Every year, almost $46 billion in scholarship money is awarded by the U.S. Department of Education and educational institutions. Still, many students miss out on the opportunity because they spend too much time applying for the wrong scholarships.

With the right strategy, and a bit of discipline, scholarships can save you a significant amount of money on tuition.

First, focus on scholarships that you have a chance at winning

Too many students go for quantity over quality – they apply for tons of scholarships without diligently evaluating whether they qualify. In fact, most of the scholarship providers we spoke with said that around 50% of applicants do not meet the requirements of their scholarships.

There are scholarships for almost anything — from previous volunteer work to being a “Star Trek” fan, and everything in between. The trick is finding scholarships that you actually have a chance of winning.

Applying for scholarships with tight restrictions will narrow the applicant pool, giving you a better chance of winning. On the other hand, many scholarships are open to any student enrolled at an accredited institution or any student with a qualifying GPA. These scholarships are often easy to apply for – however, that also means they get a lot of applicants, making them more competitive.

Use a scholarship search engine

Scholarship search engines use a variety of factors (like the number of listing schools, the scholarship organization’s reputation, and your interests) to help you find scholarships that are a good fit and prioritize your applications. Here are a few of the top scholarship search tools to help you get started:

  • Chegg
  • CollegeBoard
  • Scholly
  • Scholarships.com

Then organize your shopping list and apply

Test scores, essays, a resume — all of these common prerequisites for scholarships can make the process daunting. An 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 to you, whether it’s a paper calendar, a Google Doc, or a complex system of Post-It notes. Scholarship search engines are also helpful in this respect, allowing you to:

  • 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

Whatever system you choose to organize your applications, make sure you include the big things like upcoming deadlines, necessary materials (including letters of recommendation, transcripts and proof of residency, volunteer work or financial need), and scholarship amounts. It’s also a good idea to set a total monetary goal and subtract the scholarships you win from that goal, so you can track your progress.

What is a scholarship?

A scholarship is a monetary gift awarded to students who meet certain eligibility criteria. Often given by educational institutions, states, private donors, and various organizations, scholarships may come with stipulations, but they do not need to be repaid.

Types of scholarships

Scholarships are another form of financial aid that you don’t have to repay. There are thousands of scholarships out there, and millions (if not billions) of dollars in available award money. You can find scholarships that relate to just about any interest or experience, from animals to technology to childhood illness – some are need-based, and some are merit-based.

External scholarships are awards funded by private groups, including individual donors, businesses, nonprofits, foundations and other organizations. They are not typically affiliated with or restricted to students from a particular school.

School-sponsored scholarships are affiliated with or provided by individual colleges and universities. Although they may also be funded by private individuals or foundations, they are restricted to students of a particular school (and sometimes of a particular major), and students must usually apply through the school.

Need-based scholarships are awarded based primarily on demonstrated financial need. These can be especially helpful for students whose parents make too much to qualify for federal aid programs, but who still need help paying for college.

Merit based-scholarships do not typically take financial need into account (although some may, to a lesser extent). Instead, these scholarships are awarded based on exceptional talent in a given discipline. Although there are many general academic merit-based scholarships, some are targeted toward specific majors, sports, art forms, interests and more. Merit-based scholarships may also be awarded to students who demonstrate impressive volunteer work or commitment to a particular field.

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 on maintaining a certain GPA or enrolling in a certain major.

Non-renewable scholarships provide winning students with funds for only one year – in fact, previous winners are often forbidden from applying to the same non-renewable scholarship two years in a row.

Other types of financial aid

Loans are a form of financial aid that can come from the government, banks and private institutions. What makes them different from grants and scholarships? You have to pay it back (usually with interest). Today, around 70% of students graduate with student loans, with an average debt of $29,000 per person.

Grants can come from the government, colleges, and universities, and even corporations —– but unlike loans, you don’t have to repay them. Federal grants, like the Pell Grant, are typically offered based on financial need, while private institutional grants are available based on need, merit, student demographics and more.