Whether you’ve been in college a while or you’re looking forward to coming to Illinois State University in the future, you and your family likely spend some time worrying about the cost of your college education. It’s no secret that college is one of the biggest investments you’ll make in your lifetime, one that will pay off for years to come. Earning scholarships is a great way to reduce the amount of loans you’ll being paying back for years after you walk across the commencement stage.

Every scholarship dollar you earn is one dollar you don’t have to borrow. The Financial Aid Office at Illinois State helps students identify scholarship opportunities every day. Here is some advice to help you get started searching based on our experience working with students.

Begin in your own backyard

Have you asked your high school guidance counselor or community college financial aid office about scholarships at your school? Many schools have a list of several scholarships you can apply for right there. Local and regional awards can often be easier to get as the applicant pools are smaller and less competitive. Check with community organizations, banks and credit unions, and large employers who may offer scholarship opportunities in your area.

Also, create a profile on ScholarshipAmerica.org. That’s a great scholarship search website for a company that actually administers the scholarship process for a variety of large donors such as Buick and General Mills. You can enter your ZIP code to find awards specific to your area through the Dollars for Scholars program. Several Illinois State students receive awards from Scholarship America each year.

Find your “hook”

While you’re searching, consider what makes you special as a student. Your unique characteristics can help your scholarship applications stand out from the rest. Pay special attention to awards that mention your best qualities, whether that’s academic achievement, leadership, community service, or something less common. Think about why a donor might want to assist you in paying for your education. Most scholarship providers want to reward or encourage a particular behavior or trait. Companies may want to attract future employees. Nonprofit organizations like helping those who support their cause or suffer from the disease they’re working to fight.

Develop a routine

Every scholarship is different in terms of when you can apply, what you need to submit, when the winner is announced, and how the money is disbursed to you. Typically, scholarship applications open in the late fall or early spring for the next school year’s awards, but that also varies depending on the donor. There isn’t a single application or search engine that allows you to find and apply for everything that fits your credentials. It’s up to you to identify the scholarships that suit you and to apply for them in a timely manner.

Visit the Financial Aid website for lists of scholarship opportunities. Comb through the lists to find the ones that match you best and keep track of when you apply for them. You’ll also find links on our website to some reputable scholarship search engines. Search them frequently—every week or so. Put it in your planner or calendar so it doesn’t get lost in the shuffle of classes and projects and social obligations.

Leverage social media

Follow scholarship-related accounts on Facebook and Twitter to keep your search fresh in your mind. Reminders and announcements popping up in your newsfeed will help you stay on top of your scholarship tasks. You’ll probably even find out about some opportunities you wouldn’t have otherwise. Be sure to like ISUScholarships on Facebook and follow us on Twitter for the latest scholarship and financial aid information from the Illinois State University Financial Aid Office.

In the next part of this series, we’ll give you some tips to make your scholarship applications the best they can be.