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Ultimate Guide: How to Find and Secure Scholarships for College

Monica Matthews, a mother of three, developed strategies to help her children learn how to find scholarships and ultimately win more than $100,000 for college.

Her eldest son, who attended the University of Michigan--Ann Arbor for a bachelor's in aerospace engineering, won so many scholarships that he graduated debt-free, she says. Encouraged by other parents, the Michigan mom authored an e-book, "How to Win College Scholarships."

"It only happened because I helped my elder son win so many scholarships," Matthews says.

Some of her top recommendations: Start the process early, apply to many scholarships and follow all the instructions.

Winning scholarships, experts say, can help close the gap between college savings and educational expenses. With some planning, it's possible to increase a student's odds of nabbing scholarship money, which can lower college costs. Here are a few responses to common questions to help guide students through the college scholarship application process.

What's the Difference Between Grants and Scholarships?

Grants and scholarships share a common trait -- both are "gift aid." This is money that doesn't need to be repaid.

Grants are typically awarded on the basis of financial need, such as the federal Pell Grant for low-income students. Need-based grants are awarded at the federal, state or college level.

[Read: What to Know About Grants for College.]

Scholarships, however, are usually awarded on the basis of merit, whether it's for academics, athletic ability or a specific talent.

While some private scholarships are based on whether a student is from a low-income family, such as the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation College Scholarship Program, there's usually a merit component. Private scholarships are typically awarded by private foundations, nonprofits, for-profit corporations or philanthropists, to name a few sources.

How Do I Find Scholarships for College?

Students should start their search with local scholarships, since these awards are often less competitive, experts say. But it's still important to sign up with a few national scholarship database websites.

"But don't do 20 of those because you'll end up overwhelmed because they send out so many emails," Matthews says.

Different types of national scholarships are listed on database search websites, including Fastweb.com, Cappex.com and Unigo.com.

[Read: 10 Sites to Kick Off Your Scholarship Search.]

While many high school students apply for college scholarships during their senior year, experts say they can begin their search and the application process much earlier.

"New scholarship databases allow for students to begin researching and finding scholarships as early as freshman year by completing a student profile that should be updated each year with new information," says Lindsay Muzzy, a financial aid consultant at My College Planning Team, an educational consulting firm.

To cut down on junk mail from these databases, Matthews recommends setting up a dedicated scholarship email account. She also suggests filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, even if a family doesn't think it will qualify, since some scholarship applications require a submitted FAFSA for eligibility.

Can College Students Still Apply for Scholarships?

College students can still apply for scholarships when they're in school. In fact, experts say some of the best places for students to search for scholarships include their school's financial aid office or academic department.

"Professional societies will award scholarships to current college students who are majoring in their field to promote their industry or keep qualified individuals in their field," says Thomas Jaworski, independent educational consultant and founder of Quest College Consulting.

What Types of Scholarships Are Available?

There are many types of college scholarships available. Some of these include:

-- Academic achievement. Many scholarships are based on grades, GPA or other academic merits. For instance, students' PSAT scores determine eligibility in the National Merit Scholarship Program.

-- Sports. Numerous athletic scholarships are based on participation in one or more sport. High school athletes aspiring for a scholarship at a Division I school should consider NCAA rules. There are different bylaws for financial aid under NCAA Divisions I and II for each sport. Some sports, such as basketball and football, are called "head count" sports and offer full-ride athletic scholarships, but there are restrictions on how many students can receive them. In Division I basketball, the head count is limited to 15 for women and 13 for men on a team at one time. But athletic scholarships aren't only limited to Division I and II sports. There are also scholarships for lesser-known sports, such as esports or surfing.

-- First generation. There are specialized scholarships for those who are the first in their family to attend college. For instance, the majority of scholarship finalists for California nonprofit QuestBridge's National College Match program are high-achieving, first-generation students from low-income backgrounds.

-- Underrepresented groups. Some scholarships are awarded based on students' backgrounds. The Gates Scholarship, for example, offers several awards annually to bachelor's degree-seeking students who are Pell-eligible and from a minority group, which includes those who are African American, American Indian, Alaska Native, Asian and Pacific Islander American or Hispanic American; these students should ideally also be in the top 10 percent of their high school class.

When Do I Start Applying for Scholarships?

While many application deadlines are March 1, experts recommend students begin the process earlier to increase their odds of nabbing more scholarship money.

"I highly recommend beginning the scholarship search as early as possible. Identify the eligibility criteria and important application deadlines," says Aaron Bruce, vice president and chief diversity officer at ArtCenter College of Design in California.

Experts recommend that high school seniors start applying for scholarships in the fall. When it comes to the application process, they suggest students collect information, requirements, criteria and deadlines.

[Read: 4 Ways to Increase Odds of Winning College Scholarships.]

"Start by writing a profile about yourself, so when you need to write about me and what do I plan to major in, then you have a template to guide your writing," says Pam Andrews, founder of The Scholarship Shark, a Delaware-based college coaching company.

But students shouldn't think of the scholarship application process as lasting only for a few months.

"Applications for scholarships may be a continual process, as students may need to renew funding and seek additional funding throughout college," says Christine Chu, a premier admissions counselor at IvyWise, a New York City-based college admissions consulting firm.

Do All Scholarships Require an Essay?

Some merit and need-based scholarships require an essay as part of their guidelines, scholarship experts say.

Andrews says: "An example of an essay prompt for a merit-based scholarship may be: 'What do you plan to major in and why?' An example of a need-based scholarship may be: 'Describe a struggle or a hardship that you encountered.'"

While many scholarship programs ask you to submit at least one essay, some may instead call for a project, such as a poem or a video.

"It used to be the majority required an essay. But because so many kids are applying for different scholarships, some are through tweets, or they can write an essay with a few sentences or they can upload a video," Matthews says. "There are so many different ways to apply for scholarships now."

Do I Need a Letter of Recommendation to Apply for a Scholarship?

Some scholarships require a recommendation letter as part of the submission guidelines.

"If a scholarship requires a letter of recommendation, it's best to ask adults who know you well and can speak favorably of your character to provide the letters," Andrews says.

Experts say students should ask someone who will be taken seriously by scholarship judges, such as a teacher or a coach.

What's the Best Strategy to Win a Scholarship?

Students should be very organized and apply to as many scholarships as they can, Matthews says. "Kids need to market themselves when applying because they want to impress the judges."

Experts also say students should be aware of directives that could deem an application ineligible. Some common mistakes include not adhering to a specific word count or providing several recommendations when the guidelines call for only one.

Two important factors that impress the judges are following all the directions exactly and approaching the essay in a creative way, Matthews says.

"Every scholarship comes with its own guidelines. I tell the kids you need to print those out and tick things off as you put it in the mail or upload it," she says. "Make sure everything they've asked for, you've given them."

And when it comes to creativity, she wrote in an email that "to get the attention of the judges, who may have to read hundreds of essays, scholarship essays need to start with a 'hook' or interesting lead-in that piques the interest of the reader."

Trying to fund your education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for College center.

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