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Know What to Do Before, During and After the Scholarship Search

Applying to awards early and often is one way to maximize your chances.

UE - Applying to awards early and often is one way to maximize your chances.

There is so much to do to prepare for college and though this process may begin even before your senior year, it certainly escalates quickly when school resumes in the final fall of your high school career.

Below are the three phases of searching for scholarships and a bit of guidance to help you get through the process and come out with a better chance of succeeding in your quest.

Before

Start by strategizing. Ask yourself: How are you going to make the most of your time searching for scholarships? How can you be as efficient as possible in your approach? How will you keep track of your applications?

First, search online using free scholarship search sites such as Scholarships.com to quickly find scholarships that you qualify for. Rather than trying to find a scholarship for a particular skill or a single characteristic, search holistically using scholarship search tools via the Internet.

Naturally, you should use multiple sources whenever searching for any sort of information, scholarship or otherwise. A quick search on any of the major search engines will yield several other such sources of college and financial aid information.

Second, think about any essays you have written for school or any other projects. If you have written any essays, dig them up. Perhaps you will be able to use some of them during this process.

Finally, create a spreadsheet for organizing the scholarships that you find online and elsewhere, and keep track of status. "Will Apply," "Applied" and "Awarded" might be some column headings. Be sure to have a "Deadline" column, too.

During

Apply early and often. Start your scholarship search now. No, I mean right now. If you are reading this, chances are you have a few minutes to start searching.

In addition to using your computer, look at any local scholarship options you might have such as from community foundations or your parent or guardian's employer.

For example, the Community Foundation of the Fox River Valley has awarded more than $11.4 million in college scholarships to students in the organization's small Illinois service area. Details for the 2016 program will be announced in the fall, so check back soon for updated information. In addition, the Community Foundation of Northern Illinois awards more than $200,000 to local students each year.

The Cracker Barrel Foundation Scholarship Program offers 55 awards every year, worth $1,500 each. Employees of the restaurant chain, as well as children of employees, are eligible to apply from Jan. 1 through April 1 each year.

The Wal-Mart Foundation also provides scholarships to associates as well as any high school-aged dependents.

Early means now, and often means that finding scholarships is a process, not a one-time effort. Scholarships are constantly being added to our database, so what you might find today may not be the same result you will have in a week, month or more from now. Keep at it until you have paid for college or your time runs out.

It's also important to follow the rules and apply on time. Many scholarship judges are sticklers for the rules and if you don't submit your application in adherence with each and every one, you might be wasting your time applying.

Make sure you read and follow the directions to every scholarship for which you apply.

As mentioned earlier, you may find that some or even many scholarships require an essay. You may have an existing one you can use for any of the scholarships you find, just as long as this practice is not forbidden by the scholarship provider. If not, read the requirements of several scholarships and see if you can maybe satisfy two, three or even more using a single essay.

Aft

It could be years before you reach the "after" stage of applying to scholarships. You may find that you need to continue to search for scholarships into undergraduate and perhaps graduate school in order to continue to pay for your education.

Additionally, it is important to continue to keep track of the scholarships you have that are recurring and make sure you maintain your GPA or any other criteria required by the scholarship provider. It’s a great idea to keep a spreadsheet you can access anytime with all the scholarships you have won and those to which you should still apply in order to make sure you are in the best position to pay for school now, rather than take out loans.

Most people’s "after" period is just that – it happens "after" they have completed their education. When you do finish college, though, or even while you are still in school, make sure to reach out to those who have helped you and thank them for their help. Think about things like future letters of recommendation and thanking counselors, teachers, parents and siblings. It never hurts to be gracious.

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