This article was originally written for, now a part of

When I started getting college acceptance letters, I couldn’t contain my excitement. The hours and hours I’d spent on applications were finally paying off! Unfortunately, that excitement also came with some worry—especially about how to pay for everything. Even with parents who attended college and worked in education, I still had a tough time figuring out the financial aid system; for first-generation students and their families, the forms and deadlines and requirements can seem almost insurmountable.

To help you get through the financial aid process, here are the four basic steps that are most important as you search for scholarships and other forms of financial aid. If you set aside two or three hours a week for these few tasks, you’ll find yourself worrying a lot less!

1. Fill out a FAFSA—and find help with it—starting in January.

The U.S. government provides students over $150 billion in grants, loans and work-study funds each year. To apply for any of that money, you need to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This application collects information about the financial situation of you and your family and determines your eligibility for government funding. It’s available starting January 1, and filling it out should be your first priority: while the final deadline isn’t until June, many state aid programs and private scholarships require a completed FAFSA, and some federal aid is first-come, first-served.

Though the form can be complicated, there are a lot of resources that can help you and your family. For example, the FAFSA website lists deadlines by state, and the invaluable site has helpful videos and downloads. You can also get help from your school’s counseling or advising office (they’re FAFSA experts) and at College Goal Sunday events, usually in January or February. Finally, you can turn to Twitter! @FAFSA hosts a monthly #AskFAFSA chat where you can get answers to your questions live.

Don’t forget: if you’re already in college, you still have to fill out a FAFSA every year!

2. Start your scholarship search early—and don’t end it until you graduate.

Scholarships are the greatest gift your education can receive! Whether they’re based on financial need, academic merit, activities or community service, they all mean free money for college.

Unlike the FAFSA, which opens to everyone January 1, scholarship applications open and close every day of the year; to ensure you don’t miss out, search early and often. (Once a week isn’t too much!) This website’s guide to the ABCs of Scholarships features great scholarship search advice and resources, including a number of good national search engines.

Online, I’d add that you should search “scholarship” or “scholarships” alongside any term you can think of that applies to you: for example, “marching band scholarships,” “scholarships for cosmetology school” or “scholarships for volunteering.” If you have an interest, skill or credential, you can probably find a scholarship dedicated to it.

Finally, don’t forget to search “scholarships for first-generation students.” Plenty of scholarship providers are invested in helping first-gens graduate from college with awards like the Ty Howard Scholarship and the Coca-Cola First Generation Scholarship (shown here at Cal State-Long Beach; many other schools provide awards through this program, too.)

For offline searching, I’d reiterate that you should check first with local organizations (clubs like Rotary or Kiwanis, chambers of commerce, churches, Dollars for Scholars affiliate, etc.), with your employer or your parents’ employers and with your current or future college. Just about every department or major has specific scholarships it gives out to its students; lots of campus clubs give scholarships to members, too, and these can be crucial as you pay for your second through fourth years of college.

3. Read carefully and learn the language.

Scholarship providers can be sticklers about directions: with lots of qualified applicants, it’s easy to eliminate people who don’t follow them. Before you start completing an application, make sure you know exactly what the scholarship provider is asking for. Do they want online or paper submissions? What are the word counts and formatting instructions for the essay? Do they want a transcript? If so, does it need to be an official one, or will an unofficial printout work? Missed directions are the most common applicant mistakes, and double-checking these little things can make the difference between getting a check and getting rejected.

It’s also important to figure out where you can spend your scholarship money. Some awards are meant only for tuition; others can be used for room and board, books and supplies or even personal expenses.

Finally, if a scholarship is “renewable” or “multi-year,” it’s worth spending some extra time on; these are scholarships that you can continue to earn over multiple years of college. (For example, the I’m First Scholarship is a four-year renewable award just for first-gens!) You’ll often have to meet certain criteria, check in or even reapply. Again, read the fine print carefully.

4. Apply, apply and apply some more.

Your frequent searching should turn up plenty of options, and you should be sure to apply for anything and everything you qualify for. There’s no downside to applying for a ton of scholarships, and there shouldn’t be any cost other than the occasional postage stamp: if an applications asks for a fee up front, it’s probably a scholarship scam.

Writing your first scholarship essays may take a while, and you might think there’s no way you have time to fill out five or six applications a month. But, have no fear: application questions are often similar, and you can modify and re-use what you’ve written on future forms (as long as it meets requirements). By your sophomore year, you’ll have applications down to a science—and more and more awards are available that only require a text, a tweet or a video to apply!

Going to college is one of the most exciting times in anyone’s life; paying for college, on the other hand, can seem pretty intimidating. For first-gen students, these few steps are important to remember. They’ll help you make a plan; and, with good planning, tuition bills become a lot less scary.