To make what may be the world’s most obvious statement, attending college in the United States is expensive.

Sure, the cost varies widely from in-state public schools to private colleges, but no matter what, a post-secondary education doesn’t come cheap.

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

The first leg of your scholarship journey begins with research. Each award provider has its own requirements 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.

Before you apply, consider these six factors to choose the best scholarships for you.

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.

2. Who Can Apply

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.

3. Merit Requirements

Merit awards that look for academic achievements are highly competitive. To have a fighting chance, you should meet at least the minimum requirements, if not exceed them. For instance, some awards might look for candidates with a 90% or above average on their high school transcripts. If you only have an 88%, even though you’re this close, it likely makes sense to move on to the next scholarship on your list.

4. The Application Packet

How involved is the application? Some scholarships ask for original essays, interviews, a video or other multimedia component. Others are as easy as entering a couple pieces of identifying information. Make sure you are able to balance applying for scholarships with your overall workload to avoid burnout.

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.

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. Be 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 the some of the money it will take to pay for the next four years. Start your scholarship search today.