Across the nation, college students are returning from winter breaks and J-term sojourns and the second semester of the year is getting into full swing. If you're in college, you know how hectic this time of year can be. You're finding your way to new classrooms, your brain is occupied by new subjects and your wallet is a little lighter thanks to new textbooks.
In the midst of all of that, financial aid is probably the last thing you want to think about. Like it or not, though, the new year also means taking a new look at your money. Fortunately, there are only a few things that all college students need to do in order to find and maximize the scholarships they can find on campus.
[Consider these three scholarships steps for current students.]
1. Don't forget your FAFSA: If you're a freshman, this year's Free Application for Federal Student Aid might be a little more complicated than last year's. Even if you're a rising senior, it will still require a few more calls and emails to your parents.
Despite the extra effort, the FAFSA – which became available Jan. 1 for this year's applications – is still key to much of your financial aid and scholarship eligibility for next year.
The form will determine your federal and state financial aid packages, and many colleges require it for need-based institutional scholarships. Check your school's deadlines carefully. Old Dominion University, for example, requires a FAFSA by Feb. 15 to be considered for need-based scholarships and students going to California State Polytechnic State University have until March 2.
[Watch this FAFSA video Q-and-A with financial aid experts.]
2. Make friends with the financial aid office: Even if you've only completed one semester of college, you probably know that the financial aid world can be confusing. Fortunately, there are trained experts on your campus who can help you find opportunities and figure out how scholarships can fit into your total financial aid package.
A dedicated financial aid officer can help you look at your grant, scholarship, loan and work-study options to figure out what will make the most sense and leave you with the least debt. Once you've got a plan in place, you can turn to your financial aid office website to find scholarships.
Drexel University's financial aid website is a particularly nice example of what you'll hope to find. It includes information on federal and state aid and a lot of specific scholarships only available to Drexel students.
Your school likely has a similar site; now's the time to find it, and to make a to-do list for award applications! And don't forget to speak with your adviser once or twice per semester. An ongoing relationship means you'll hear about new opportunities and you'll know where to turn with questions or appeals.
[Learn how to negotiate the best possible financial aid package.]
3. Dig into your college and your major: While financial aid websites provide good overviews of a school's opportunities, your skills and interests are even more likely to pay off in the form of scholarships from your college and your major.
If you're at a large university, chances are you're enrolled in a specific college. That college of liberal arts or college of sciences can be an excellent source of scholarships.
The University of Oregon's College of Arts and Sciences, for example, offers a host of scholarships to its students. They're all available through a single application and earmarked for continuing undergraduate and graduate students. With financial aid often dropping off after freshman year, these awards are incredibly valuable.
Your major may be an even more lucrative scholarship source. Once you've declared, you'll open the door to a wide array of potential awards such as economics scholarships funded by business school alumni, premed scholarships provided by local hospitals, art-history scholarships in memory of museum patrons and more.
These scholarships are designed to reward students with the same passion as their designers, and your skills in your chosen major can pay off. My alma mater, the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communications offers more than 50 scholarships for journalism students and, like the awards above, they only require a single application. This is a big reason why you should declare a major as early as you can.
College life is busy every day, but it's a worthwhile investment to take time at the beginning of the year and get your FAFSA, your financial aid plan and your school-specific scholarships in order.
Matt Konrad has been with Scholarship America since 2005. He is an alumnus of the University of Minnesota and a former scholarship recipient.