Have you heard the one about how many millions of dollars in scholarships go unclaimed every year? It’s a rumor that churns its way through high school hallways every fall when seniors and their families begin to wonder how they’ll pay for school.

Sadly, it’s just that: a rumor. The truth is that plenty of students are on the hunt for scholarships to help out with college bills, especially in this economy.

But the good news is that there are billions of dollars in scholarships available each year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Here’s how and where to find them.

Do your homework -- at school. Your guidance counselor should have a list of scholarships available in your community from local organizations. Even though these awards are probably smaller than national scholarships, it’s well worth applying for them, since the smaller pool of applicants boosts your chances of winning.

Be “safe.” You’ll be applying to a couple of safety schools, right? We’re talking about the schools that will very likely admit you because your GPA and test scores are higher than the norm for their group of admitted students. Find out which of your safety schools offers the best scholarships to stand-out students, and then use that info to narrow your list.

Call colleges. When you ask college reps about merit scholarships, be sure to find out about departmental awards—that is, money awarded from the math department to attract women students or the arts department to attract budding film producers. If a college rep doesn’t know about these special awards, call the academic departments that interest you.

Consider the military. All branches of the Armed Forces run scholarship programs. The Army and Air Force Reserve Officer Training (ROTC), for example, will cover college costs in exchange for a service commitment during school and beyond. And if your parent serves in or is retired from the military, you are eligible for a range of great scholarships. Learn more at military.com and militaryscholar.org.

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Ask the coach. If you are an outstanding athlete, talk to your coach about which colleges might want to snag you for their team. Then go to the website of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (ncaa.org) to learn about the (relatively) complex recruiting process. Cut your coach some slack, and remember that he or she can help, but it’s your job to get college coaches’ attention with your mad skills.

Surf. But beware of sharks: You don’t need to pay a website to churn out lists of scholarships that meet your skill set and interests. The top free sites include fastweb.com, scholarships.com, collegeboard.com and petersons.com.

Ask the ‘rents. Religious organizations, unions, clubs and businesses run scholarship programs. Ask your mom and dad to check in with their human resources departments at work and with leaders of any other organizations they belong to.

Find ways to serve. Service-based scholarship programs give stipends to students who commit to ongoing volunteer work at their colleges and in the surrounding communities. The Bonner Program is an example; learn more at bonner.org.

Invest wisely. It’s going to take you a while to apply for these scholarships. (Did you really think someone was just going to hand you a check?) You probably have to prioritize, so invest your time in scholarships that meet at least one of these criteria: renewable, local, related to your area of interest or skill set, offered through one of your top-choice schools, or offered through an organization or business to which you or your parents are connected.

Apply. Seriously. Spend a few hours every week applying for scholarships, and you won’t feel overwhelmed. Don’t skip the apps with essays; fewer students apply for those awards because most students believe essays are a pain in the you-know-what. Remember: Someone has to win those awards; why shouldn’t it be you?

Consider this:

If it takes you four hours to apply for a $1,000 scholarship, and you win, that means you earned $250 an hour. Not too shabby for a kid who doesn’t even have a college degree yet.