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5 Tips for Getting College Scholarships

College tuition can cost tens of thousands of dollars, and students often use loans to help pay for their education. However, many don’t take advantage of available scholarships, essentially missing out on free money. According to Sallie Mae, a leading student lender, it comes down to a lack of awareness and common misconceptions about what it takes to qualify.

To help students and families cash in on college scholarships, Sallie Mae offers the following five tips:

Start with the FAFSA. In order to qualify for some of the billions of dollars in available financial aid, including scholarships, students and families should complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) as early as possible. Schools use this application to put together financial aid packages, states use it to determine eligibility for state aid, and it is required for many scholarship applications.

They’re not just for incoming freshmen. Approximately 50 percent of available scholarships are for students already enrolled in college, so high school seniors, current college students and graduate school students can and should apply for scholarships each year.

You don’t have to be an athlete or a math whiz. There are scholarships for being left-handed, for wearing a duct tape dress to prom and for being a stellar baker. Students don’t need to be top of the class or an all-star quarterback; there are scholarships for nearly every interest, hobby or background.

Avoid the scams. Never pay for scholarships, be wary of “guaranteed” money, and don’t be lured in by sites or organizations that charge a fee to access scholarship applications. For added comfort, consult school counselors and financial aid office workers, who can recommend reputable options.

Every dollar counts. Not every scholarship is going to provide a full ride, but even the smallest of scholarships can start to add up. Remember: Every scholarship dollar used to pay for college is a dollar that doesn’t need to come out of pocket or be borrowed. No scholarship is too small.