By tamara January is not only the start of a new year; it is also the beginning of the spring scholarship season. From January through April, students across the country will be busy submitting applications for scholarships and financial aid that will hopefully help defray the cost of college this fall. Many scholarship programs have deadlines in the first half of the year, so this is a great time to get involved in your financial aid search. To ensure you get maximum results, it’s imperative that you have a solid plan in place. Follow these suggestions and you’ll soon be on the road to scholarship success! Research Some students make the mistake of diving right in to their scholarship searches without much strategic planning. As any prepared student knows, success comes from doing your homework, and the same applies to finding (and winning) scholarships! Never rely on one source for all of your scholarship information; use a couple of reputable (and free!) online scholarship search services, such as ScholarshipExperts.com or CollegeBoard. In addition to online services, be sure to check out these other scholarship resources, as well: High School Counselor – Your school counselors may maintain a scholarship file or book filled with local scholarship opportunities. Ask about this in the Guidance Office, or check your school website for a scholarship page. Your Employer (or Parent’s Employer) – Employers often provide scholarships specifically for employees or family members (spouses, children) of employees. State Education Websites – Be sure to investigate the programs that may be offered for students residing in your state, especially if you plan to attend a college within your home state. Colleges – Be sure to contact the Financial Aid Office at the college you plan to attend; most colleges offer scholarships and grants to incoming students. Take note of the deadline dates for these awards, as several colleges may provide scholarships on a first-come, first-served basis. Prepare After you have conducted a thorough search of available scholarships, the next step is to reduce that list to something more manageable. Organize the awards by deadline date, determine which appeal to you and choose three to five awards to complete each week. Be sure to create a calendar, listing the award name and deadline date, so you don’t miss out on an opportunity. Don’t forget to complete the FAFSA too, as many federal, state and institutional programs require you to submit this form to qualify for any available scholarships. Next, find programs that excite you or ones with requirements you may have already tackled through a school project. For example, if you could care less about history, and have never done any research on the subject, don’t waste your time on a history scholarship, as your lack of interest will show in your writing. However, if you have received high marks for a class paper on the subject, simply use what you have already composed and tweak it to fit the scholarship application; work smarter, not harder. Do you love to write? Focus on scholarships with essays or creative writing components. Whether you are musically inclined, athletic or have an unusual talent or hobby, there’s probably a scholarship or two out there just for you. Just find what sparks your interest and go for it! Also, it is extremely important that you keep up your grades and continue to get involved with school activities or community service events. Many scholarship programs consider these items when determining a winner, so don’t slack off now! Succeed Many students complain that they never win any awards. More often than not, it’s because they haven’t followed the directions. It’s very important that you carefully read through the entire scholarship application rules and directions for submission. Go through the checklist and verify you have included all required forms, essays, recommendations and your personal statement (if required). It’s especially important that you have at least one other person review your work (such as essays) for typos, grammatical errors or missing information. Once you determine everything has been reviewed, edited and meets all requirements for submission, be sure to submit it correctly online or mail it at the local post office with the proper postage; be sure to inquire about whether your application will arrive on time and before the deadline date. Do not procrastinate! Simple mistakes can lead to the loss of thousands of dollars in financial aid, especially if you fail to complete your application before the deadline date. Be sure to keep up with any new scholarship opportunities by following several scholarship search services (@ScholarshipGuru or @PayingForSchool), financial aid (@usedgov) and college planning websites (@WiseChoiceTweet) on Facebook and/or Twitter. Every day, new awards are being added to the mix and social media is a great way to keep informed of any new opportunities. By following these simple suggestions, you’ll find your time is more productive and your scholarship applications will be more competitive. The most successful scholarship applicants will tell you there’s one other thing that ultimately leads to scholarship success – applying. You can’t win if you don’t try – so, apply, apply, APPLY!