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How to score little-known college scholarships

College tuition is outrageous and full scholarships are hard to come by. If a student isn’t the valedictorian of a huge school, or a nationally ranked high school athlete, taking out massive loans may seem like the only option available to finance the soaring costs of higher education. But there are ways to find free money for college and whittle away at the cost of tuition with smaller scholarships. Below are some ways to find free money for college and strategies for applying.

Future college grads should sign up for an account on FastWeb. This website is essentially a search engine for smaller scholarships and related sweepstakes. Sign-up is quick and easy, then the site matches scholarships to your interest/demographic. You’ll find a short summary  of the scholarship, then links to the site for the actual application. Scholarships range from $500 to $30,000. Scholarships include the $1000 You Deserve It Scholarship, $5000 Back to School Fall Scholarship and Do Something’s $3000 Run a Voter Registration Booth Contest.

Strategy:  Because of this website, I never had to pay out of pocket for my books. When applying for scholarships, I always shot for the low-hanging fruit. Smaller scholarships are likely to have more winners and less competition. I leaned toward essay contests, but there are a number of ways to apply for scholarships including video submissions, simple applications for lottery and even social media projects.

Big companies love giving away money to charitable causes that are going to change the world. And an idealistic future college grad is great bet for a secure investment. Love shopping at a big store? Go to College Scholarships.org to see if it is listed. I remember writing an essay about community service that won me $500 from Best Buy for two semesters. Does anyone at your family work at a big company? AT&T, Walmart and Bank of America — to name a few — offer scholarships to family members of associates.

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Strategy: Find a company you like and check out its website. Scholarships and giveaways will usually be in the press release or media relations section of the company’s site. You can also use Internet searches such as “Pepsi + scholarship” to find free money.

Sign up at Scholarships.com. This site allows you to complete a free profile and get matched to organizations that offer scholarships. Do a search for your interests, as well. If you are skilled in bowling, for instance, the site lists several scholarships available to bowlers here, including the $10,000 Wendy’s High School Heisman. Are you a duck caller? Compete for a $1000 scholarship at the Chick and Sophie Major Memorial Duck Calling Contest.

Strategy: Make a list of hobbies, skills or special attributes, no matter how insignificant they seem. Do a search for this attribute plus the word “scholarship” to find funds. Think creatively. The National Garden Club offers a scholarship to students majoring in horticulture or fields related to the environment. There is a scholarship available for left-handed people here. And if your last name is Gatling, you could snag a $15,000 grant for your education.

Keep an eye and ear out for leadership and innovation scholarships offered by various departments at your university. The Professional educators of North Carolina (PENC) offers a continuing education grant. Engineering students may apply for the Samuel Fletcher Tapman ASCE Student Chapter Scholarship. I was really involved with the Undergraduate Student Congress. I received a small stipend for my service and also the opportunity to apply for numerous leadership scholarships funded by the student center. One scholarship helped finance a study-abroad trip to London.

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Strategy: Whatever your major or interests at school, there is a good chance there is someone with a lot of money that also shares that interest and is willing to support you as your pursue it.

Even if you don’t qualify for financial aid, there are still many opportunities to earn (or win) a substantial amount of money for college. Remember, look and apply for scholarships you like, grab the low-hanging fruit and good luck.

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