Ring in the New Year With 5 Resolutions to Find Scholarships

Avoid heavy student loan debt by resolving to find new funds to pay for college.

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Identical twins in Ohio rang in the new year by giving birth to baby boys just a few hours apart.
Identical twins in Ohio rang in the new year by giving birth to baby boys just a few hours apart.

It seems like every year on January 1, more than half the U.S. population resolves to join a gym, eat healthy, and lose 10 pounds. Other common resolutions include spending less and saving more, quitting smoking, and learning something new.

Though resolutions often sound cliché, there's no denying that everyone can benefit from an achievable, healthy goal—and what better time to start than at the beginning of a brand new year?

If you're nearing your high school graduation or in search of a new career, then going to college will probably be at the forefront of your mind this year. And unless you want 2013 to also be the year you racked up thousands of dollars in student loan debt, we recommend you consider at least one of the following scholarship-related New Year's resolutions.

[Did you keep last year's scholarship resolutions?]

5. Build up your résumé: Before you start filling out all those scholarship applications, you'll need some accomplishments to brag about. If you spent most of the last few years with your head in your textbooks—or in front of the television–then now's the time to get out of the house and do something.

Think about your interests and find an activity that would look great on your scholarship application. Love fashion and shopping? Consider a part-time job in retail.

Both college admissions offices and scholarship providers love seeing work experience on a résumé. Plus, you could end up with a great discount and meet a lot of fun people along the way.

If you already have a job or you don't want to worry about job searching, we definitely recommend adding in a few hours of volunteer work through your place of worship or a local club or nonprofit. Many scholarships reward applicants for serving the greater good, and making a difference in your community also feels awesome.

4. Use social media for more than socializing: Did you know that Twitter and Facebook are good for more than just posting cute pictures of your friends and sharing your minute-by-minute Spotify playlist? There are a lot of great scholarship-related Twitter feeds just begging you to follow them, including @scholarshipsusa, @scholarshipscom, @USNewsEducation, and our organization, @ScholAmerica.

Make it one of your 2013 goals to follow at least one of these scholarship feeds to ensure you've got the latest scholarship news.

3. Search for scholarships regularly: The average young person, ages 13 to 24, spends 16.7 hours plugged into the Internet every week, more than talking on the phone or watching TV, according to a study by Yahoo! and ad agency Carat Interactive. Though we all know there's a lot of junk on the Web, there is also a vast amount of excellent and essential scholarship-related websites and search engines.

This year, we challenge you to spend an hour every week using an online scholarship search engine like Scholarships.com, CollegeBoard.com, CollegeNet.com, or Fastweb.com. All of these tools will help you find the scholarships that most closely match your interests, talents, and major.

2. Use local resources: Though searching for scholarships online is relatively easy, make it a goal this year to search for scholarships the old-fashioned way: by using resources in your own community. Your high school is a great place to start. Your guidance counselor should be a great resource for scholarships available at the local level, such as through a foundation or Dollars for Scholars chapter.

Other great community resources include a Rotary or Lions Club, your place of worship, and your own or your parents' employers. These places don't necessarily advertise online, and you could miss out on a great opportunity for college cash if you're only searching the Web.

[See how parents can help students find scholarships.]

1. Fill out the FAFSA: We've saved the best for last. Though not necessarily the most exciting New Year's resolution, filling out the FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is the most important. And if you undertake only one of our recommended resolutions, this is the one to pick.

Don't risk throwing away free money simply because you don't think you're eligible; the vast majority of students who fill out the FAFSA will qualify for some sort of federal financial aid. You can apply online at FAFSA.gov, or download a copy at www.studentaid.ed.gov/PDFfafsa.

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