When families start looking to pay for college, some put their hopes in private scholarships – there are an estimated 1.5 million private scholarships out there, though how many are awarded annually is difficult to track. But only in a handful of cases will these make much of a dent in a tuition bill. If your client insists on seeking them out, here are five things they should know:

1. Students have a better shot at landing a private scholarship if they:

· Major in science, math, technology or engineering.
· Are active in community service.
· Head to more selective, and expensive, colleges.
· Graduated from a private high school.
· Aren’t necessarily the best test takers: less than 4% of scholarships have a SAT or ACT score requirement.

2. Reach for the low-hanging fruit.

It's easier to win scholarships that are valued at less than $1,000. Many students don't think it's worth the effort, which makes for less competition. The same goes for scholarships that require a written essay – not as many students will bother. Also, scholarships from local or regional organizations are often easier to win.

4. Use scholarship search engines.

You can search for relevant scholarships more efficiently if using a scholarship search engine. Sites like Fastweb, Scholarships.com, or the College Board all have search capabilities which seek to match students with appropriate scholarships. They do not charge a fee.

5. Don't count on them to put much of a dent in the tuition.

The average private college scholarship is worth about $2,500, according to Mark Kantrowitz, the author of Secrets to Winning a Scholarship and publisher of FinAid.com. Fewer than 250 private scholarships provide enough money to cover all college costs.

Rather than spending time hunting down and applying for small scholarships, students should devote more time to earning better grades so they can qualify for more plentiful and larger scholarships from the schools themselves. Only seven percent of college-bound teens win a private scholarship, Kantrowitz says. In contrast, 88% of students attending private colleges and universities win institutional scholarships from their schools.

Top 10 Most Generous Private Scholarships

Mark Kantrowitz, the publisher of FastWeb, compiled this list of the ten most lucrative private scholarships.

Intel Science Talent Search
Winners are selected based on their potential as future scientists.
Top awards: $100,000 scholarship.

Intel International Science and Engineering Fair
Winners chosen from science fairs in more than 40 countries.
Top awards: $75,000 and trip to Nobel Prize ceremonies in Sweden.

Siemens Competition in Math, Science and Technology
Students win based on their research conducted individually or in groups.
Top awards: $100,000.

Elks National Foundation Most Valuable Student Competition.
Students picked on the basis of academics, leadership and financial need.
Top awards: $15,000 renewable scholarships.

Rotary Foundation Ambassadorial Scholarships
Provides roughly 1,100 scholarships for students studying abroad.
Top awards: $25,000 that covers studying aboard for one year.

Davidson Fellows
Teenagers who have accomplished a significant piece of work in fields of math, science, technology, music literature, philosophy or outside-the-box areas.
Top awards: $50,000.

Collegiate Inventors Competition
National Inventors Hall of Fame awards to students who have invented something that is patentable.
Top awards: $15,000.

NIH Undergraduate Scholarship Program
The National Institutes of Health scholarship for disadvantaged students who want to purse biomedical, behavioral and social science careers. Top awards: $20,000-a-year scholarships during college.

Coca-Cola Scholars Program Scholarship
Recipients selected based on leadership, character, academics, extracurriculars and community service.
Top awards: $20,000.

Gates Millennium Scholars
Awarded to low-income minority students who want to pursue careers in math, science, engineering, education or library science.
Top awards: value based on the price of the college the winner will attends.

Four Steps To Find Financial Aid

Some families assume that completing these applications aren't worth the effort, but that can be a costly mistake. Students from affluent families who attend expensive schools may be surprised to learn they qualify for need-based aid, but they won't be eligible if they don't complete the forms.

1. The big daddy of aid applications is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. All schools use the FAFSA to determine whether students qualify for federal and/or state aid. The vast majority of public and private colleges and universities also use the FAFSA to determine who qualifies for their own in-house pots of financial aid.

2. Less than 250 schools—nearly all expensive, private institutions—also use the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE form, which you can find on the College Board website. Among the schools that require parents to complete the PROFILE are Harvard, Cal Tech, Kenyon, Notre Dame and Villanova. Five popular state universities also use this application: University of North Carolina; University of Virginia, College of William and Mary, University of Arizona and University of Michigan.

3. A common mistake that parents make when completing the FAFSA is including retirement account assets. Don't do this! The form only requests taxable assets, as well as college accounts such as 529 plans. You should also not include home equity on the form.

4. Get help. These forms, despite attempts to make them easier to complete, can be confusing. Many parents make mistakes. Your clients, however, can get help online and by phone.

FAFSA helpline: (800) 4-FED-AID
FederalStudentAidCustomerService@ed.gov

PROFILE helpline: (305) 829-9793
help@cssprofile.org