When my grandfather came to this country from Germany in the 1920s, he stepped off the boat in New York and found a dollar bill on the street. Even after he built his business here, he still marveled at the country were there was literally free money to be found.
Scholarship money is the same. You can find it, but sometimes you have to look. I have one student this year who has earned $24,000 in scholarships so far this year; enough to pay for her first year of college.
There are two major scholarship types: 1. From a university or 2. From outside a university.
From a university
Most universities offer some sort of merit-based scholarship.
Pro Tip: Many universities will not consider you for their scholarships if you do not apply by the Early Action deadline. This means you have to have all of your information together and submitted in November. If you miss this deadline, the university will not consider you--no matter how qualified you might have been.
From outside a university
Lots of organizations offer scholarship for rising college freshmen. Each requires its own application packet: application, essay(s), transcript, standardized test scores, letters of recommendation(s), picture of you, portfolio, etc.
These outside scholarships can range from $200 to a full ride. Many students apply for only the big scholarships (Gates Foundation, McDonald's Cares, Kohl's, Siemens, National Merit). Many student also feel that applying for the lower amount scholarships ($200 to $1500) is not worth their time. This is the wrong mindset.
A student of mine applied for a won a $10,000 scholarship from a competition that accepted 10,000 applicants and only 50 winners. Thats a .005% chance of winning. This means 9,950 people did not win this scholarship.
However, she also won a $4000 local scholarship that accepted 400 applicants and 40 winners: a 10% chance of winning. While the $10,000 seems like the best one to apply for, the chances are actually so much stronger for the lesser amounts. Don't skip those as they add up quickly.
How to find outside scholarship money
Finding outside money does require some effort on your part. You'll need to scour all of your resources to find ones that apply to you: scholarship books, online sites, etc. Personally, I don't care much for the books (too many choices) or sites (too much of everything). However I do have some tricks I recommend you consider when finding and applying for outside scholarships. :
If you win a scholarship, you should know two things
A College Counselor who asks and answers the tough questions.