Top 10 New Year's Resolutions for Scholarship Seekers

In 2012, make sure you follow these scholarship tips to help pay for college.

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As we wrap up 2011, the Scholarship Coach also celebrates its first birthday. We hope that over the last year we've given you some meaningful insight on scholarship searching and unique opportunities. As you consider your 2012 resolutions, we urge you to make applying for scholarships one of them. Let's count down the top 10 scholarship tips that you can take with you into the New Year.

[Check out these New Year's resolutions to lower your college tuition.]

10. Steer clear of cash for counsel: Avoid paying for scholarship search sites. The best sites are free and easily accessible, including Fastweb.com, Scholarships.com, CollegeBoard.com, CollegeNet.com, and ScholarshipMonkey.com. "If you have to pay money to get money, it is probably a scam," says Fastweb publisher Mark Kantrowitz.

9. Clean up your Facebook page, then use social media to your advantage: We can't emphasize this enough—if you wouldn't show it to your grandma, don't post it on Facebook, no matter how good you think your privacy settings are. Instead, use Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter to your advantage by showcasing your talent, volunteer work, interests, and jobs.

8. Use your summer vacation to rack up bragging opportunities: The economy has forced many teens into summer unemployment. But it's still prime time to earn extracurricular, leadership, and community service experiences that will look awesome on your scholarship applications.

7. Look for scholarships close to home: Don't limit your scholarship search to the big names and national websites—you may have less competition and better opportunities in your own backyard. Start by checking with your high school guidance office, as many local businesses and organizations will post here first. Also, reach out to your or your parents' employers to see what scholarship opportunities or education assistance is available to you.

6. Search early and often: We say this over and over again, but we can't stress it enough—start your scholarship search as early as possible, and keep searching regularly. Many scholarships are open to juniors or even sophomores, and some of the more prestigious scholarships require months or even years of preparation. Plus, new scholarships are constantly being added.

[Get hints on how to avoid missing scholarship deadlines.]

5. Give plenty of advance notice for letters of recommendation: Want to ensure that your teacher or adviser writes you a superior letter of recommendation? Then make sure you ask politely in writing, provide lots of advance notice, and give them the background they need: details like past classes you've had with them, reminders of your history together, the focus of the scholarship, and detailed instructions. And don't forget to formally thank them afterwards!

4. Get your hands on a good proofreader: Sure, it may seem obvious to avoid writing in "text speak," but it does slip into college applications and scholarship essays. Even after you spell check, you should avoid errors like "thru" and "IMO" by having at least one other person look over your scholarship applications and essays. It's also a good idea to utilize your high school's writing center for advice on how to make your essays sound eloquent and polished.

[Learn more about proofreading college application essays.]

3. Be complete and be on time: There's a surefire way for you not to get noticed when applying for scholarships, and that's by turning in a late, incomplete, or incorrectly filled-out application. No single thing will make your application stand out, but making it complete and professional will keep it from being immediately trashed.

2. Fill out the FAFSA—no matter what your financial circumstances: If you don't take the time to complete your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), it could cost you thousands in grants, work-study, low-interest federal loans, and need-based scholarships. Filling out the FAFSA is the most important thing you can do to get your hands on need-based money to pay for college. Even if you don't think you're eligible, fill it out anyway—you may be surprised.

1. Send a thank you note: The one thing you should never forget happens to be something you should do after you receive a scholarship—and that's saying thank you. After you have the cash in hand, it's easy to forget this last step, but just as you would thank someone who gave you a birthday or graduation gift, you should thank the person or organization who awarded your scholarship. Scholarship sponsors want to know that their gift to you is appreciated.

Michelle Showalter joined Scholarship America in 2007 and is an alumna of Luther College in Decorah, Iowa.