The staff at Scholarship America, the nation's largest scholarship administrator, fielded more phone calls from families this year and noticed a heightened sense of urgency among callers.
Berea College, the Kentucky campus that gives every accepted student a full-tuition scholarship, saw a 15% uptick in applications for this fall.
And the number of families who filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid jumped almost 21% the first three months of 2009.
How to pay for college is clearly on people's minds. Yet when the college scholarship season winds to a close this summer, there will be millions of dollars in scholarships for the fall left unused, says Scholarship America CEO Clifford Stanley.
Just one in 10 full-time students at four-year colleges had some kind of scholarship for the 2007-08 school year; the average amount, $2,815, according to the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study by the U.S. Department of Education.
Students either don't apply or don't apply on time. But it's neither too early to start planning for scholarships for upcoming years nor too late to apply for certain scholarships for classes that begin in the fall. Some tips:
•Start early. Many scholarships are available only to students who apply in their junior year in high school. Also, Stanley recommends students who hope to attend military academies get to know their congressional representatives so they can seek appointments later. And, he says, many scholarship sponsors offer mentoring programs that begin tracking students in junior high.
•Avoid silly and fatal application errors. "Read and follow all directions closely, and proof your essay — several times," says Ellen Greene, scholarship coordinator for the retailer Nordstrom, which offers 40 scholarships annually.
Adds Stanley: "Take time to spell check. Take time to try to write a cogent sentence. You could find an extremely talented student overlooked because they don't know basic syntax because they've been Twittering and texting now for years."
•Don't count yourself out. You don't need high SATs or have to be able to do a 360-degree dunk to nab a scholarship.
The $2,500 USBC Zeb Scholarship goes to a community-minded bowler with good grades. The AXA Achievement Scholarships award up to $25,000 to students who help others on a large-scale community project. The National Wild Turkey Federation offers up to $10,000 to students who are active in their communities and hold a valid hunting license.
•Remember accomplishments. If a student is heading to high school this fall, get a box and toss in any sports or science or community accomplishments he or she earns, so that when senior year rolls around, the student will have a collection of items for quick reference.
•Shop around now for the best recommendation letters. Don't assume a favorite teacher will write a glowing letter. Even if a teacher believes you are the best student he's taught in his entire career, he may not be a compelling writer. Ask several potential recommenders to write letters for summer jobs or internships or Eagle Scout applications throughout high school. One look at what they've written will tip you whom to ask for scholarship recommendations in the fall.
•Start clipping. Now is when short blurbs about students who win scholarships pop up in local newspapers and free handouts. Read them. If someone's won a scholarship that sounds like a good fit, clip it, find out details about it and apply later in the year.
•Talk to school officials. Some of the best scholarships require a nomination from your school. Make sure your college counselor is familiar with your accomplishments, especially the things you've done outside school. Some counselors ask parents to fill out "brag sheets" that list their students' accomplishments, because counselors can't know everything a student is doing.
If your counselor doesn't have such a form, it's a good idea to type a list of activities and major accomplishments and offer it.
Mary Maslar is college counselor for The Charter School of Wilmington, a Delaware high school where 70% of the senior class won scholarships or grants last year. She tells students, "It does not pay to be modest and hold back in terms of sharing about your life at this point."
•Ferret out lesser-known local scholarships. If your high school posts local scholarship information on its website, check it. Then, check other area high schools' sites. If you are a standout in math, check local math magnet schools' sites. If you starred in your school play, check the sites of area schools known for their strong drama programs.
• Let free search sites do the work. The best scholarship sites have cost calculators and scholarship wizards that do much of the heavy lifting. Jack Millis, director of student financing at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, Calif., recommends FinAid.org and FastWeb.com, both free.
After you sign up, FastWeb will send new scholarships that fit your profile all year long and even remind you when deadlines are approaching. Millis suggests students put thought into their FastWeb forms so they cast a wide net for scholarships.