There is free money for college if you know where to look for it. In fact, one of the largest scholarship-search Web sites, FastWeb.com , boasts that it lists more than $3.4 billion dollars of awards in its scholarship-matching database. But you need to start your search now, because most scholarships for the coming academic year have deadlines in the next two months.
Finding scholarships is a pretty tempting proposition, given the high cost of attending college. But although you can easily use your computer to find potential scholarships, the application process typically involves substantial work -- filling out forms, completing essays and gathering recommendations. Applying for scholarships is sort of like clipping coupons before you go shopping: If you're organized and diligent, you will be rewarded in bits and pieces that can add up to big savings in the end. So with that caveat, here's a look at how you can find scholarships that range from $100 to $10,000 or more. There are several Web sites that guide you through this process without charge. They match your personal profile with awards for which you are eligible. (Warning: Beware of scams inviting you to pay a fee to attend a seminar to learn about college scholarships. You can get all that information free online.) You should be aware that FastWeb.com, as well as another site I've checked out, Scholarships.com , are both supported by targeted advertising on their sites, and by allowing financial services providers to contact you with offers if you give permission. That's the tradeoff for getting a very personalized search of the millions of scholarships that might be appropriate. At these sites, you start by registering, using your email address and creating a secure password. You can't just go roaming around the site to figure out which scholarships sound interesting. You'll fill out several pages of forms designed to sort through the available scholarships and present them to you. The more information you give, the more choices you'll have. You can easily be presented with a list of more than 100 good leads. They'll want to know your grade-point average, SAT scores, and they'll ask about your high school clubs, activities, sports and other interests. You'll list the schools you're applying to -- because some scholarships are available only at specific colleges. You'll be asked about your ethnicity and personal characteristics such as religion, sexual orientation and military experience. That might seem strange, but you have to remember that many private scholarships are set up by foundations or families with specific interests to memorialize. That's why you'll also be asked for information about your parents, including their occupation, any clubs or associations they belong to and whether they're alums of a school to which you're applying.