College is expensive. Even attending a community college could easily cost you thousands of dollars each semester. You could take the easy and less time-consuming route of taking out student loans to pay for school, but you will have to pay the loans and interest back after you graduate. Instead, I took a more time-consuming path to pay for part of my schooling expenses, and I ended up graduating from college debt-free. I applied for and won multiple scholarships that easily added up to over $10,000 in financial aid. In the process, I found quite a few effective ways to get scholarships.

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Applying For Scholarships Can Be Daunting

Applying for scholarships often seems daunting. Someone is offering money to help you attend school, but you will likely have to jump through hoops to get it. Even worse, hundreds or thousands of other people may be applying to win a single $2,000 award, which means that your odds of winning it could be very low. Is it really worth your time to apply for multiple scholarships with such a small chance of winning?

How to Get Scholarships

While it’s possible to win scholarships with thousands of applicants, the odds are generally stacked against you unless there are multiple awards. Instead of chasing scholarships that you have a small chance of winning, spend your time applying for scholarships that you have a good chance of winning. This takes more work up-front, but it will generally pay off. Here are a few ways to get scholarships that I personally used in college:

Look For the Most Off-the-Wall Scholarships That You Qualify For

Generally speaking, the more specific the scholarship is, the better chance you have of winning, since fewer people will be eligible for it. Many of these super specific scholarships don't have a lot of resources to get the word out, so many of the people who do qualify to apply for these scholarships don't even know they exist.

For instance, I applied for and won one specific scholarship for each of the four years that I attended James Madison University. I qualified for this scholarship because my dad had spent time serving in the Navy on an aircraft carrier. In 2016, this particular scholarship was awarded 102 people out of 460 applicants. Those odds are pretty amazing as far as free money goes.

Look for every possible association you can think of for scholarship opportunities.

Look at everyone in your family and examine their previous employers, groups they may belong to, and any other off-the-wall trait that may qualify you for a scholarship. Some companies allow you to apply for their scholarships even if you don't work for them.

Think Outside the Box to Increase Your Odds

After you find these off-the-wall scholarship opportunities, you should do everything you can to increase your odds of winning. Think outside the box. For instance, one scholarship I applied for awarded one scholarship for each business location. I could have applied at the location down the street in my major suburb. Instead, I decided to drive an hour away to a rural location with a very small local population. I increased my odds drastically by reducing the likely number of competitors for the scholarship, and I ended up winning that particular scholarship multiple years in a row.

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The Super Obvious Tip Everyone Ignores

My last tip to help you get scholarships will be obvious after you hear it, but very few people think to follow this simple rule. Namely, keep your audience in mind when filling out scholarship applications — especially applications with an essay component. There is no shame in telling people what they want to hear, as long as you stick to the truth. When I wrote essays for military organization scholarships, I always made sure to tailor my topic to the themes they would appreciate. I stayed away from touchy subjects that may have turned off the scholarship judges.

Final Thoughts on How to Get Scholarships

Winning scholarships still requires some work when you follow the above tips, but at least you'll have a better shot at winning that free money. I'm glad that I applied to as many scholarships as I did because it allowed me to spend less time working and more time focusing on my studies. You can get scholarships, too. Just be persistent and spend time researching up-front. You'll be glad that you did.