Saving for college is becoming a struggle for many families as cost of higher education rises. Luckily, with a little planning, you can help cover the cost of college—and avoid getting bogged down in student loan debt—with the help of free money in the form of scholarships.

However, with competition for resources on the rise, proper preparation is important. Here are five tips for applying for college scholarships:

1. Start early. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you should start applying for college scholarships in the eighth grade. However, you do need to think ahead to what can be done to improve your chances of getting a scholarship.

This may mean that you involve yourself in an extracurricular activity or two, perform regular community service, and get good grades. Keep in mind that you don’t need a perfect 4.0 to get scholarships, especially if you can show that you are well rounded and community minded and that you have leadership potential.

The longer you show your good qualities and pad your college resume, the more likely you are to receive scholarship offers.

2. Look beyond the schools. While you might be able to get scholarship offers from the schools to which you apply, don’t rely entirely on the financial aid package offered by the universities. Look for scholarship programs offered elsewhere, too. Many major national retailers offer scholarships, as do small programs and foundations. You don’t need one huge scholarship; there are students who manage to cobble together their own scholarship packages from smaller awards offered by varied sources.

3. Get organized. Be sure to pay attention to scholarship application deadlines. Sometimes you need to have your application in by the midway point of your junior year if you want a shot. Keep track of what you need to complete the application, as well as when it needs to be turned in.

Some scholarship applications require letters of recommendation, and you’ll want to give your references plenty of time to prepare these letters. Good organization can ensure that you know when to contact your references for recommendations, and it can also help you keep track of who has turned them in.

You might want to create a spreadsheet or put up a huge whiteboard or corkboard to help you manage your timeline and keep the requirements of each application straight.

4. Follow instructions exactly. During the organization process, make sure that you get a list of all instructions. You need to make sure that everything is done properly. If you are asked to submit your materials in an email with a specific subject line, you better make sure that you follow those directions to the letter. If you have questions about the instructions, contact the organization offering the scholarship.

While you’re at it, proofread, and have others proofread, your application materials. Triple-check for misspellings, typos, and other mistakes on everything, including your personal essay, your resume, and any required forms. You want to impress, and nothing will send your application to the trash bin faster than mistakes on it.

5. Don’t exaggerate. Be honest with your application. While you don’t want to undersell yourself, you also don’t want to exaggerate your accomplishments. Be straightforward about what you’ve done, and don’t inflate your grades or activities. This means that you also need to make sure that you are selecting scholarships for which you actually qualify—rather than trying to fudge your applications so that you look like you qualify.

With planning, effort, and a systematic approach, it’s possible to apply for—and even get— college scholarships.

Miranda Marquit is a freelance writer and professional blogger specializing in personal finance, family finance and business topics. She writes for several online and offline publications. Miranda is the co-author of Community 101: How to Grow an Online Community, and the writer behind