While many students assume they’re ineligible for scholarships, there are countless, wide-ranging opportunities offered by clubs, colleges, businesses and foundations that you may be the perfect candidate for.

Best of all, there are a number of things you can start doing right this second to increase your chances of qualifying.

Whether it’s signing up for special programs or performing community service during high school, these steps can ensure you maximize funding potential and could transform your college experience by freeing you of some of the financial burden.

Stop Waiting and Start Doing

It’s never too early to start researching and applying to scholarships. Katy Craig, director of strategic initiatives at the Boettcher Foundation, which awards various scholarships, recommends high school students meet with their guidance counselors as soon as possible. “They’re the ones who can say, ‘Here are the classes you should be enrolled in to ensure you’re taking college preparedness curriculum,’” says Craig. “You don’t just want to have what you need to graduate high school.” A more difficult and nuanced set of courses shows scholarship decision makers that you’re ready to work at a college level and put their money to good use.

There are also programs such as RaiseMe that you can use to earn small scholarships throughout school for accomplishments like getting an A or holding leadership roles in sports. It’s something Sarah Wurtz, scholarships director at Indiana State University, strongly recommends exploring. “I suggest students sign up as early as their freshman year so they can earn these scholarships throughout high school,” says Wurtz.

Get Involved in What You’re Passionate About

Extracurricular activities are vital to making both your college and scholarship applications stand out. But more important than signing up for every club or team your school offers is to seek high levels of responsibility in the organizations you’re most passionate about. “The way you write about these things will no doubt show your enthusiasm,” says Craig. “As a reviewer, I’d rather hear from a student who loves something I know nothing about than someone who’s doing it because they think it’ll look good on an application.”  

But Be Smart About It

University of Colorado-Boulder senior and Boettcher scholarship recipient Amanda Cary was active in her school and local community during high school. In addition to serving as student body president, she played multiple sports, joined groups like DECA to become college and career ready, and served on student boards in her hometown. Yet she admits she pursued such activities for fun and wasn’t aware that they could improve her scholarship potential. “Understanding that high school involvement affects chances of receiving a scholarship can help students make more intentional decisions about how they’re spending their time.”

Reach Out to the Community

Taking part in volunteer work is easy, free and valuable and could be just the element that sets your application apart. “Community service shows that students recognize and care about a world outside of their high schools,” says Craig. Whether you’re an athlete who wants to help with the Special Olympics or strive to raise money to combat a health issue that has affected your family, find a way to give back that is meaningful to you.

“Community service is growing in importance,” says Wurtz. She encourages students to build relationships with community leaders or influencers whose endorsements may aid scholarship applications. “Getting to know someone who could write you a personal recommendation is always a plus,” she says.

Have Fun With Essay-Writing

Who says you can’t enjoy those scholarship applications? Companies like Unigo award thousands of dollars every month for essays on topics like surviving a zombie apocalypse, which surely leaves room for ample creativity. To prepare, take advantage of your English classes and essay assignments by soliciting your teachers’ feedback about how you can generally improve your writing skills. You can also peruse college essay-writing guides like College Covered’s 7 Ways to Make Your College Essay Stand Out, Big Future’s 8 Tips for Crafting Your Best College Essay or Fastweb’s 7-step guide. If you’re still struggling to put your thoughts on paper, try recording them on your phone, then transcribing them so that you have something to start with.

Go Local

With so many applicants competing for nationally available scholarships, it’s smart to target local opportunities first. School counselors tend to know about local programs, while friends and family may be aware of scholarships or aid offered by neighborhood businesses and organizations.

“You’ll see lots of advertisements for national scholarships funded by everyone from Dell to CocaCola, but there are usually tens of thousands of students vying for those,” says Wurtz. “Start with your local community. There will be less competition, and that $500 from your local bank or Elks club can add up.” Local scholarships can vary from the Ascend Educational Fund’s grants for immigrants and children of immigrants in New York City to the Atlantic Aviators Aviation Scholarship for students in Southeastern Massachusetts.

Try These Online Resources

Even if you’re still convinced that you won’t qualify for scholarships, you might find something tailored to your criteria online. With so many free search engines out there to help you find scholarships, you shouldn’t need to pay to find them. Start with these free sites: DiscoverStudentLoans.com, Scholarships.com, ScholarSwag, BigFuture by The College Board and Scholarship America.

If you want more assistance and you are willing to pay for it, there are some paid options. Keep in mind that these fees can add up quickly, which is money you could use toward college. University sophomore Sunny Sandhu secured $600,000 in scholarships (more than he could actually use!) from Footlocker, Burger King and GE thanks in part to Scholly. The handy $2.99-per-month app is the brainchild of Alabama native Christopher Gray, who grew up in poverty and spent seven months searching, applying for and securing $1.3 million in scholarships, then decided there had to be an easier way. It certainly saved Sandhu valuable time. “It only took minutes for Scholly to match me to scholarships, leaving me more hours to devote to the actual applications,” he says. “Winning these scholarships took a huge burden off my shoulders, so I can better focus on my studies and other activities.”

Show Gratitude

A simple thank you (and thank-you note) can go a long way. If you’ve secured a scholarship from a smaller business or company, let them know how much it means to you. Not only is this the polite thing to do, but little gestures like these keep you on people’s radars. This can have a big impact when it comes to applying for further funding in subsequent years.