Your college education doesn’t have to cost you thousands of dollars in student loans that you have to pay back just a few short months after you graduate. With a little bit of research, organization, and essay writing, you could pay for most (if not all) of your college education with scholarships that you’ll never have to pay back.

Thousands (even millions) of students apply for scholarships each year, and the field can be very competitive. However, if you keep a few things in mind and follow these essential scholarship tips, you’ll be one step ahead of most of the students you’ll be competing against for scholarship money.

If you’re willing to stay organized, keep an eye on deadlines, and stick to a schedule, you’ll be on your way to winning great scholarships for your education. Remember, there may be thousands of other students applying for scholarships, but most of them won’t be applying for the same scholarships you’re applying for, and most of them won’t follow this invaluable advice, either. See? The competition isn’t quite as intimidating as you thought it would be just a moment ago, is it?

1. File Your FAFSA ASAP

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid helps the government determine how much aid you might be eligible to receive in federal funding, but that’s not all it does. Once you are approved for federal aid, you’ll also get information on some scholarships that you’ll be eligible for, as well.

This step also forces you to gather your tax information (and your parents’ tax info if you’re a dependent student) and all other financial and personal information that might be necessary for other grant or scholarship applications.

2. Get Organized

If you get and stay organized, you can streamline the whole application process. Get a binder or dedicate a section of a filing cabinet in your home office to scholarship information. Start by putting copies of all of your tax and income information, and everything else you needed for FAFSA in a section in this binder or filing cabinet.

Then, as you find scholarships to apply for, add a separate section for each. Keep copies of all of the information, including instructions, requirements, documents, etc. for each scholarship in its respective section. This does mean you’ll have multiple copies of some information, but it also means you won’t have to dig through a lot of different places to find the information you need when you need it.

3. Search for The Right Scholarships for You

You can find some scholarship opportunities through your college or university’s financial aid office, your high school’s guidance counselor, but you can also find them online, as well. We recommend using the US Department of Labor’s scholarship search site and scholarshipchart.com as they are trusted, searchable sites with thousands of varied scholarships to choose from.

4. Keep Track of Deadlines

Once you’ve found a few scholarships that you want to apply for, set up a schedule for yourself and keep track of your deadlines. Write your scholarship deadlines on your wall calendar or keep them in your phone or tablet, whatever works best for you. You should also set milestone deadlines between now and when you need to send your applications so that you’re sure to stay on track for a streamlined application process.

5. Clean Up Your Online Appearance

Before you send any applications, take a moment to Google yourself. If you have unprofessional pictures or content that’s viewable to the public anywhere online (social media, your personal website, blogs, etc.), make sure to take it down. Replace it with professional, credible material. A LinkedIn profile with any work, academic, and/or leadership experience is not a bad idea, as well.

6. Get Quality Letters of Recommendation

Before you fill out your scholarship applications or write your essay(s), think about who should write your letter(s) of recommendation. A teacher, professor, or guidance counselor will have the academic experience and knowledge to write a good scholarship recommendation letter, but they’re not the only people you might want to approach.

Do you have a good relationship with a mentor whom you’ve worked with for a charity or volunteer organization? Could you ask your supervisor at work? One of these people can talk about your leadership skills and your work ethic, as well as your intelligence, academic achievements, and/or goals.

7. Write a Great Essay

Don’t skimp on the essay or personal statement section. If you choose a topic that you’re passionate about, your essay will set you apart and really give your application some personality. It will give you a much better chance of winning scholarship money than good grades alone.

8. Get Help With Proofreading and Editing Everything

Before you send your application, ask your parents, one of your coworkers, or a teacher to proofread your essay and all of your documents for you. Better yet, get a few people to do this for you. You don’t want to send an application and essay that are full of typos. This looks unprofessional and could take you out of the running.

9. Send a Self-Addressed, Stamped Envelope

If you’re mailing your application(s), always send a self-addressed, stamped envelope with your application documents. Some scholarships require this, but even if the ones you’re applying for do not, extending this courtesy will show that you’re serious and will hasten their response time, too.

10. Make Copies and Track Your Application Package

Finally, when you send your application(s), make copies of all of the documents you send and keep them in your scholarships binder. This way you’ll have access to them whenever you need them, and you won’t have to dig through a mountain of papers or figure out where you left them on short notice. You should also pay any extra fees to make sure that you can track your application package on its way to its destination. This way you’ll know if it gets lost in the mail, and you can take steps in case of an emergency.

We may not be able to guarantee that you’ll get a scholarship if you use these tips, but we can tell you that your chances will be much greater. Plus, the whole process will be much smoother and easier.

Search and Apply for Scholarships on ScholarshipChart.com

ScholarshipChart.com helps students and parents search and apply for scholarships, grants, awards and other financial aid options to help pay for college. Whether you are a high school senior starting college or a single mom going back to school, you can find money for college through ScholarshipChart.com.