Updated: May 3, 2013 12:14PM
There is free money for college if you know where to look for it. In fact, the largest scholarship search Web site -- www.FastWeb.com -- boasts that it lists more than $3.4 billion in scholarships in its database. But you must start your search now, because most scholarships for the coming academic year have deadlines in the next two months.
Finding scholarships is a pretty tempting proposition, given the high cost of attending college. But although you can easily use your computer to find potential scholarships, the application process typically involves substantial work: filling out forms, completing essays, and gathering recommendations.
Applying for scholarships is sort of like clipping coupons before you go shopping: If you're organized and diligent, you will be rewarded in bits and pieces that can add up to big savings in the end.
So with that caveat, here's a look at how you can find scholarships that range from $100 to more than $10,000. Several Web sites can guide you through this process without charge. They match your personal profile with awards for which you are eligible. (Warning: beware of scams inviting you to pay a fee to attend a seminar to learn about college scholarships. You can get all that information free online.)
FastWeb.com and Scholarships. com are supported by targeted advertising. That's the tradeoff for getting a very personalized search of the millions of scholarships that might be appropriate.
At these sites, you start by registering, using your e-mail address and creating a secure password. You can't just go roaming around the site to figure out which scholarships sound interesting. You'll fill out several pages of forms designed to sort through the available scholarships and present them to you. The more information you give, the more choices you'll have. You can easily be presented with a list of more than 100 good possibilities.
They'll want to know your grade point average, SAT scores, and they'll ask about your high school clubs, activities, sports, and other interests. You'll list the schools you're already applying to -- because some scholarships are available only at specific colleges. You'll be asked about your ethnicity, and personal characteristics such as religion, sexual orientation, and military experience. That's strange these days, but you have to remember that many private scholarships are set up by foundations or families with specific interests to memorialize.
After you're presented with a list of scholarships for which you qualify, the next step is applying for them. Fastweb.com has made the process as easily as possible through its sorting process and the features on the list page. It enables you to link directly to the application forms for each scholarship.
Believe it or not, there are scholarships targeted for short people, tall people, fat people, single moms, and even skateboarders! There's one scholarship at Loyola University in Chicago for people who were born with the name Zolp.
Optimists International offers a $6,000 scholarship -- if you write an optimistic essay! Similarly a high school girl can get a $10,000 Girls Going Places scholarship by having the nominator write a thousand-word essay on her spirit of entrepreneurship and financial acumen.
Probably the stickiest of all the scholarships offered are the "Duct Tape Prom Scholarships" of $3,000 each to the "couple (two individuals) who attend a high school prom wearing complete attire or accessories made from duct tape. The submission must include a color photograph of the couple together in prom attire."
According to Mark Kantrowitz, director of projects at FastWeb.com (and publisher of a companion site, www.FinAid.com), nearly 7 percent of students receive some private sector scholarship money. The average amount is $2,000 per year.
He advises scholarship seekers to be realistic: "Very few students get a free ride -- a complete, all expenses college scholarship."
But that shouldn't deter you from applying for multiple smaller scholarships, which can add up to big amounts of free money. And that's The Savage Truth.
Terry Savage is a registered investment adviser. Check out Terry's answers to reader questions at suntimes.com, and click on Business. Distributed by Creators Syndicate.