By tamaraMost students and parents know that scholarships are an important part of the college financial aid process, but few may really understand how they differ from other types of aid. Unlike grants, loans and work-study programs, scholarships can sometimes be a bit more complex and elusive. Students cannot simply complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and expect scholarship money to appear magically; it takes a bit more work and creativity to win those coveted awards. Just as every good journalism student knows to include the “who, what, when, where and why” in every article, so too should every college student understand the five W’s of scholarships. In this article, I’ll break down each “W” and give students the keys to finding and winning scholarships! 1. Who Can Apply for Scholarships? Everyone! Students don’t need to be in the top five percent of their class or get a perfect score on the SAT to be eligible for most scholarships. Yes, there are merit-based awards that do reward students who have excelled in school, but there are also thousands of other scholarships that give money to students for a variety of other reasons; students who sing, play instruments, participate in sports or volunteer can find numerous organizations that offer scholarships for these activities. Some organizations also offer unusual awards to those students who have red hair, make their prom outfits out of duct tape, or believe they can survive a zombie apocalypse. Pretty much anyone who is breathing and planning to attend college can apply for scholarships. 2. What is a Scholarship? Surprisingly, some people do not understand how scholarships work. Basically, scholarships are free money for college. Depending on the stipulations set forth by the scholarship provider, the funds can generally be used to help pay college tuition, books, housing and other education-related fees. Some providers even allow the funds to be used for study abroad or living expenses. Although the money earned through scholarships does not need to be paid back, it may be considered taxable income, if it is not used for an eligible educational expense. It’s a good idea for students to check the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) website to review which expenses are covered and which may be taxable. 3. When Should Students Apply? For years, high school guidance counselors have been telling students to start applying for scholarships during their senior year, but this may actually put them at a disadvantage. Although it may seem as though the majority of programs are only available to graduating high school seniors, there are actually many scholarships that are open to students who are 13 or older. In fact, there are even programs available to students in elementary and middle school, too. The earlier students begin searching and applying for scholarships, the better their odds are of actually winning some awards. Students who wait until the fall or spring semester of their senior year may not know the results of those programs prior to the May 1 national college acceptance deadline, which means they may have to turn down their first choice college simply because they don’t know if they’ll have enough money. It’s important that students apply for scholarships throughout high school and continue to apply until they have graduated from college with their degree. Unfortunately, many students get discouraged after just a few applications, but those who stick with it are usually rewarded for their time and effort. 4. Where Do Students Find Scholarships? Students should start their scholarship search at home, checking with their guidance counselor for available local programs and asking their parents to check with their employers to determine if any financial assistance may be provided. Next, students should check with athletic leagues, honor societies, charitable organizations and other clubs that they have an affiliation with or where they have volunteered their time. Local businesses and churches are other good resources for potential financial aid. The Internet has a wealth of scholarship information, too. Students can register for a free scholarship search service to find programs that are tailored to their specific needs and skills, or they can simply Google keywords (like ‘scholarships for high school students’) to find available awards. There are also scholarship announcements on Pinterest, Twitter and Reddit, as well as every other social media forum. 5. Why Should Students Apply for Scholarships? This is a no-brainer! Students who don’t apply for scholarships can’t win any, which means they may have to take out federal and private student loans to cover their college expenses. Even those who may be eligible for need-based aid, such as federal Pell Grants or work-study programs, may find that they need additional funding to cover their costs. Although students may apply to several scholarships and win only one award, the time spent on the applications will be worth it. It’s doubtful that any student could earn $1,000 working 20 hours in a part-time job, but it is very possible to earn that much money working on scholarships. Those who want to graduate with little to no student loan debt should take the time to apply for scholarships. Of course, most students are less concerned about the five W’s and more interested in how to win scholarships. In all honesty, scholarship contests are very subjective, especially those that are based on an essay prompt or some other creative submission. Each scholarship committee is looking for something different, but there are a few things students can do to increase their chances of making it to the final round. Students should carefully review the eligibility and submission guidelines, making sure they meet the criteria for applying and have completed all necessary documentation for consideration. Before submitting their application, students should have at least one other person review their essay and application for clarity and typos. And finally, students should never wait until the last minute to submit their application; it sets them up for failure. Too many things can go wrong, such as having a slow clock and being locked out of an online application, or the application could get lost in the mail. Students should try to submit at least a week before the deadline, allowing them time to follow up with the provider to ensure the application was received and has been accepted for review. Only those who put forth the effort and take the time to submit a quality application will be rewarded with free money for college.