Use your time wisely to scope out opportunities, polish your applications and try to increase your odds of landing college aid. By Janet Bodnar, Editor-at-Large December 26, 2007 My 16-year-old son is a junior in high school. He gets good grades and is in the National Honor Society, but his school counselor says he shouldn't start looking for college scholarships until next year. Do you agree? If not, where should we look? It's true that most scholarship money is awarded directly by schools, so you would apply at the same time as you apply for admission and financial aid. But I'm a little puzzled by your counselor's advice, because it certainly doesn't hurt to get a head start. Find out whether the schools your son is interested in award scholarships, what the criteria are, and what he could do this year to improve his chances of getting one. There's plenty of money is available for students who focus on schools where their grades, test scores, special talents or extracurricular activities make them attractive. Based on those criteria, I personally know of many students who have been awarded substantial scholarships (my cousin's daughter just got $15,000 from one of her top-choice schools). All three of my children won scholarships ranging from half-tuition to full tuition. Advertisement Your son may also qualify for private scholarships -- money that's handed out by sources other than the school. These awards represent only about 7% of the free money available to undergraduates, and they usually amount to less than $2,000. Still, that would cover books or a computer. And it's up to you to scope out these awards. Check the scholarship guides at your local public library, and use scholarship search engines such as Fastweb.com and Scholarships.com. (Avoid search companies that charge a fee). Check out the Dollars for Scholars program in your area, plus grants offered by local business and civic groups. See The Great Scholarship Quest for more ideas of where to look. If your son does his research this year, he'll have plenty of time to polish his applications. He doesn't want to miss any deadlines. Advertisement And be persistent. Lynn Grochowski, of Franklin, Wis., applied for more than 40 scholarships. She won a full scholarship to Drake University in Des Moines through the school's alumni program, plus $20,000 in other private scholarships. Book smarts To cut the cost of my daughter's college textbooks, I buy used books at www.campusi.com. My daughter texts me the ISBN numbers on the first two days of school, and I can usually get her the books by the next weekend. This has allowed me to get $40 books for $15 or $120 books for $40. Thanks for the tip. And here's another way to save money on books: Rent them, from discounters such as BookRenter.com or Chegg.com. Or just have your kids buy used books from other students at their school. My college-freshman son figures he saved hundreds of dollars that way -- and got to know the campus as he trooped around making his purchases.