By Charlotte Norsworthy

If you’re like me and most other college students in the United States, you have taken out at least one student loan to help pay for your education. If you’re like me and 70 percent of college graduates, you will graduate with that debt, according to Saving For College, a college planning website.

So how does one mitigate the problem plaguing so many students simply wanting a shot at a college education? One way I have learned to help defray costs and debt is by applying to scholarships rigorously.

Prior to graduating high school, I was under the impression that scholarships were only available to high school students. It wasn’t until I entered college and received countless emails from my university about internal and external scholarship opportunities that I began to realize that the scholarship application grind shouldn’t stop when you graduate high school.

I am a journalism student who graduated with my bachelor’s degree in 2019, and I’m now pursuing my master’s degree in journalism. I work hard in school; I am heavily involved, but I have also incurred thousands of dollars in student debt (even with those handful of scholarships from high school).

So where did I start? With a part-time job or two, which most students do. But I also carved out two to three hours per week to dedicate to researching scholarships, applying to scholarships and adding deadlines to my calendar.

Treat applying to scholarships like your side hustle (or, at least one of them). I say this because scholarship applications take time — time to research, time to write essays, time to prioritize timelines, time to ask references for letters of recommendation.

I started by looking at scholarship opportunities within my journalism school, then opportunities at the university level. From there I looked to state-level organizations that have scholarship funds for college students in certain fields (in my case, journalism).

Finally, I turned to national organizations such as the Society of Professional Journalists and the Broadcast Education Association. You can apply this technique to any field you’re in, and this will also give you the chance to familiarize yourself with your field’s organizations at various levels.

This process takes discipline and determination. You will receive more rejections than acceptances. But there is immense opportunity to take advantage of free money.

After applying for several scholarships since being an undergraduate student, I have received more than $20,000 in scholarship funds. This money went directly to funding my tuition, a study abroad opportunity, out-of-state internships and paying down my student loan debt. I believe that I reached my full potential in college thanks to scholarships that gave me the financial freedom to do so.

Saving For College reported there are more than 1.7 million private scholarships valued at over $7.4 billion are awarded each year, according to data published on its website in October 2019.

All of this is to simply say: there are immense scholarship opportunities out there for the taking. Don’t let them pass you by.

Charlotte Norsworthy is pursuing a master’s degree in journalism at the University of Georgia. The reporting for this essay was completed prior to the campus closing due to the COVID-19 pandemic.