College isn’t getting any cheaper. Between 2001 and 2012, tuition and fees increased 5.4% above inflation annually while funding per student at state universities plummeted. Student debt in the United States is increasingly burdensome, and funding a college education is now the second greatest financial challenge for families after retirement.

There are a number of ways to pay for tuition, but not all of them are in our students’ best interests. Saving money through a 529 plan isn’t always possible, and with the average credit card debt standing strong at $15,325 per household, plastic probably isn’t the way to go. Scholarships, however, remain an indispensable supplement to federal loans and grants. Of course, they’re always in high demand, and the application process is extremely competitive. Here are several techniques you might use to increase your chances of being selected for scholarships.

1. Search far and wide:

The best way to increase your chances of receiving a scholarship is to widen your net. The more awards you apply for, the better your odds. Expect to devote some serious time to research. Start at your school. Find out what scholarships are available through your department. These will be much less competitive than national or statewide awards.
Once you’ve exhausted your school’s resources, begin scouring the Internet. There are a number of tools you can use to find awards, including NerdWallet’s scholarship search tool. There are scholarships available for just about anything–duck calling ability, being exceptionally tall, raising livestock, you name it! Get creative and be persistent.

2. Submit applications to scholarships best suited for you:

Once you find a handful of scholarships, don’t feel you must apply to all of them. The application process can be time-consuming. It is better to submit carefully crafted applications to a few scholarships than hastily slapped together applications to a large number. You want to start with a lot of options, but you also want to be careful in selecting which scholarships you actually go after. Apply for those awards that best reflect your strengths.

3. Craft your submission according to the sponsor’s goals:

When reading through scholarship descriptions, dissect the text to uncover the sponsor’s motivations. Why is this scholarship being offered and what kind of candidate are they looking for? This is why you should never submit a generic letter of application. Every scholarship is seeking to help a specific type of student. Your submission should convince the sponsor that you are who they are looking for. Do they want someone with heavy community involvement? Emphasize your volunteer work. Are they looking someone who demonstrates superior leadership skills? Prioritize examples of those qualities.

4. Thoroughly read eligibility limitations:

Even if a scholarship seems like a good match, carefully double check the eligibility stipulations. Is this award open to all students or just upperclassmen? Do you have to be in a specific program? Is your GPA high enough? The reason this is important is you don’t want to waste time applying for awards you’ll never receive. Writing letters and filling out applications takes time. There are thousands of scholarships out there. Focus on the ones that matter!

5. Beware of scams. Be careful:

The Internet is a magical place, but it has its dark corners. If it costs money to apply or you’re required to supply sensitive personal information, someone might be trying to rip you off. Internet con artists know that students are desperate. Don’t fall into their traps. Common sense is crucial.

6. Write well:

Poorly written essays and letters of application will be promptly discarded. Take your time writing smart, compelling pieces with perfect grammar and proper punctuation. Make sure you are addressing all items in the prompt and adhering to the guidelines. Again, knowing the sponsor’s goals is important. Convince them you are the best choice for that particular award. Always have someone with strong language and writing skills proofread your work.

7. Be honest:

Be persuasive, but don’t exaggerate. It will only lead to trouble.

8. Watch deadlines:

Scholarship deadlines can sneak up on you. Keep a calendar or set up alerts. Deadlines are especially difficult to keep track of when you’re juggling a number of applications all at once. Don’t lose money by accidentally losing track of time.

Please note that the information provided on this website is provided on a general basis and may not apply to your own specific individual needs, goals, financial position, experience, etc. LendKey does not guarantee that the information provided on any third-party website that LendKey offers a hyperlink to is up-to-date and accurate at the time you access it, and LendKey does not guarantee that information provided on such external websites (and this website) is best-suited for your particular circumstances. Therefore, you may want to consult with an expert (financial adviser, school financial aid office, etc.) before making financial decisions that may be discussed on this website.