On a daily basis, I listen to students' constant worries about paying for college. I've even heard them tell me about dollar signs chasing after them in their dreams and falling into a dark hole of college debt. After lending an ear, I proceed to follow up and ask, "Well, have you applied for scholarships?"

Oftentimes, students and their families are so wrapped up in the college admission process -- personal statements, letters of recommendations, visiting campuses -- that scholarships can seem like an afterthought. See the thing is, scholarships are just as vital as any other piece of the college process. It can help a future college student pay for big-ticket items, such as tuition and housing. Yet, it can also help alleviate the smaller things like paying for textbooks, a much-needed laptop for endless papers or even deodorant to prevent perspiring from all the midterm stress. 

As you are scratching your head, wondering, "OK, so scholarships are important, but where do I even begin?"

Let me give you the inside scoop.

Start early

Students shouldn't wait until senior year of high school to begin researching or applying for scholarships. There are many scholarship applications and contests that are available to students as young as kindergarten. For starters, check out websites such as collegegreenlight.com, fastweb.com, unigo.com and scholarships.com

Avoid procrastination

You found a few scholarships that you are eligible for, but the deadline seems to be millenniums away. Like I tell many of my students, if that is the scholarship that will help you pay for that $200 textbook, why not give it the love and attention it needs? Allow enough time to write that scholarship essay and have someone proofread it. Don't wait until the last minute to submit because it has happened where well-known scholarship websites crash! 

It's all in the details 

Paying attention to scholarship requirements are crucial because each scholarship organization is different and will require specific documents tailored to their application. Some might ask for an official high school transcript, request a copy of your community service hours or even have you write a short essay on the importance of STEM. Not submitting one of the specified requirements can cost you that scholarship opportunity. 

Don't give up!

You didn't get that scholarship you were hoping for in high school and you are now an undergrad in college? Good news! There are still plenty of scholarship opportunities available to current undergraduate and graduate students. Aside from the pool of scholarships available online, current college students should also seek out opportunities from their respective major department, career resource center and even the diversity office on their campus. It might take a little more digging to find a match but there is still hope. A couple of great resources to consider for college-level scholarships are chegg.com and scholarshipmonkey.com.  

Be resourceful/Research creatively

In the world of social media, opportunities are shared and re-shared every second of the day. Facebook and Twitter don't just serve as a personal diary or a way to stay updated on the latest trends. They are two of the largest, but less obvious, scholarship search engines out there. If used wisely, a simple hashtag can make the difference in your search for scholarships. Another social media platform that can connect you to scholarship organizations and opportunities is LinkedIn. Not on social media? Reach out to local charitable groups, community organizations or local businesses. They may have scholarship opportunities that may not be featured on an established website!

Be aware

Technology has definitely enabled students to seek out numerous scholarships, and yet, it has also been a source for scammers to prey on innocent families. A quick tip, if the scholarship looks unfamiliar or maybe you even received snail mail or an online opportunity "guaranteeing" money for college, connect with a high school counselor, teacher or mentor that might be familiar with scholarship organizations. They might be able to distinguish if it's legitimate. 

So there it is, a scholarship crash course. You can take a deep breath now, and I hope those dollar signs stop creeping up on you at night. 

Champions of the unexpected.