If you’re a high school senior or a college student looking for scholarships to help fund the cost of school next year, now is the time to begin your search. 

Scholarship deadlines from local community organizations tend to be in the spring, but applications for some of the biggest national scholarships are due in the next few months. 

November is National Scholarship Month, designated by the nonprofit National Scholarship Providers Association to help raise awareness that fall is the time to start applying. 

Federal financial aid is based primarily on financial need, but private scholarships use a wide variety of criteria to select recipients. Academic performance and financial need are the most common, but others focus on community service, your field of study, or leadership experience. 

More on college finances

For some scholarships, you’ll have to move quickly if you want to apply. The Elks National Foundation Most Valuable Student Competition, for example, awards up to $50,000 to students who demonstrate leadership. But applications are due Nov. 15.  
Applications for the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Scholarship Program, which awards students up to $40,000 per year, must be submitted by Nov. 20. The James W. McLamore Whopper Scholarship, from the co-founder of Burger King, gives $50,000 awards to students, but you have to apply by Dec. 15.

What's the likelihood that you’ll win scholarship dough? Fairly decent, actually.

According to the 2017 Sallie Mae How America Funds College survey, 7 in 10 families sought scholarships and 49 percent say they used them to help pay for college. 

Very few students get a full-ride to cover the entire cost of tuition, fees, and room and board, says a financial aid expert, Mark Kantrowitz, who's publisher and vice president of research at Savingforcollege.com. But applying for a variety of scholarships can add up to a sizable amount. Families reported getting $9,712, on average, to cover college expenses, according to the Sallie Mae survey.

Smart Strategies for Finding Scholarships

Here are five ways to maximize your chances of getting money that can make 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, a college admission and financing consulting service. Eager to get a diverse student body, colleges use "free money" to recruit students based on specific characteristics, such as your GPA, your intended major, or where you live.

Generally, private colleges offer more merit scholarships than public universities because they have larger endowments. 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 scholarship will cover 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 website, Big Future, 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. Scholarships with few or very broad criteria will have a lot more competition.

Spend your time searching for scholarships that really match your experience and interests. Use free online scholarship search services that can help you find those that fit, including Cappexthe College BoardFastweb, and Scholarships.com

You fill out a profile to identify what’s unique about you, and the services match you with potential scholarships.

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

But your odds of snagging a local one may be better because you’re likely to be competing against fewer students. Talk to the guidance counselors at your high school to see which organizations they work with.

Churches, civic organizations such as Rotary Clubs, and local businesses are common sources of scholarships. 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. These include $2,500 from the American Association of Equine Practitioners for people studying veterinary medicine and $3,000 to $5,000 from the American Concrete Institute to support students whose studies relate to concrete (really).

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.

Start early. You don’t need to wait until senior year to start thinking about scholarships. Begin researching potential ones when you first enter high school.

“Then you can start taking steps to meet the criteria rather than wait and try to find what box you fit in,” Ruby says.