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7 ways to find free money for college

(MoneyWatch) 'Tis the season when parents and high school students who will be in college next year should start looking for scholarships.

The good news is that scholarships are easier than ever to find and apply for thanks to online tools that can connect students to billions of dollars' worth of funds. For instance, using a service offered by SallieMae, students can find over 3 million scholarships worth over $16 billion dollars. Some other salient scholarship facts courtesy of the education loan and services provide:

- Scholarships and grants paid for 30 percent of the total college costs in 2013, up from 25 percent four years ago.

- In 2013, scholarships covered 16 percent of costs, and grants covered 14 percent.

- Most households who get scholarships receive them from a college (61 percent), although families also report getting scholarships from community and nonprofit groups, as well as and state-based scholarships.

- By school type, four-year private school students were the most likely to use either grants or scholarships to pay for school, which covered 37 percent of their college costs. Grants and scholarships paid for 34 percent of costs for students attending two-year public colleges and 22 percent of costs for students attending four-year public colleges.

- By income, average scholarship usage is highest among middle-income families (44 percent), compared to high- (36 percent) and low- (35 percent) income families.

- Nine in 10 families used some type of resource to help them plan ahead to pay for college. The most widely used resource, scholarship search websites, was used by 60 percent of families.

How to win scholarships

But the larger question for families remains where to find the money. Here is a seven-point plan for students and parents to follow:

1). Never stop applying. There are scholarships open to students as early as grade school. Also, you should not stop applying for scholarships after you graduate from high school. Keep applying throughout college.

2). Use online tools. Start with the Sallie Mae's scholarship search tool, which is user-friendly and free. Also check out tools at and FederalStudentAid

3). Don't miss deadlines. Scholarships are very strict when it comes to deadlines. You need to be organized and make sure you know when everything is due.

4). Set aside time to search. Set aside time to follow up on the latest matches from scholarship search engines, fill out forms or work on essays.

5). Look for backyard scholarships. Check out alumni clubs, community groups and religious organizations, which are all potential sources for what's known as backyard scholarships. While these scholarships have smaller prizes, they are often the easiest to win and add up quickly.

6). Check it twice. Review everything before you send. Typos are a sure way not to be considered for a scholarship.

7). Avoid scholarship or financial aid scams. Anyone promising to guarantee you a scholarship for a fee is pulling a fast one. Legitimate scholarship databases are free. You shouldn't pay more than a postage stamp since legitimate scholarship programs do not require an upfront fee. The U.S. Department of Education, U.S. Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission monitor and prosecute scholarship and financial aid fraud.

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