4 Do's and 1 Don't for Finding Scholarships

Private scholarship aid is available if you know how and where to look.

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When people hear that I work for Scholarship America, invariably the first question they ask is, "How can (I, my son/daughter/niece/nephew/grandchild/neighbor's kid) get a scholarship?"

As it turns out, this question is more relevant than ever. Today, the average student is graduating with more than $20,000 of loan debt, and it's pretty tough to start your adult life that deep in the hole. Fortunately, there may be around $3 billion in private scholarship aid available each year for students who know where to look. Scholarship search engines like fastweb.com, collegeboard.com, and scholarships.com are a great start. Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Fastweb, stresses that you should "complete all of the optional questions in the scholarship search profile for about twice as many [scholarship] matches."

[See why private colleges are awarding more scholarships.]

And that's not his only recommendation.

DO check your local newspaper and guidance counselor bulletin board. Kantrowitz also suggests some more old-school sources: the coupon section of your Sunday newspaper, and bulletin boards outside the guidance counselor and financial aid offices.

There are no better resources than these for locally based scholarships. Herb Crowell, a guidance counselor in Minneapolis, begins his scholarship talk with students with a firm "Never pay for a service to find scholarships—there are plenty of ways to find everything and anything for free."

[Read about 11 sexy scholarships.]

"Usually local scholarships are more within reach of your typical A/B student. For these, school counseling offices are the best place to check," he added.

"I advise students to approach the challenge of finding scholarships as if they were looking for a job," says Judith Lewis Logue, director of financial aid at the University of San Diego. "Few job applicants assume they will be offered the first job for which they apply. They know they will need to apply for many jobs to find the right one. You can never apply for too many scholarships!"

DO talk to your target college about opportunities. Get to know the financial aid folks at your chosen university, suggests Joseph Russo, director of financial aid at the University of Notre Dame. "The primary source of information about student aid opportunities and resources is the college/university to which the student is applying. The vast majority of student aid resources are going to be made available through those financial aid offices," he says. The next best source, according to Russo: the student's high school guidance office.

"After these resources have been investigated, students should check with their local civic, church and community-based organizations," he adds.

DO check with civic/church/community-based organizations. Now it's time to take a look at your closest circle of relationships and associations. Check with your parents; do their employers offer scholarships? Contact your church or place of worship, and don't be afraid to ask if there are scholarships available locally, regionally, and even nationally through your denomination or church-related charitable groups. Find the local Rotary, Lions, Eagles, and Elks clubs and inquire about scholarship opportunities. You should also check to see if your community has a community foundation or a Dollars for Scholars® chapter, both of which may provide opportunities to apply for scholarships.

[Get more advice on how to pay for college.]

DO cast your net wide. Don't be afraid to ask everyone you know if they are aware of scholarship opportunities that may be available to you. Get to know your high school guidance counselor and the financial aid officers at the college(s) you are interested in attending. Apply for every opportunity you can, and think of it like a job search.

DON'T pay for advice. Last but not least, remember: "If you have to pay money to get money, it is probably a scam," concludes Fastweb's Kantrowitz. "Never invest more than a postage stamp for information about scholarships or to apply for a scholarship."

Janine Fugate joined Scholarship America in 2002. She is an alumna of the College of Saint Benedict, Saint Joseph, Minn., and is currently pursuing a Masters of Public Affairs at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. Fugate is the recipient of numerous scholarships at both the undergraduate and graduate level.