Get Organized for College Scholarship Application Season

Preparing early and staying on top of the process are key when applying for college aid.

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February 1 through the end of April is the busiest season for college scholarship applications. That means if you're planning to head off to college next fall, you'd better get cracking. Follow these tips to stay organized and ahead of the game during scholarship application season.

1. Search for scholarships in a variety of places: We've posted about scholarship search engines in the past, as well as other places to look, but here's a refresher:

• Check in with the counseling office/career center at your high school, and let your counselor know you are interested in going to college and finding available scholarships.

• Ask your local Dollars for Scholars chapter or other community foundations about scholarship resources. Often, scholarships go unclaimed simply because eligible students are not aware of them. (Your local Chamber of Commerce, United Way, or volunteer center can be helpful assets, as can local service clubs and organizations: churches, Elks, Junior League, Kiwanis, Lions, Rotary, Soroptomist, YWCA, Zonta, etc.)

• Consult with postsecondary institutions you are considering attending. The financial aid office might be able to suggest local and institutional scholarship sources.

• Last, but not least, you can do a scholarship search on the Internet. One word of caution: investigate the source, especially if it charges a fee for its scholarship search and referral services. Scholarship America's Resources for Students page lists a wide range of reputable and useful services.

[Learn more about paying for college.]

2. Prepare early: Begin your scholarship research early, even as early as your sophomore or junior year of high school. But even if you're already halfway through your senior year, you still have time!

• Make a list of all the scholarships for which you want to apply.

• Apply for as many scholarships as you are eligible for; several smaller scholarships can add up to a lot of money.

• Make special note of application deadlines—they can vary from late summer to late spring.

• Work hard to get good grades. Don't sweat one bad grade, but always strive to do your best.

• Get involved, and stay involved, in extracurricular activities. Sports, clubs, drama, band—they often count toward a student's overall scholarship application evaluation. Paid work experience may, too.

• Check back to The Scholarship Coach weekly for timely advice and information about new scholarships and scholarship deadlines.

• Use social media to find up-to-the-minute information on scholarships. On Twitter, search regularly for tweets that contain the hashtags #scholarship and #scholarships.

[Read more about making your extracurricular activities pay off.]

3. Be thorough in your application process—and don't rush! Rushing can lead to mistakes that will take you out of the running for the scholarship award. Write down everything you can think of for each question, and then set the application aside for a day before finishing. In addition:

• Read the supplemental materials with the scholarship application to better understand the program's focus (community service, academics, subject interest). Then, answer the questions with the focus area in mind.

• Answer questions as they are asked. Don't go off topic.

• If there is a financial component to the application, make sure you get accurate and complete information from all appropriate sources to assure your eligibility.

• Don't wait until the last minute to complete your application, especially if you are applying online. Computer systems can get clogged with the large volume of applicants hoping to submit their qualifications during the last few days and hours before a deadline.

• If a third party has to complete a portion of your application, such as provide a letter of recommendation, be sure to follow up early and as often as necessary to assure they provide you with the necessary materials.

• Finally, review your application with your parents to make sure you haven't left out something important.

[Get more tips on asking for recommendation letters.]

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 Master of Public Affairs at the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. Fugate is the recipient of numerous scholarships at both the undergraduate and graduate level.