THE BLOG
01/10/2016 01:13 pm ET Updated Jan 10, 2017

Scholarships? Act Now!

Looking for free money for college? If your names is Zolp, or your parents work for Burger King, Pizza Hut or Home Depot, or are members of the "Germans from Russia Heritage Society" -- or if you're willing to wear a dress made out of duct tape to the prom -- you may be eligible for a scholarship that will cut some of your college costs and reduce the burden of student loans.

At websites like Scholarships.com, there are millions of potential scholarships and grants listed, free money worth billions of dollars. But the site's COO Kevin Ladd says that last year roughly $2.9B in scholarships and grants (including Pell Grants) went unused -- probably because people didn't know the money was available!

Some scholarships require filing of the FAFSA, because they have a need component, while others make no mention of financial qualifications. Just in case, be sure to file the FAFSA now, and adjust parental income later, if necessary. Federal grant programs, such as the Pell Grant, are free money that is awarded based on need.

You'll be amazed at the free money available if you meet the qualifications. Some scholarships require special talents, either academic or athletic. Others have quirky requirements, and others reward essays or students' outside interests and commitments. For example last year 910 golf caddies with financial need got money for college from the Chick Evans Scholarship Fund.

Here are five tips to finding one or more scholarships that could cut your financial burden:

1. Start Early. The time to start looking for scholarships is as early as your freshman year in high school, because some of them award grants based on your extra-curricular activities, community service, or time spent interning or working in the field in which you want to major. If you're looking for a scholarship that will start when you enter college this fall, file your application in January because many awards have deadlines in the next few weeks.

2. Register at Multiple Sites or download the apps. Scholarships.com and FastWeb.com are two of the largest sites for scholarship searches. They are free, although they do require you to register. (Scholarships.com has a free app that allows you to search without registering.)

Be sure to answer all the questions in their online profile to get the most potential matches. The sites stay in business by providing your information to those who market to students, although you can opt out. It's worth it to get a chance to search all those scholarship offerings.

3. Check with your High School Guidance Office. The counselors at your school know you -- and they know some of the aid that past students have received. If you start early enough, and are willing to make this a project, they can help you not only in searching for scholarships that might be available to graduates of your high school, but qualify for work/study programs, as well.

4. Diversity is Rewarded. There's a lot of "politically correct" debate about "affirmative action." But scholarships are one place where race, gender, and ethnicity are openly listed as prerequisites for many awards. Search for them. It's no shame to take every bit of money you can get to further your education -- especially when it doesn't have to be repaid, except by your excellence in your chosen career after graduation.

5. Look beyond Money. Many scholarships come with benefits that are equally valuable as the free money. Some offer internships, which could potentially lead to a job. They are offered by everyone from Nike to Disney to the Ellen DeGeneres show! Truly priceless. Others subsidize study abroad. And some private colleges offer scholarships just to get a diverse student body -- whether racially or geographically. It never hurts to ask!

Nowhere in this column have I mentioned athletic scholarships (now equally available to women under Title IX) or merit scholarships based on academic excellence. Presumably, you already know about those opportunities, as well as needs-based student loans. Even if you get some financial aid, it's worth searching for free money for college.

Remember, you'll never get that scholarship or grant if you fail to apply! Don't presume anything. Start applying now. A few small scholarships could save you a fortune in student loan interest over the years ahead. And that's The Savage Truth.