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Undergraduate scholarships and graduate fellowships are forms of aid that help students pay for their education. Unlike student loans, scholarships and fellowships do not have to be repaid. Hundreds of thousands of scholarships and fellowships from several thousand sponsors are awarded each year.

Generally, scholarships and fellowships are reserved for students with special qualifications, such as academic, athletic or artistic talent. Awards are also available for students who are interested in particular fields of study, who are members of underrepresented groups, who live in certain areas of the country or who demonstrate financial need.

The best way to search for scholarships and fellowships is to use a personalized search, like the FastWeb scholarship search, that compares your background with a database of awards. Only those awards that fit your profile are identified as matches.

There are several free scholarship databases available online. With more than 1.5 million scholarships worth more than $3.4 billion, the FastWeb scholarship search is the largest, most accurate and most frequently updated scholarship database. If you supply an email address, they will notify you when new awards that match your profile are added to the database. You can even submit an electronic application to some of the scholarships listed in the FastWeb scholarship database, saving you time and money. FastWeb also includes a college search and numerous other student resources.

In addition to the FastWeb scholarship search, you may want to search one of the other free scholarship search sites. It doesn't take much time to search and it's free. To find small local awards that aren't listed in any book or database, look for notices posted on bulletin boards at your school's guidance office, the public library and outside the financial aid office at nearby colleges and universities.

You can also search for scholarships using your favorite web search engine by including the word "scholarships" with your search keywords.

College alumni and other private scholarship sponsors occasionally establish scholarships with esoteric eligibility requirements, such as a scholarship for left-handed students. Although there aren't many of these unusual scholarships, they often attract a lot of attention because of their slightly offbeat nature.

The most prestigious scholarships and fellowships also attract a lot of attention because they are among the most lucrative and competitive awards. Many colleges also offer full tuition academic scholarships.

Average students often ask whether there are any scholarships available to students who don't have a 4.0 GPA. There are many scholarships for average students that focus on qualities besides academic merit, as well as a variety of less competitive scholarships. There are also many community service scholarships and scholarships for hispanic and latino students.

Most scholarship search sites do not allow children under age 13 to register because of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). Unfortunately, this prevents parents from finding out about scholarships for students under age 13. FinAid has compiled a comprehensive list of college scholarships for students under age 13 and in grades K-8.

Don't waste your money on fee-based scholarship matching services. You won't get any better information than you can get from the free services available on the Web.

Once you've identified the scholarships for which you are eligible, FinAid has many good suggestions on how to maximize your chances of winning a scholarship.

Scholarships that sound too good to be true usually are. Learn how to recognize and protect yourself from the most common scholarship scams. The number one tip: If you have to pay money to get money, it's probably a scam.

It is important to ask the school's financial aid office about its outside scholarship policy, since this can affect how much you benefit from winning a scholarship if you are receiving need-based student aid.

A portion of your scholarship might be taxable. Usually amounts used for tuition and required fees are tax-free, but you should review the rules to ensure that you report the scholarship correctly.

The Maine legislature passed a law in June 2009 that bans collecting personal information from Maine residents under age 18. This has the unintended consequence of preventing many Maine high school students (and some college freshmen) from registering on free scholarship matching web sites. The Maine legislature will be reconsidering the legislation in early 2010. In the meantime, a list of selected Maine-specific scholarships is available on the FastWeb web site. (Registration is not required to look at this list of scholarships.)

The most reliable information about the number and amount of scholarships can be found in the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS), a statistically representative survey of undergraduate and graduate students conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) at the US Department of Education. FinAid also presents an analysis of the number of scholarships in the major scholarship databases, reporting the precision and recall of each database.

Students who are awarded scholarships often need additional financial assistance. See the Loans section for information on student and parent loans. To find out about contest, grants and other aid options, visit the section discussing Other Types of Aid. The Other Types of Aid section also provides information about scholarships for students with specific interests or abilities.

Businesses and philanthropists who are thinking about sponsoring a new scholarship may find the Scholarship Design & Management section helpful.