Ben Waxman didn't throw touchdowns, score points for the debate team or get anywhere near student government during his senior year of high school.
In fact, he skipped many of the pursuits seen as likely to get an applicant noticed by a college awards committee.
Yet even without a boatload of Advanced Placement courses under his belt, or a perfect SAT score, the Philadelphia native with generally good grades won a full-ride scholarship to Juniata College worth almost $144,000.
How did he do it?
Turns out his passion for immersing himself in various social movements -- from a statewide campaign to boost the minimum wage to peaceful anti-war protests in Philadelphia -- resonated on the 130-year-old campus whose founders championed pacifism and community causes.
The school awarded him its Service and Peacemaking Scholarship, a renewable award for up to four years covering tuition, room, board and books. It's intended to nurture the young man's promise as a organizer of activist campaigns.
"It was pretty surprising," said Mr. Waxman, 21, who participated in his first rally at age 14. "My parents were really happy about it."
Though not everyone knows where to look for them, scholarships are out there for students who hold special talents in all sorts of areas, from music and math to horseback riding.
Most are open to anyone, based on such criteria as good essay skills, strong acting ability or mathematical promise. Others have bizarre restrictions, such as the four-year scholarship to Loyola University Chicago that is open only to Catholic students whose last name is "Zolp."
The awards can be as modest as a stipend covering a semester's worth of books, or as large as the full-pay award that went to Mr. Waxman, now a senior studying politics on the Huntingdon County campus. Some are limited to returning students, while others are open to incoming freshmen as well.
The University of Pittsburgh-Mellon Jazz Scholarship provides $5,000 toward tuition for a new or returning undergraduate demonstrating promise in jazz. The recipient this year was sophomore Frank Velardo, whose audition tape of jazz standards passed muster with a panel of internationally recognized musicians.
Carnegie Mellon University's Judith Resnik Challenger Scholarship -- named for the graduate killed in the 1986 space-shuttle disaster -- pays half the school's tuition for four years (a value of roughly $16,000 to $17,000 annually) to a student who demonstrates pioneering spirt, achievement and is pursuing computer science, engineering or science.
Muhlenberg College in Allentown offers an award of up to $4,000 for visual arts, based on a review of the student's portfolio.
College of Wooster in Ohio provides $9,000 to $15,000 annual awards based on achievement in the natural, physical, computer or mathematical sciences.
To better the odds of snagging one of these awards, experts offer advice that applies generally to the college search: Start early.
"You really should be applying in fall for the next year," said Patricia McCarthy, director of financial aid at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
She said parents should check with employers since many offer scholarships for children of workers. Civic and religious organizations are good sources of aid, too.
But be mindful of scams.
"I always tell parents to be cautious of any searches that cost money," Ms. McCarthy said. "If a letter comes in the mail and says $30 will guarantee you a scholarship of some kind, be wary."
So where to hunt?
Experts say free Internet searches using key words are one way to yield scholarships that might be a good fit. They also suggest talking to high school counselors or college admission and financial aid representatives on various campuses. Individual college Web sites also are a good source.
There are probably 1.3 million scholarships out there, according to FastWeb.com, a site that allows free searches for financial aid. Many of the awards are open to all qualified individuals, but some are pretty narrowly focused.
Loyola's Zolp Scholarship, whose dollar amount varies, dates to 1977 and honors the Rev. William Zolp, a diocesan priest who attended the school. Three students are currently receiving the award, having verified their last name on a birth certificate and confirmation certificate.
The Little People of America Scholarship is open to members of the support group no taller than 4 feet 10 inches, according to FastWeb. Not to be outdone, Tall Clubs International offers a $1,000 award for eligible women who are at least 5 foot 10 and men at least 6 foot 2.
There is a scholarship pegged to skateboarders. And there's even a scholarship at Bucknell University for students from Mount Carmel, Northumberland County, who do not use drugs, alcohol or tobacco habitually and "shall not participate in strenuous athletic contests."
Its creator, Joseph Deppen, an attorney and member of Bucknell's Class of 1900, wanted non-football players to get a shot at a college education, the school said.
Other scholarships cast a much wider net for recipients.
At Emory University in Atlanta, one outstanding debater in the incoming class can receive a full-tuition scholarship worth $32,100 that can be renewed. William Woods University in Fulton, Mo., has a renewable scholarship worth about $22,000 a year for returning students studying equestrian science.
Bill Schackner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1977.