Welcome to your senior year, Class of 2016! You finally made it to the top! Congratulations! I know that you probably aren’t thinking about college during the first few weeks of your senior year, but you really should! Now is the perfect time to start preparing to apply for scholarships. Many scholarships have deadlines between January 1 and April 30 (although there are several with earlier deadlines), so with a little planning, you can have a solid game plan for those busy months. Here are some steps to get the scholarship ball rolling.

Organize your information: If you haven’t already, now is the perfect time to put together a resume (click here for resume writing tips). I suggest making a ‘master resume’ which includes all of the work experience, extracurricular activities, and awards that you’ve accrued since your freshman year. Include dates when possible (just the year is fine if you’re not sure of the exact date), be extremely thorough, and keep updating it throughout the year. That way you have a full list of all your activities and accomplishments on hand. Now here’s the trick: when applying for scholarships, pick and choose which activities are relevant to each scholarship and tailor your one-page ‘turn in’ resume to each set of scholarship criteria. Don’t turn in your entire list of accomplishments for every scholarship! If you haven’t set up an Activities Resume yet, that is a great way to keep all of you activities in one place!

Find your scholarship tools: Now it’s time to find your scholarship resources. How are you going to find which scholarships to apply for? To maximize your scholarship potential, you should look for scholarships on the local, state, and national level. Your first step should be to visit your school counselor. Tell them what colleges and/or majors you may be interested in (if you know), and mention your current activities. Bring your ‘master resume’ along for reference! After that, check in with your counselor throughout the year to see if they have new scholarship suggestions for you.

For scholarships on the local and state level, ScholarshipQuest is a great resource to use. Complete a profile and receive a tailored list of scholarships to apply for! And best of all, it’s FREE!

It is also a great idea to use your potential colleges to find scholarships. Go to their website and look for scholarships offered by the admissions office, the financial aid department, and your future major’s department (assuming you know what you’ll be majoring in already—it’s fine if you don’t).

For national scholarships, the Internet is your best friend. Check out these sites to get some ideas on which scholarship searches to use. Remember, you should NEVER have to pay a website to find scholarships. There are plenty of resources available for free!

Prepare your essays: Although you won’t know which essays you’ll need to write until you are filling out applications, that doesn’t mean that you can’t start brainstorming and writing sample essays right now! Many scholarships have similar essay questions, so it never hurts to get a head start on one of the most time consuming parts of any scholarship application. Click here for a list of common essay questions.

Recruit helpers: Another staple of most scholarship applications is the letter of recommendation. Right now if the perfect time to recruit people to write those letters for you. Create a list of teachers, mentors, pastors, and other adults who may be willing to recommend you. Now ask them! Once you start applying for scholarships, go back to the people who said yes and give them the specific scholarship instructions. Be sure to give them at least two weeks to write! For more tips on letters of recommendation, click here.

Scholarship applications are just one time-consuming project that you’ll complete this year. Preparing in advance will take some of the burden off your shoulders during your busy months and hopefully give you more time to enjoy your last year of high school.

What other scholarship tips do you have? What are you most excited about for this school year? Leave your answers in the comments below!