The scholarship search is a significant undertaking; it's not something you can accomplish on a Saturday afternoon. Though applications and requirements may vary from year to year, it's never too early to begin. There are college scholarships out there tailored to academic interests, talents, extracurricular activities, career goals, geographic location, and many more factors. Here are five steps you can take to jump-start your search and yield strong results:

Open calendar on desk

Check Your Prospective Schools

Go to their website or call the financial aid office. If you meet the qualifications, find out how to apply. Don't assume that by applying for admission, you're applying for scholarships. It's often a separate process. Be aware that scholarship deadlines can be different from those set for the admissions application. In fact, some schools ask you to submit an application for scholarships prior to your application for admissions. Raising your GPA and test scores in high school will help increase your chances of earning merit aid.

Ask Your Academic Advisor

If you are currently a student, you likely have access to an adviser or counselor. Take advantage! He or she may know about a scholarship that's a good fit for you. If there is a dedicated office at your school for students heading to college, find out what services they offer.

Dig Into Your Network

Do you belong to a church group or a local chapter of some national club? Are either of your parents a member of a union or civic groups? Does either of them work for a large corporation? Many of these types of organizations offer scholarships to members and their children. Check out the PTA, Kiwanis Club, Chamber of Commerce, churches, foundations and others in your town, which often offer scholarships based on a variety of factors. There’s often less competition for these, since they have to be awarded locally.

Try Online

When searching online, we recommend that you be as specific as possible. Simply typing in "scholarships" will yield thousands upon thousands of hits. Use qualifiers such as the names of schools and programs of study to help narrow the field.

A word of caution: You should never pay money to investigate scholarships. Scholarship providers don't offer their awards to students who pay to find them; they offer them to all students. We’ve got a free scholarship search tool right here.

Be Keenly Aware of Deadlines

Deadlines vary by scholarship; some are the summer before your senior year, others in the fall or as late as spring. To stay organized and keep track of due dates, we recommend keeping a calendar, and making your earliest deadline the deadline for all of your applications. Finally (and this cannot be stressed enough), do not miss your deadlines. You'll have no recourse if your application arrives late, and you will have zero chance of receiving that award.

A final word: You may review a hundred scholarships before you find one that applies to you. Be patient and stay the course (and keep those grades up!). Eventually you'll uncover a good match. And you'll appreciate all your research when you secure some funds!