeks of lead time to pull together what you need, which may include writing an essay or requesting letters of recommendation. It can be a good idea to start looking at options beginning your junior year and devote some time during the summer before senior year to working on scholarship application materials.

Some things to note: Scholarship deadlines often operate on a rolling basis. And while there are many scholarships designed for students graduating high school, there are many that are open for all years during college. Stay organized and keep track of scholarship deadlines and college application deadlines by setting up a college planning calendar.

2. The Eligibility Requirements

Some scholarships are open to high school juniors, others to seniors and others to undergraduate or graduate students. There are also awards that have an age requirement or are granted only to people of certain ethnic backgrounds or religious affiliations. Before you start the application process, make sure you fit the demographic requirements that may be tied to a scholarship.

Think scholarships are only for top students? Not necessarily. While many scholarships do factor in your grades, other scholarship opportunities may be based on your interests or your background, and some are sweepstakes based. Ask around, too. For example, your religious leader may have suggestions for religion-specific scholarships. Your dance studio may know of dance scholarships. Listing your hobbies, interests, and special skills can also help you target niche scholarships that may be off the beaten path for most people.

3. The Merit Requirements

In general, merit scholarships that take into consideration academic achievements are highly competitive. Therefore, it’s a good idea to make sure that your credentials meet, or exceed, any minimum requirements. For instance, some awards might look for candidates with a 3.5 GPA on their high school transcripts. Even if your own GPA is within a few tenths of that cutoff, it may make sense to move on to the next scholarship on your list.

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4. The Application Packet

How involved is the application? Some scholarships ask for original essays, interviews, a video, or other multimedia components. Others simply require a few pieces of identifying information. Some application components such as a high school résumé can often be used for several scholarships. Keep in mind the prework that you’ve already done when considering how much effort will go into a new application package. The process could be shorter than you think. If you’re currently a junior, it may make sense to peruse applications now. While you don’t need to fill them out yet, knowing any special requirements, additional letters of recommendation, or other materials, such as an artistic portfolio, can help you start preparing early.

5. The Value

Is the award a one-time payout, or will you get funds for every year of college? Does the money go to you or directly to the institution you attend? How much of a difference will the award make to your ability to pay for college? How could it impact your financial aid or your taxes? The value should be proportionate to the time and effort required to complete the application. But don’t discount small scholarships—if a $500 scholarship has a relatively straightforward application and takes an hour to complete, it may be worth your time. Keep in mind that smaller or more local scholarships may be less competitive than larger scholarships.

6. The Fine Print

Some scholarships, such as those based on athletic talent, might be contingent on your performance once you’re in college. Academic scholarships might require recipients to meet a minimum GPA requirement while in college. Make sure you understand these rules and have a financial game plan in place in case the time comes when you are no longer eligible.

By concentrating your efforts on the scholarships that suit you best, you’ll put yourself in a great position to earn some of the money it will take to pay for college. Start your scholarship search today.

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