03/17/2012 11:39 pm ET Updated May 17, 2012

Scouring for Scholarships

This is part of our monthly series 'Mission: Accepted,' in partnership with Minds Matter, which chronicles the lives of three students as they apply for college in their senior year.

Guess what? College is expensive. Shocker, right? I've always known this, but the reality of it didn't really hit me until just a few weeks ago. I thought I'd have no problem getting full financial aid because neither of my parents work, but then my cousin told me that aid is actually first-come, first-serve (for FAFSA and CSS). This terrified me because I submitted my forms in late January, and who knows how many people have submitted theirs by that time. And it's rare to get a scholarship or financial aid that covers everything (tuition, books, room and board). I don't think I'm totally screwed yet, but I might be if I don't make a plan now and figure out how the heck I am going to pay for college.

Two of the best and most obvious options are scholarships and grants. They're free money! Who wouldn't want that? The only problem is, there are so many scholarship sites scattered across the Internet, and that makes me wonder which are the most reliable. I don't want to register for 10 different sites, especially when a lot of them repeat scholarships from other financial aid search engines. So far I'm sticking with Fastweb, CollegeProwler, and Zinch. My mentors encouraged me to keep track of all my scholarships using a list with four columns: name, due date, requirements, and reward and number of winners. This is very helpful, especially for a forgetful person like me. Even if you're not forgetful, this list will be your raft in the overwhelming sea of scholarships. It would suck to miss a deadline, no matter how great or small the reward (every bit helps!). Even though I've applied for a lot of scholarships, I haven't won any yet, and I'm contemplating what to do if I don't get any. I could do a work study once I'm at school, but that's just money toward tuition. What about books and food? I've been looking for an after-school/summer job for about two months, and it seems like everything's taken, because no one has gotten back to me (insert sad face).

If all else fails, I can take out a loan, but I don't want to graduate with a lot of debt. The other day I met a college graduate who urged me to apply for as many scholarships as possible and was almost in tears while explaining how much debt she is in. One of my teachers told me that his debt is big enough to buy two decent-sized cars, and he graduated a few years ago. I don't want that to happen to me.

Right now, I'll continue applying for a gazillion scholarships and looking for a job. If I really want to graduate without debt, I have to prepare. Hey, readers, any advice for me?