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.

The next step is applying for these scholarships. Fastweb.com has made this as easy as possible through its sorting process and the features on the page listing the ones you have the best shot at getting. Not only do they give the name of the scholarship and the amount, but the deadline for application, and whether an essay is required. You can identify it as one of your "favorites" or click on several possibilities to create a priority list. Then for each scholarship there is a link directly to the organization offering it, so you can immediately download an application. Your personal list also lets you add notes online to keep track of the process.

Scholarships.com presents its list of offerings in a similar format, but it does not have as many useful features, such as the ability to make notes and track your application status. And the number of matches at Scholarships.com was smaller -- only 60 offerings, compared to 91 at Fastweb.com, using the same student characteristics.

Unusual Scholarships

Believe it or not, there are scholarships targeted for short people, tall people, fat people, single moms and even skateboarders! There's one scholarship at Loyola University in Chicago for people who were born with the name Zolp. Harvard has scholarships waiting for people named Hudson, Thayer, Downer and Bright -- among many other specific surnames.

Optimists International offers a $6,000 scholarship -- if you write an optimistic essay! Similarly a high school girl can get a $10,000 Girls Going Places scholarship by having the nominator write a thousand-word essay on her spirit of entrepreneurship and financial acumen. The $50,000 Davidson Fellowship goes to an 18-year-old student who can present the "creation of a significant piece of work aimed at improving the lives of others in the areas of science, technology, mathematics, music, literature, philosophy and/or outside the box."

Probably the stickiest of all the scholarships offered are the Duct Tape Prom Scholarships of $3,000 each to the "couple two individuals who attend a high school prom wearing complete attire or accessories made from duct tape. The submission must include a color photograph of the couple together in prom attire."

According to Mark Kantrowitz, director of projects at FastWeb.com (and publisher of a companion site, www.FinAid.com ), nearly 7% of students receive some private-sector scholarship money. The average amount is $2,000 per year. He advises scholarship seekers to be realistic: "Very few students get a 'free ride' -- a complete, all expenses college scholarship. And those students probably have superior athletic, scientific, or artistic talent."

But that shouldn't deter you from applying for multiple smaller scholarships, which can add up to big amounts of free money -- money you won't be repaying in interest-bearing student loans. It's definitely worth a try. And that's The Savage Truth.

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Terry Savage is an expert on personal finance and also appears as a commentator on national television on issues related to investing and the financial markets. Savage's personal finance column in the Chicago Sun-Times is nationally syndicated, and she released her fourth book, The Savage Number: How Much Money Do You Need? in June 2005. Savage was the first woman trader on the Chicago Board Options Exchange and is a registered investment adviser for stocks and futures. A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Michigan, Savage currently serves as a director of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange Corp. She also has served on the boards of McDonald's and Pennzoil.