Versions of this post first appeared in blogs from Foundation Center's Atlanta and Cleveland offices.

It's scholarship season! As prospective students finalize applications and begin to eagerly await acceptance letters, we thought we'd offer our advice on finding the money needed to follow your college dreams. Whether you're a first-time college student or returning to complete your degree, follow these steps to finding the financial aid to achieve your education.

1. Start your search early.

If you want financial aid for fall 2016, "you need to be looking now," says Stacy Watts, Director of the Resource Center at College Now Greater Cleveland. Whether you 're a high school senior or already enrolled, it 's time.

We know the new year is barely upon us, but many foundations and other scholarship sources only accept applications for fall 2016 aid early in the year. The majority of foundation scholarships have deadlines that fall between December and April. By the time spring or summer rolls around, much of that money is already awarded.

That includes several federal student aid programs, where the application period opens Jan. 1, and qualifying applicants receive aid on a first-come, first-served basis until funds are exhausted. If you wait until the end of the school year, you may find few to zero options to help pay your tuition bill for the next term.

2. It's vital to understand the cost of your education.

Before you can apply for scholarships or other financial aid, you'll need to know how much funding you'll actually need. If you're just beginning your college search, research the cost of attendance at your desired schools. Keep in mind that the cost of attendance is more than just tuition and fees. You'll need to pay for room and board if living on campus or, at the very least, you'll need to pay for books and other classroom materials.

College costs will also vary greatly according to the type of institution and your residency status. The College Board's latest Trends in College Pricing report puts the estimated cost of attending a four-year, public, in-state college at just over $24,000 per year. Going to an out-of-state school can add another $14,000 to this figure, and the cost of attending a private four-year program is estimated at over $47,000 per year.

Cost should be a major consideration in your decision about which school to attend. You might love the idea of getting a Harvard degree, but is that feasible given your savings, projected financial aid, etc.? You may be able to get a quality education at a much lower cost by attending a state school closer to home. Be a good consumer and determine which schools offer the best value for your program of study.

3. Explore all potential sources of financial aid.

The most important step is for you or your parents to complete the FAFSA as soon as possible during each year in which you plan to enroll. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid asks a number of questions about your family's finances and composition and is used to gauge your Expected Family Contribution (EFC), which determines eligibility for need-based financial aid. The FAFSA is necessary to receive any Federal student aid and is also required for most state grants and many private scholarships.

Schools may offer their own institutional aid packages as part of the admissions process. Along with the cost of attendance, the financial aid offer can be another important factor in deciding which school to attend. While Federal and institutional aid account for the majority of student financial aid, there are also various state programs and private scholarships. Private scholarships may be offered by:

  • foundations
  • corporations
  • professional associations
  • clubs and community groups
  • religious institutions

You can research private scholarships with our Foundation Grants to Individuals Online database, which profiles more than 10,000 grantmaking organizations that fund students, artists, researchers, and other individual grantseekers. You can subscribe to search online or visit one of our locations. There are also a wide variety of print scholarship directories and online scholarship search tools that you can use. See our listing of recommended sites for suggestions of where to begin.

4. When you're ready to apply for scholarships, cast your net far and wide.

There are thousands of scholarships available for just about every type of student, from scholarships for left-handed individuals to awards for students who get creative with duct tape. Look for funding opportunities tied to your academic achievement; athletic or artistic accomplishments; geographic location; gender, ethnicity, or race; or any other special circumstances. Scholarships may also be based on the school you plan to attend, your (or your parents') employer, membership in professional or trade associations, religious affiliation, participation in community and civic organizations, or even military service.

Once you compile your list of prospective scholarships, apply to multiple sources. It helps to gather reference letters, writing samples, and other oft-requested documentation beforehand to help expedite the application process. Know and follow the application requirements for each scholarship. There is no unified application for private scholarships similar to the FAFSA. You'll need to research each funder's guidelines and application procedures thoroughly.

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Explore additional GrantSpace resources on student aid:

- Knowledge Base Articles for students
- Finding Foundation Support for Your Education (recorded webinar)
- Getting a Grip on Your Student Loans (recorded webinar)
- Dana O'Neill on Scholarships for Low-Income Student Achievers (podcast)

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