Most people know that the kid at the top of the class has a good chance of getting a free ride to college in the form of an academic scholarship. But what about the students not in the top 10 percent of their high school class? The good news is there are thousands of dollars in scholarship money available for those who aren’t among the academic elite.

“It’s definitely a myth that you need to be the valedictorian or an Albert Einstein to win a scholarship,” says Gen Tenabe, co-author of “Get Free Cash for College.”

“A lot of students who don’t have perfect GPAs (grade point averages) or high GPAs don’t even bother looking because they feel, ‘My grades are low, I’m not someone these scholarship organizations are going to want to give money to.’ And that’s not true.”

What is true is that many organizations that offer scholarship money are looking for criteria other than grades, such as athleticism, talents, goals, community service, ethnicity and career interests. By figuring out what qualities make your children unique, you can often glean an idea of what types of scholarships may be available to them.

One of the first places you should look for scholarship money is in your own backyard. Your child’s guidance counselor and the local librarian could be two sources to start your search. Also, tell everyone you know that you’re looking for scholarship money. Someone may know about scholarships being offered by churches, local businesses and even local alumni groups.

“There are a lot of community organizations and local service groups that raise money throughout the year, and one of the things that they do with this money is they give it to students from their community who are going to college,” says Tenabe. Check with these organizations to determine their scholarship criteria and the deadlines to get your application in.

Another place to look is your employer. Many companies offer scholarship money to children of employees. If your child has a part-time job, check that company for scholarship opportunities as well.

Local chapters of business and professional organizations often offer scholarships to students who have an interest in that particular field. For example, if your son or daughter wants to be a lawyer, check with the local bar association. It’s OK if your child ultimately doesn’t become a lawyer. An interest in the field is often enough to be considered.

Civil rights organizations may also be a good place to check, since they often award scholarships to students who are members of a particular race, ethnic group or gender.

Try researching the communities where your child wants to go to college.

“There might be organizations in the town where your child will be studying that are offering scholarships, too,” says Martha Holler, a spokeswoman for Sallie Mae.

The colleges being considered by your child might also offer scholarships that are based on criteria other than academics. When checking with colleges, go beyond the admissions office.

“A lot of the college-based scholarships are not necessarily given out by the admissions office, but rather the department where you’re going to spend most of your academic life,” says Tenabe. “There’s nothing wrong with, if you think you’re going to be an English major, sending an e-mail to the English department, asking: ‘I’m an incoming student and I think I’m going to be an English major. What kinds of scholarships do you have available?'”

The Internet offers a wealth of information, including a number of scholarship databases, such as

CollegeBoard.com,

Sallie Mae’s database and the one on Tenabe’s college money-saving Web site,

SuperCollege.com. Such sites help you find scholarships geared toward students of particular races and ethnic backgrounds, students with special interests and students with special talents.

For example, one scholarship found in Sallie Mae’s database, the Patrick Kerr Skateboarding Scholarship, offers a $5,000 award to a student who skateboards.

When searching for scholarship databases, avoid any that ask you to pay. “To pay for scholarship information runs counter to the original purpose,” says Holler. “This is free money, and you shouldn’t have to pay to find it.”

There also are scholarship scams out there. Beware of scholarships from organizations you can’t research adequately. Be wary of those that guarantee a scholarship before you’ve even applied. Don’t give out your personal information until you have checked out the organization and are satisfied that it is on the level.

There is no best time to look for scholarships, as new ones are added all year. Check databases frequently to find any new additions that you may be eligible for.

Scholarship awards come in all sizes and amounts. “Some people will eliminate a scholarship because it’s a small amount,” says Holler. “But several $250 to $500 scholarships add up very quickly, and it can make a real difference in terms of reducing the out-of-pocket cost of college.”

However, if your child does not meet all of the criteria of the scholarship, don’t think the scholarship selection committee won’t notice. “If you have three of the five criteria, I would save yourself time and save them time as well,” says Holler. “Your time would be better spent applying for the scholarships for which you are qualified.”

The bottom line is if you take the time to do your research and plan for college in advance, you’ll find that academics are not the only criteria that are highly valued in the world, Tenabe says. “Most scholarships, in fact, look at a lot of other things besides your grades.”

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