Valedictorians and star quarterbacks aren’t the only ones earning college scholarships. In the 2011-12 school year, more than $6.2 billion in private scholarships was awarded to more than 1.8 million undergraduate students with all manner of academic and athletic achievements.

Starting early is a key to success. The fall of your junior year of high school is a good time to begin evaluating your scholarship options. Application deadlines will vary, but don’t be surprised if some are due a full year before college starts. And it’s never too early to start. Jif, the peanut butter maker, has awarded a $25,000 college fund to the winner of its “Most Creative Sandwich Contest.” Only kids between the ages of 6 and 12 can qualify.

With so many options available, be sure to look beyond the big-money scholarships. “Small awards can add up,” says Eric Johnson, a spokesman for the Office of Scholarships and Student Aid at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Plus, each award that you win will beef up your credentials on subsequent scholarship applications.

We’ve identified 11 great sources of college scholarships. Take a look to see which ones are right for you.

Online scholarship finders

The best place to start your search is online. With free scholarship finders that will do the initial legwork for you, the 30 minutes or so that you spend creating your profile can turn into hundreds of scholarship opportunities. Be sure to fill out every available field in your profile — even the optional ones — because the more information you provide, the more scholarships you can get matched with.

Kiplinger’s favorite scholarship finder is at Fastweb.com, which maintains a database of more than 1.5 million scholarships. Other reliable online scholarship finders can be found at Scholarships.com, StudentScholarshipSearch.com and Bigfuture.collegeboard.org. Available scholarships and search criteria can vary by Web site, so try using at least two to boost your odds of success.

Once you’ve been matched with scholarships, talk to your high school counselor to narrow the field to the most promising candidates, recommends Eli Clarke, a college counselor at Gonzaga College High School, in Washington, D.C. Beware scholarships or scholarship services that charge a fee. “The cardinal rule is, never pay a person or service to apply for scholarships,” Clarke says. “The information and process is always free.”

The scholarship pursuit doesn’t end once you arrive on campus. Mark Kantrowitz, founder of FinAid.org, a financial aid Web site, advises students to continue searching for scholarships throughout college because there are a lot of single-year awards for current college students that you have to reapply for annually.

Colleges and universities

When you decide to apply to a college, the first thing you should do is contact the admissions office to request a list of scholarships offered by the school. Be sure the list includes detailed information on eligibility requirements and deadlines. Don’t wait to inquire about scholarships until after you are admitted, which might not happen until the spring of your senior year. School-based scholarship applications can be due as early as the fall of your senior year, before admissions decisions are made.

Some schools automatically consider applicants with grade point averages or standardized test scores that are above a certain threshold for merit scholarships. No additional scholarship application is required. Schools do this in order to woo top academic students.

Other school-based scholarships are available only to students nominated by their high schools. For example, the Morehead-Cain Scholarship at UNC-Chapel Hill, which offers a full merit-based scholarship for four years in addition to summer enrichment opportunities, involves a multistep application process that begins the summer before senior year. Another full scholarship, the Jefferson Scholarship at the University of Virginia, requires nominees to go through several rounds of competition in order to earn a scholarship that covers tuition and additional enrichment activities over four years. Every college’s scholarship application process is different, so it’s critical to stay on top of the details and deadlines.

Employers

As a perk for workers, some businesses have scholarship programs available not only to employees but also to employees’ children and sometimes even extended family. If you’re a student with a job, contact the human resources department to see whether you qualify for any scholarship opportunities. McDonald’s, for example, has a National Employee Scholarship Program that awards $1,000 to one employee in each state and the District of Columbia every academic year. In addition, the fast-food chain annually gives one $5,000 scholarship to the “McScholar of the Year.”

If your employer doesn’t offer a scholarship, don’t be afraid to ask why it doesn’t. Management might be receptive to an opportunity to give back to ambitious employees. Taking the initiative could pay off for you.

Don’t restrict yourself to your own employer, though. “Look at your family tree,” says Clarke. “Ask any and all family members if they know of a scholarship for which they can nominate you.” Many employers use a third-party administrator, such as Scholarship America, to select scholarship recipients, so don’t assume that the money only goes to the higher-ups’ kids.

Religious organizations

Check with your place of worship to see whether it offers any scholarships to members. If not, staff might know of local or regional groups that do offer scholarships to students of your faith. Just keep in mind that faith-based aid might be directed to students attending universities with religious missions, or students pursuing religious studies and related professions.

Be sure to expand your search to include national religious governing bodies. The United Methodist Church, for example, oversees more than 50 scholarship programs available to its active members. The average undergraduate award is between $500 and $2,000.

Even non-believers can get in on the action. American Atheists gives out two $1,000 scholarships and six $500 scholarships every year. The awards are presented annually at the group’s national convention.

Your community

You can take advantage of a wealth of resources in your community if you know where to look. “Many public libraries have career centers or bulletin boards with local scholarship opportunities posted,” says Kantrowitz, and some parent-teacher associations have programs to help fund local students’ college ambitions. If your local PTA doesn’t award scholarships, it might be able to point you to a state-level PTA group that does. The Texas PTA, for example, offers $1,000 scholarships to graduating high school seniors; the California PTA, a $750 and $500 scholarship.

Also check around to see if any local businesses offer money to help area students attend college. If not, ask if they would consider it. Scholarships are a good way for business owners to give back to the community and good publicity for the business. It’s also common for Rotary Clubs, whose ranks are often made up of local business owners, to sponsor club scholarships funded by members.

It’s not a bad idea as well to see if a Dollars for Scholars chapter operates in your area. The nationwide network of more than 500 locally based affiliates is run by Scholarship America. Each chapter raises money to fund college scholarships for local students.

Your high school and elementary school

Some schools, with funding from the local parent-teacher association or local philanthropists, award annual scholarships. For instance, John Champe High School, in Aldie, Va., offers two $1,000 scholarships, sponsored by the PTSA, to graduating seniors. And the Clarence M. Gillis Memorial Scholarship Fund, a $500 privately endowed award, is given to a graduating senior from one of two Roanoke, Va., high schools. If you are part of the band or chorus at Lincoln High School in Lincoln, R.I., you can apply for the Daniel Patrick O’Neil Memorial Scholarship.

Other schools, such as Staples High School, in Westport, Conn., offer tuition grants to students demonstrating financial need. In 2014, Staples awarded $320,000 to 112 graduating students and alumni.

It’s worth checking with your elementary school, as well. The PTA-sponsored $500 Davis Alumni Scholarship, for example, is awarded to students who spent at least three years at Will Davis Elementary School, in Austin, Texas.

Your hobbies

If you think there’s no way that your obscure hobby could help you pay for school, think again. From duck calling to competitive eating, name your pastime and there is probably a related college scholarship for enthusiasts just like you.

Hobbies with national governing bodies are the most likely sources of college funding, says Kantrowitz. Take scouting, for instance. The Boy Scouts of America lists about two dozen scholarship opportunities for Eagle Scouts. A biggie is the Mabel and Lawrence S. Cooke scholarship, which usually awards $48,000 over four years to one Eagle Scout and $25,000 over four years to four other winners.

There are scholarships just for females, too. Some come from national organizations, such as the Girl Scouts of the USA, and others come from smaller groups. If you happen to be an aspiring female filmmaker, check out the Girls Impact the World Film Festival. By creating a three- to five-minute film discussing issues faced by women around the world, you can compete for $1,000 to $5,000 in cash, as well as an internship with the Creative Visions Foundation.

Your academic interests

Corporations and professional organizations offer scholarships to standout students in their fields. You don’t have to pursue a major or a career in a related discipline to apply for a scholarship, but demonstrated interest in the field will set you apart from other applicants.

As Kantrowitz explains, “Depth matters more than breadth.” Scholarship providers like to see students who invest their time in a specific interest rather than spend a limited amount of time working with many interests.

Science-oriented students can enter competitions such as Intel’s Science Talent Search, which awards three high school seniors a whopping $150,000 apiece. Winners are judged on their scientific research and future potential. Runner-ups pocket anywhere between $7,500 and $75,000.

There are similar opportunities for right-brained creative types. ShurTech, the maker of Duck brand duct tape, offers $10,000 apiece (plus $5,000 to the winners’ school) to the winning couple in its Stuck at Prom scholarship contest. Entrants are required to create and accessorize their prom outfits with duct tape. Runners-up receive between $500 and $5,000. No prom date? No problem. There’s also a singles category.

Students involved in honor societies, such as the National Honor Society or the National English Honor Society, can apply for scholarships worth between $1,000 and $13,000.

Companies and philanthropic foundations

Almost anybody is eligible for the high-value scholarships offered by several large corporations. For instance, the Coca-Cola Scholars Program Scholarship awards 150 $20,000 scholarships. It requires applicants to have a minimum GPA of 3.0, but additional requirements are fairly standard. The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation has more requirements than Coca-Cola (a minimum GPA and SAT score requirement, as well as demonstrated financial need), but the pay-off is high. About 40 winners earn as much as $40,000 for each year of school.

In order to select winners, the Coca-Cola Scholars Program and the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation look at academic records, leadership and extracurricular activities, and essays.

If you are a member of an ethnic minority, you can also apply for the Gates Millennium Scholars Program. Additional requirements include a 3.3 GPA, leadership experience and Federal Pell Grant eligibility. The program hands out 1,000 scholarships each year, with an average award of more than $12,000.

You’ll face more competition for larger national scholarships with less-restrictive eligibility requirements, but the higher award money could be worth the time spent on an application.

Contests and sweepstakes

If you aren’t interested in filling out essays and submitting transcripts, you can leave the fate of your scholarship funds to chance. Companies such as lender Sallie Mae and college-search sites Cappex and Niche conduct monthly scholarship sweepstakes that give random winners between $1,000 and $2,000.

Another option is ScholarshipPoints.com, a service provided by financial aid Web site Edvisors.com. By completing activities on the site, you earn points that you can use to enter scholarship drawings. In 2015, ScholarshipPoints is set to give away more than $100,000 through random drawings.

Kantrowitz offers several tips for differentiating legitimate scholarship opportunities from scams. “If you have to pay money to get money, it’s probably a scam,” he says. Two approaches are Googling the name of the organization with “scam” added to the end to see what others are saying or asking a high school guidance counselor or college financial aid administrator for their thoughts on the scholarship’s validity.

Yourself

Look in the mirror, identify what sets you apart from your peers, and search for ways to translate that into financial support for your education. Scholarships are available to students based on everything from race and ethnicity to unique physical traits, such as writing left-handed or being a twin.

Too tall to see yourself in the mirror? You might qualify for a scholarship worth up to $1,000 from the Tall Clubs International Foundation. Male applicants must be at least 6-feet-2; females, 5-feet-10 or taller. Little People of America offers educational scholarships ranging from $250 to $1,000. Its members typically are 4-feet-10 or shorter.

The United Negro College Fund partners with numerous organizations to provide college scholarships. And despite the organization’s name, not all funding is limited to African-American students. Other organizations dole out scholarships for students who can claim Irish, Japanese and other heritages.

For those who have faced great adversity in their lives, consider Beat the Odds scholarships. Various states, including Texas, California and New York, offer funds to students who overcome obstacles to receive an education.

Your parents’ unique traits can help you find scholarships, too. The Through the Looking Glass Scholarship is awarded to students whose parents have disabilities, and children of veterans are eligible for scholarships such as the Military Commanders’ Scholarship Fund.

Copyright 2015 The Kiplinger Washington Editors

This article was written by Dylan Cunningham, Contributing Writer and Kiplinger.com from Kiplinger and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.