By TamaraYou just received your college tuition bill and realize that you still need about $3,000 to cover all your expenses. Worst of all, the money is due in three weeks. Unfortunately, your parents are tapped out and your bank account is completely empty. In a panic, you turn to the Internet and start applying for every scholarship you can find. As the days tick by, you patiently wait for a check that never comes. Does this sound familiar? These students may have miscalculated their total cost of attendance, or perhaps they overestimated the total amount of financial aid they might receive from their schools. Whatever the reason, they all have two things in common. One, they neglected to have a back-up plan in place, just in case their financial aid packages fell through. And two, they started the scholarship search process about six months too late.It seems obvious to us that many students still don’t understand how scholarships work. So this week, we’ve decided to give you a crash course.When should students start searching and applying for scholarships?Although there are scholarships available to just about everyone, including younger children, the majority of programs are open to students 13 years of age or older. If you’re a high school freshman or sophomore, you’re probably not thinking about the cost of college, but you should be. Why? It can take some time for you to get a handle on completing applications and writing essays, and as someone once said — “practice makes perfect.” It’s also much easier to find time to dedicate to scholarship hunting when you aren’t bogged down with college entrance exams or college applications. Does this mean you should stop looking for money once you’ve reached your senior year or have graduated from high school? Of course not! You should expect to apply for scholarships throughout high school and college, only stopping once you’ve earned your degree.So, how do scholarships work?Why is this important? Even though you can apply for scholarships every day of the year, it doesn’t necessarily mean you will receive funding immediately. In general, most scholarship providers take anywhere from six to 12 weeks to review applications, select winners, and disburse awards — after the deadline date has expired, not from the date you submitted your application. The process can take even longer, especially if you do not provide documentation on a timely basis. So, if you need money in three weeks to help pay your college tuition bill, you probably won’t find a scholarship that’s going to help you out. There’s simply not enough time. But, look on the bright side; at least you’ll have scholarships lined up for next semester.Start applying for scholarships no later than six months before you need the fundingFor the fall semester, that means applying between January and May. If you need money for the spring semester, get to work right now. Your window of opportunity will be closing by late October. If you take away one thing from this article, it should be this — plan ahead.Don’t wait until the last minute to figure out how you are going to pay for college. Very few students earn enough scholarships to cover all their expenses, so be a smart and consider all your options. Look into federal grants and work-study programs, consider getting a part-time job, and don’t take out more in student loans than you expect to earn your first year after college graduation. A little work now can pay off big dividends later.