It’s not unusual for parents to begin thinking about scholarships and financial aid only after their son or daughter has been accepted to college. But if you wait that long, you may be missing out on some golden opportunities for college money.

Getting financial aid has an even longer lead-time than choosing or applying for college. In fact, college scholarships are available to high school students as early as their freshmen year, and some can be applied for repeatedly every year. A few hours’ investment can build up a sizable scholarship nest egg long before your child has even applied to the school of his or her choice.

Here are six important things to remember:

  1. First stop: FastWeb.

    There are a lot of search engines that can lead you to scholarship possibilities, and some are better than others. But FastWeb is generally the best (and most essential) of the lot. Yes, it takes time, and, yes, you have to click on far too many commercial offers (none of which you’re required to accept) to get to the good stuff. But once you fill out a profile, you’ll have access to a great deal of well-researched information and valuable links about scholarships available at every grade level. FastWeb also offers a handy management tool to keep track of what you’ve applied for, when deadlines are coming, and what you need to do next.

  2. Remember: A lot of a little adds up.

    With a few exceptions, the scholarships you’ll find will be small — $500 for some, $1,000 to $2,000 for many more. With annual college costs hitting $20,000 to $50,000 or more, those little awards can seem like drops in the proverbial ocean. But don’t be discouraged. Five hundred dollars is a semester’s worth of books or an on-campus meal plan, and if you get systematic about the search-and-application process, those small amounts can add up to a tidy total.

  3. Break out the talent.

    Many scholarships, especially for younger students, involve some kind of contest or competition. Essays are the most common, but — depending on your child’s interests — you’ll also find calls for creative science experiments, community action, artwork, speeches, and more. Have a serious talk with your college-bound teen about what exactly he or she can contribute to the process. If he’s a strong writer, the essay contests could be solid gold. If she’s a born community organizer or artist, other awards may be more appropriate. And the interest that you think is so odd? A company may love her quirks and be willing to pay. Imagine your Duck Tape artist walking away with with $10,000.

  4. Look in unexpected places.

    Like Duck Tape, all sorts of nonprofits, corporations, and charitable groups offer scholarships, but most of them do a lousy job of letting people know. The Ayn Rand Institue offers prizes of up to $10,000 for essays on various Rand novels (different ones for different grade levels, from eighth grade on). The Christophers, a Christian group, have an annual poster contest (first prize: $1,000) on the theme of “one person can make a difference.” offers $1,000 for an essay by a high school senior or college student who will be majoring in Business, Accounting, Finance, Mathematics, Management, or another major in preparation for a career in personal finance. Action for Nature gives $500 awards to “eco-heroes” as young as 8 and no older than 16 — a little cash and a great addition to your kid’s college application. There are literally thousands more, associated with everything from publishing companies to soda pop bottlers. You just have to look.

  5. Work with your child’s high school counselor.

    You may have to reach out to him or her, especially if your teen is new to the school or an underclassman, but many scholarship offers — especially local ones — are announced first and foremost to guidance professionals. They have fliers, forms, and newsletters you may not have access to; they simply need to know you’re interested.

  6. Make it a regular thing.

    It doesn’t have to be a part-time job, but your commitment to finding college scholarships does have to be exactly that: a commitment. Schedule a couple of evenings a month to do your research; work with your son or daughter on essays, entries, or applications; and keep track of your progress, using FastWeb or your own tracking system.

It’s never too early to start, but it’s never too late either. No matter what grade level your child has just entered, it’s probably past time to log on to FastWeb and call that counselor for a sit-down. There’s money out there just waiting for you.