Scholarships are financial awards given to students to pay for college without the obligation of repayment. Over 1.7 million scholarships are awarded annually, fueling the education of students from diverse backgrounds. While scholarships typically do not cover the full cost of your education, applying for the right scholarships can save you a significant amount of money.

Before taking out student loan debt, it’s important to exhaust as many scholarship opportunities as you can. Here’s how to start.

1. Apply for the right scholarships

Too many students go for quantity over quality – they apply for tons of scholarships without evaluating whether they qualify.

There are scholarships for almost anything — from volunteering to being a “Star Trek” fan and everything in between. It can be tempting to apply for every scholarship available, but the trick is finding scholarships that truly fit your experience and interests. Applying for these types of scholarships with tight restrictions will narrow the applicant pool, giving you a better chance of winning.

2. Contact your school’s financial aid office

Institutional scholarships are a huge resource many students overlook. School-wide scholarships typically aren’t widely advertised, and they tend to be more competitive, but they’re still worth considering. These awards are usually based on your academic performance.

To see what awards are available, contact your school’s financial aid office or check its website. You can also check with your school to see what department-specific scholarships are available. These often have a smaller applicant pool and are offered only to students enrolled in specific majors.

Many colleges allow in- and out-of-state students to apply, so if you’re paying out-of-state tuition, these awards can significantly cut the cost of attendance.

3. Use a scholarship search engine

Scholarship search engines aggregate scholarships from various sources and allow you to filter based on your interests, experience, major and more. These search engines save you time when it comes to finding awards that match your needs.

4. Fill out the application correctly

A key part of paying for college with scholarships is filling out the application correctly, on time and completely. Many applications require multiple steps with specific deadlines. If you miss even one deadline, you won’t be considered for the award.

To ensure that you properly apply, read through the details and have the necessary documentation on hand before starting the application. You may need to supply transcripts, a birth certificate, acceptance letters or specific awards you’ve been granted. Closely read through the requirements of any essays you need to write; as basic as it sounds, following word count limits, directly addressing the prompt and removing grammatical errors will ensure that you put your best foot forward.

5. Stay organized

Test scores, essays, a resume — these common prerequisites for scholarships can make the process daunting. And if you’re submitting applications for multiple awards at once, it can even be hard to remember which scholarships you’ve applied for, which ones you still have to work on and where you are in the process. That’s why it’s essential to organize your scholarship list.

Keep track of your scholarships in whatever way makes sense, whether it’s a paper calendar, a Google Doc or a complex system of Post-It notes. Whichever system you use, do the following:

  • Organize scholarships by status (watching, applied and won).
  • Keep track of deadlines, award amounts and entry methods for individual scholarships.
  • Set earnings goals and track progress toward those goals.
  • Remember essay topics you’ve already written for future use.

6. Look for many types of scholarships

There are multiple ways to score scholarship money. Common types of scholarships are:

  • External scholarships: Funded by private groups, including individual donors, businesses, nonprofits, foundations and other organizations.
  • School-sponsored scholarships: Provided by individual colleges and universities for students of those institutions.
  • Need-based scholarships: Given to students who demonstrate financial need, usually determined after filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
  • Merit-based scholarships: Given to students who have exceptional talent in a given discipline or academic field or who participate in volunteer work.

7. Try to find renewable scholarships

Renewable scholarships award scholarship winners a certain amount of money each year they attend college (usually up to four years). Receiving these awards for multiple years is often contingent upon maintaining a certain GPA or enrolling in a certain major.

Nonrenewable scholarships provide winning students with funds for only one year – in fact, previous winners are often prohibited from applying for the same nonrenewable scholarship two years in a row.

The bottom line

The more you can leverage scholarship money for your education, the less you’re likely to owe in student loans after graduation. By researching the many opportunities available, playing to your strengths, and staying organized, you can save thousands of dollars on your education through scholarship awards. Listing scholarships on your resume can also help you stand out in the job market once you finish school.