If you’re a high school senior or college student hoping to land a scholarship to help fund the cost of school this fall, don't delay your search much longer.

Most scholarships have spring deadlines, so now is the prime time to apply. And don't despair because you think you don’t have the grades to qualify. There are thousands of scholarships out there, including many that don't depend on outstanding academic performance or even financial need. You could be awarded money based on your field of study, extracurricular activities, geographic area, or heritage.

“Scholarships are granted based on a wide range of criteria. You just need to know how to find the right one,” says Abril Hunt, national trainings manager for ECMC, a nonprofit that provides financial literacy education to students in high school and college, and works to lower student-loan default rates.

In fact, the chances you’ll win some type of scholarship are actually pretty decent. According to the 2018 Sallie Mae How America Pays for College survey, 3 in 5 college students received one scholarship or more. 

More on Paying for College

But don't count on getting a full ride. Very few students get a scholarship that covers the entire cost of tuition, fees, room and board, says financial aid expert Mark Kantrowitz, publisher and vice president of research at Savingforcollege.com.

But if you apply and win a variety of scholarships, the awards can add up to a sizable amount. In the 2017-18 academic year,  the average total amount awarded among those who had one or more scholarship was $7,760, according to the Sallie Mae survey. Families reported that scholarship funds covered about 20 percent of college costs.

Keep in mind that some schools and private scholarship organizations require you to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to be considered for award money, even if the award is not based on your family’s ability to pay for school. So, if you haven’t submitted a FAFSA yet, do that too.

Smart Strategies for Finding Scholarships

Here are five ways to maximize your chances of getting a scholarship and making a meaningful dent in your college bills:

Look to your school. Colleges are one of the largest providers of scholarships, says Kathy Ruby, director of college finance for College Coach, an organization that provides admissions consulting services. Eager to get a diverse student body, colleges use "free money" to recruit students based on specific characteristics, such as their GPA, intended major, or where they live.

Generally, private colleges offer more merit scholarships than public universities because they have larger endowments. The average amount awarded per student in scholarships at four-year private colleges was $13,591, more than twice the $5,932 granted by four-year public schools, according to the Sallie Mae survey.

But many state schools, especially in the South and West, offer generous scholarships to out-of-staters with solid academic records. For example, the University of Arkansas’ New Arkansan Non-Resident Tuition Award covers a majority of the difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition for students from neighboring states who have a GPA of 3.3 or higher.

You can increase your chances of getting a scholarship by applying to schools where your test scores and grades place you in the top 10 percent of the class. Go to the College Board’s Big Future website to see how your academic record compares with students accepted at the schools you want to attend.

As you research and visit schools, ask admissions officers whether you are a good candidate for a scholarship and what kind of profile students who get merit aid typically have. “The criteria colleges look for shifts every year,” Ruby says.

Find your fit. Be strategic about applying. Prestigious scholarships or ones with very broad criteria can be a lot more competitive.

Spend your time searching for scholarships that really match your experience, background, and interests. There are free online scholarship search services that can help you find those that fit, including Cappex, the College Board, Fastweb, and Scholarships.com. You fill out a profile to identify what’s unique about you, and the services match you with potential scholarships.

Make yourself stand out. Most scholarships require an essay. A compelling personal story can catch the judges’ attention. Many programs value community involvement, for instance. But if you don’t have time for community service because you’re working, you're a single parent or a caregiver, or you have other challenges, explaining your situation is another way to set yourself apart.

Write about something you’re passionate about or that shows special abilities. It could be baking cookies or being involved in your school’s theater program. Scholarship granters also like to see people who've overcome obstacles or hardships and have learned from them. “They like to see how students face adversity, which can be an indicator of how they’ll handle the challenges of college,” says Hunt.

You can learn a lot from past winners, too. Ask for sample winning entries from the organization administering the scholarship program, which can provide insight.

Go big and small. National scholarships are often more lucrative than local community ones, so targeting a few of them is a good way to start.

But your odds of snagging a local scholarship may be better because you’ll likely be competing against fewer students. Talk to the guidance counselors at your high school to see which organizations they work with. If you’re already in college, go to your school’s financial aid office to ask for a list of outside scholarships other students are getting, says Hunt from ECMC.

Churches, nonprofits, civic organizations such as Rotary Clubs, and local businesses frequently offer scholarships. Companies are another common source, so check with your local Chamber of Commerce or your parents’ employers. Go the extra mile by looking up previous winners or going to awards ceremonies to see who scores the awards.

Focus on your career. Some professional organizations offer scholarships to entice people to enter the field, especially in hard-to-fill professions.

Check out the Department of Labor’s CareerOneStop scholarship finder tool, which lists more than 7,500 scholarships for undergraduate and graduate school programs.

For example, the American Association of Equine Practitioners lists eight scholarships for students doing equine research or going into veterinary health careers. The Coyote Rock Ranch in Oregon awarded three scholarships for $75,000 each in 2018 to equine veterinary students. The American Concrete Institute offers fellowships and scholarships to students in a concrete-related degree program, such as construction management or industrial design.

Then there’s the $5,000 John Kitt Memorial Scholarship from the American Association of Candy Technologists, for college students with a demonstrated interest in confectionery technology, including research projects, work experience, or formal study.