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How to score the best scholarships for you

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Getting to college is almost a full time job these days. Between standardized tests, lengthy applications and the search for financial aid, many high school students devote many hours each week to the effort.

One less unappealing aspect of the process is trying to score free money in the form of scholarships, and this is the season when organizations with money for students are reaching out. But before you start a big push for scholarships, there are a few things to take into account.

For starters, private scholarships tend to cover at best a small portion of a student's college costs. Students received about $112 billion in grants and scholarships in the 2011-2012 school year, but private scholarships accounted for just 10 percent of that total, according to the College Board. And of course, there are also loans.

"Most people who assume they can pay their entire way through school are overestimating their eligibility for scholarships and underestimating their eligibility for financial aid," said Mark Kantrowitz, senior vice president and publisher of Edvisors Network.

Second, many private scholarships are intensely competitive. Just 10 percent of students at four-year schools received private scholarships in the 2003-2004 academic year, according to the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study, and that figure declined to 8 percent by the 2007-2008 year.

Still, free money is free money, and it can be had—if you play your cards right.

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Leah Robson, a junior at Boston University, said she wrote "dozens and dozens" of scholarship applications as a high school senior, but what paid off the most was focusing on very targeted grants. Her father is a Los Angeles County firefighter, and she has been receiving $5,000 per year from the Los Angeles Fire Department Scholarship Fund, funded by the Jean Perkins Foundation.

"I had to go before a panel in Los Angeles. It was actually a really intense interview," she said. "They asked a million questions and questioned everything I did and all my beliefs. But I got the scholarship."

Robson says scholarships with interviews can work in your favor, since you have a better chance of standing out from the crowd.

"Sometimes contacting whoever is in charge of the scholarship foundation and asking to meet them is not a bad idea," she said. "Just being the kind of person that's proactive enough to ask might help. Maybe send a separate handwritten thank you note" after the interview, she continued. "They just want to see that you really want it."

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Gabrielle O'Donoghue, a freshman at Dartmouth, also had success landing local scholarships, including one from the hometown hospital where she volunteered. "Personally, I found it more rewarding to win scholarships from my community rather than a faceless organization," she said. "A few hundred dollars here and a thousand there add up rather quickly."

O'Donoghue says her high school guidance office used to publish lists of available scholarships, and in hindsight she wishes she had used them more. She is now on the hunt for scholarships for next year, and recommends Fastweb.com as a "really simple" site for finding scholarships matching your qualifications.

"You can honestly never start too early," she said.

Kantrowitz agrees that starting early is key, and quantity also helps. Applying for 100 scholarships is easier than it sounds, he said. "After your first half dozen or so, you find yourself being able to reuse material from the first essays."

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He also offers a tip for students who are wary of scholarships that require essays.

"Instead of writing the answer to the question, answer it out loud while recording yourself, and later transcribe the recording," Kantrowitz said. Because people talk much faster than they type, "the act of writing interferes with the flow of thought."

Showing a longstanding interest in a field of study is also helpful, he said, since a student "is going to be more convincing to the scholarship provider."

Alex Falco, a junior at Boston University, found academics to be the key to his financing college—but not from private scholarships. Falco says he was offered a merit scholarship covering half of his tuition, and enabled him to attend.

"Private school is so expensive, I needed something big or I would have gone to a state school," he said.

Falco's hunt for funds is not over. He is contemplating graduate school in international relations and says that is in a different financial ballpark.

"You're looking at employers and fellowships as well as looking at what schools offer," he said. "The sums of money are much higher, and nowadays, since it's so important to have a graduate degree, I'm taking a lot more time to look into that."

—By CNBC's Kelley Holland. Follow her on Twitter @KKelleyHolland.

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