USING free Internet search services that are supported by advertiser funding, you can get information on virtually all the private sector scholarships out there. Granted, there?s not much -- a mere $1.2 billion -- relative to the $50 billion in government and institutional awards you?ll get access to just by sending your financial aid applications to Johnny?s favorite colleges. But if he is selected, you may find a few thousand dollars that could make the difference between Johnny?s first and second college choices.

Our favorite sites are Fastweb.com and Collegenet.com. They offer essentially the same information as the charlatans who charge anywhere from $50 to $250 per search. Keep in mind, though, that private scholarships are a long shot. A slim 3.3% of undergrads who apply for private sector aid actually land some. That compares with 75% of those who apply for government and institutional aid.

All the free scholarship-search Web sites operate the same way. You answer multiple-choice questions relating to your grades, extracurricular activities and interests and your family?s military status, ethnicity and professional and religious affiliations. Click the "Search" button, and a list of scholarship prospects with links to more detailed descriptions, including deadline and contact information, appears.

Financial Aid Search Through the Web (FASTWEB) is the oldest scholarship search service online and, in our opinion, the best. Its daily-updated database of 180,000 private sector and school-specific scholarships from 3,200 sponsors represents approximately $1 billion in aid.

For our fictional baseball-playing high school senior from New York State with a 4.0 GPA and one parent a veteran of the Korean War, Fastweb dug up 12 scholarships worth a potential $61,000. Here?s a sample.

? Amvets National Scholarship Program, $1,000 Requirements: Must be the child of an American Veteran, a U.S. citizen and high school graduate who exhibits financial need, has strong academic performance and is involved in extracurricular activities.

? Discover Card Tribute Award Scholarship Program, $1,250 to $20,000 Requirements: Current high school juniors with a minimum GPA of 2.75. Special talents, extra-curricular and community activities and unique endeavors are considered.

? U. Magazine/Nike Scholarships, $1,000 Requirements: Must be an undergraduate with a minimum GPA of 3.0, be able to demonstrate financial need and be a participant in outdoor sports.

This is the only free site that lets you narrow the search field by specifying a minimum dollar amount. Like FastWeb, Mach25 prints out form letters to help you request official applications from the scholarship sponsors. Unlike FastWeb, you?ll have to fill in your own letter body.

We used the same criteria as our first search, retrieving a mammoth 1,122 award prospects. So we went back to the first screen and reworked our search to exclude school specific awards and to include only those awards starting at $1,000. This time we pulled up a more manageable nine scholarships. It was a totally different list than the one supplied by Fastweb, implying that it is best to check for scholarships on both sites. One example: the Robert C. Byrd Honors Scholarship Program which awards $1,500 to 400 high school seniors from New York state in high academic standing.