As the oldest of five children, Jocelyn Paonita Pearson knew her parents didn't have a lot of money to pay for her college education. So, as a junior in high school, she started applying for scholarships.
Her strategy was to apply for everything that claimed to offer money for school, but she says many turned out to be scams or sweepstakes. "I basically wasted an entire year and had almost nothing to show for it," Pearson says.
The one success story she had that year was a local organization's essay-based scholarship, which led Pearson to change her strategy.
Rather than applying for everything available, she decided to apply for scholarships that required her to prove her merit. By the time she graduated from college, Pearson had secured a little more than $126,000 in scholarships and was able to finish her degree without any student loan debt. Here are seven tips to achieve similar success.
[Review these 10 sites to kick off your scholarship search.]
1. Go for the small scholarships: It's easy to get caught up in the full-tuition scholarships that schools and other major organizations offer. However, Pearson suggests applying for a lot of small scholarships.
"Don't ignore the community bank scholarship for $1,000," she says. "A couple hundred dollars here and a couple thousand dollars there can add up."
A lot more small scholarships are available than large ones, and many are so obscure that you might not have a lot of competition, increasing your chances of winning. For example, the Western Golf Association offers a scholarship for young caddies and the Central Arizona Tall Society provides a small scholarship to applicants who meet height requirements.
2. Keep applying for scholarships throughout college: Pearson didn't have a six-figure scholarship total when she entered college. In fact, she kept applying for smaller scholarships throughout her undergraduate studies, including using some of the awards to pay for a study abroad program in Spain.
"We tend to think of scholarships as all or nothing before you even start college," Pearson says. "The reality is that you can use these scholarships to pay for college as you go. Don't stop once you're enrolled."
3. Know the deadlines: Make a list of scholarships you plan to apply for and then double-check the deadlines.
"One of the biggest mistakes people make is not adhering to the deadline," Pearson says. "Also, see if it's something offered annually or semiannually. If you missed the most recent deadline, you can still apply next year."
4. Fine-tune stories and qualifications: Applying for scholarship after scholarship may seem like an exhausting process, especially if each one requires an essay or a resume -- or both. Pearson says, though, that it's not as daunting as it seems.
"You can use the same essays and stories over and over again," Pearson says. "Just tweak the information a little bit to fit the current scholarship."
Take the time to refine a few stories from your life that exemplify different positive traits that scholarship providers are likely to be looking for. You'll get better at it as you practice.
"At first, it took hours for one application," Pearson says. "By my last year in college, I was doing 10 applications in the same amount of time."
5. Line up transcripts and recommendations: Get a few copies of your transcripts ahead of time, and line up recommendations. For these letters, see if you can get the writers to give you several copies.
That way, says Pearson, you don't need to start from scratch with each scholarship. Just be upfront with the people you ask for help. They should know you are applying for several scholarships.
6. Steer clear of sweepstakes and contests: Pearson advises focusing on scholarships that require you to do more than submit your name or try to garner social media shares.
"Look for scholarships where you get money based on what you've accomplished in your life or based on your need," she says.
Pearson learned the hard way that some sweepstakes and contests are just ways for companies to collect your information and then sell it to marketers.
"After that first year, my inbox was slammed with spam and marketing emails," Pearson says. "I had to stop using that email account. There are still more than 20,000 unread emails in that account due to all the sweepstakes I entered."
7. Keep at it: Pearson didn't get all the scholarships she applied for, but she was able to get what she needed to pay for college. She also notes that you might have a better chance winning scholarships after you're already in college, especially if you participate in clubs and internships to build your resume.
"There's so much money out there, if you know where to look for it," Pearson says. "Keep applying, even if it takes some time to start seeing success. You might be surprised at how it starts coming as you persist."
Miranda Marquit is a staff writer for Student Loan Hero and has been a financial journalist for more than 11 years, covering money, college planning and other financial topics.