January brings with it snow and regular admission decision deadlines for college applications.  After students have completed the task of applying to college, they need to refocus their energy on the next step: getting scholarships.  As the cost of higher education climbs to new heights, affordability for many families is getting out of reach.

According to College Board, the average cost of tuition and fees at private, non-profit colleges and universities in the 2013-14 academic year was $30,094.  Merit-based aid, also known as scholarships, is being used to close the cost gap and put a college education within reach for many students.  Depending on what news article you read or news program you watch, the estimated number of scholarships available can range from millions to billions of dollars, but how do you get your hands on some of that “free” money?

The process is easy, but like any job it takes effort, time, and dedication before you see any payout for your hard work.  Searching for scholarships is the easy part, thanks to the many reputable online scholarship databases, such as www.fastweb.com and www.scholarships.com.  At Harrisburg Academy, the college counseling office also maintains a searchable database in Naviance that is accessible to students starting in 8th grade.  Parents can also be very helpful in the search process, by weeding through email alerts from websites and highlighting specific scholarships for their student.

The hard part is putting in the time and effort to refine your search and to apply for those scholarships you find to be a good match.  Putting together the initial profile on the previously mentioned websites is also quite time consuming, as is the final step of applying and submitting everything by the deadline.

I can already hear the groans and cries of “no more essays”, but how can an organization “pay” you if you haven’t done the work?  A scholarship application is the job that has to be performed and completed before a paycheck can be issued.  When you read reports that millions of dollars in scholarship monies go unclaimed, it’s because of this very step where students are evaluating the “return on investment” for a particular scholarship.

As a college counselor, my advice is that every amount helps in reducing your college expenses.  That $200 essay contest might seem like small change, but when one of your chemistry books for an introductory class costs $250.00 that “small change” won’t seem so small after all.  Another piece of advice I give is that you choose only a small number of national scholarships such as Target, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Gates Millennial, etc. to work on, because the applicant pool is so incredibly large.  Students should put more effort into local or talent-specific scholarships; these are the ones that often go unclaimed every year. Finally, be aware of scholarship scams – a good rule to remember is don’t pay any money to have a chance at the “free” money available.

So, anyone left-handed?  Juniata College offers a specific scholarship for you.  Creative and love duct tape?  Enter your prom outfits into Duck Tape’s annual Stuck at Prom Scholarship contest. Have a passion for urban planning?  The Garden Club Federation of Pennsylvania has a scholarship for you.  It is amazing what talent or interest can qualify you for a scholarship, but you have to take the first step and start looking.  Just like any dedicated job hunter you have to set aside a little time each week to search and apply for the right application to pursue.

Trust me – it definitely will be time well spent.