With college costs on a seemingly unstoppable rise and the student loan bubble predicted to burst at any time, most parents with students approaching college-age can only fantasize about sending their kids to school at little or no cost. But what if it really was possible to score a full college education for free—courtesy of ample financial aid and scholarships—without bankrupting well-meaning moms and dads or saddling new grads with debilitating debt?
For Kristina Ellis, author of Confessions of a Scholarship Winner: The Secrets That Helped Me Win $500,000 in Free Money For College, that was her reality.
During a fateful conversation with her mother on the first day of her freshman year in high school, Ellis was told that she should prepare to cover college costs on her own. But she was given the assurance that, if she worked hard enough, she could make it happen.
Ellis channeled that encouragement, packaged it with mega doses of determination and persistence, and secured over $500,000 in scholarships—more than enough to cover her education at Vanderbilt University, her dream school.
But even more shocking than the half-million-dollar turn of events is Ellis’ own admission that she had “average test scores and less-than-perfect grades”—certainly not the prototypical scholarship applicant. She has since made countless television appearances, written articles and spoken to parents and students across the country in efforts to help others understand that thousands of dollars of free college money is within their reach, too. Here, Ellis sheds light on the scholarship application process and shares what impresses award committees the most.
Smarty Cents: What is the biggest change in the scholarship process since a time when parents were heading off to college, 20-plus years ago?
Kristina Ellis: Technology has made the scholarship search so much easier. There are over 1.5 million scholarships awarded every year. Rather than having to flip through hundreds of pages in a book, online scholarship databases like Scholarships.com and CollegeGreenLight.com take your background information (like where you’re from, the activities you’re involved in and your future ambition) and use it to match you with scholarships that fit you.
There’s even a great new app out called Scholly that will allow you to easily search for scholarships on your phone. While I still highly recommend scholarship database books (available in bookstores and libraries), technology has given students many more resources to simplify the process.
SC: What are the three MOST important components of a successful scholarship application?
KE: Content. The track record and credentials you’ve developed throughout high school are fundamental to your application’s success. I recommend students start thinking through college and scholarship applications as soon as possible so they have plenty of time to get involved and build the foundation of their resume.
Your story. Filling out a scholarship application is all about telling your story. In a few short pages, the judges are trying to learn the story of who you are, where you’ve come from and where you’re going. Most judges don’t ever get to meet you in person, so you’ve got to clearly present what’s so great about you in the limited space you have. The great thing about effectively sharing your story is that it helps the judges create a personal connection with you that can make you memorable and help you stand out from all the other applicants.
The details. In most scholarship applications, you only have a few pages to get your point across. When your opportunity to share is very small, the details are huge. Your content may be fantastic and your story engaging, but spelling errors, incorrect punctuation and awkward wording can easily stand between you and a $50,000 award for college. Careless mistakes can send red flags to scholarship committees, signaling a lack of commitment to the process or just plain laziness. While multiple edits and revisions may seem tedious, it’s worth putting in the extra effort—especially since there are thousands of dollars on the line.
SC: What is the one aspect of the scholarship process that students and parents tend to emphasize that just isn’t that important? And where should they focus more of their efforts?
KE: A lot of students and parents get really wrapped up in worrying about the competition. Yes, it can be discouraging to hear your classmates talk about their high GPAs and how well they did on their SATs, especially if your scores aren’t as high. But take it from someone who had average test scores and less-than-perfect grades: don’t let this distract you from your goal!
Developing your application is like a competition against yourself. Do the absolute best you can do to prepare to win scholarships, recognizing that scholarship judges look for a variety of factors in winners and that no two scholars are exactly the same. Rather than worrying about other students who are applying for scholarships, put that extra effort into preparing yourself for success.
SC: What role does social media play in securing scholarships?
KE: Though not often clearly stated in applications, a student’s online presence is becoming an increasingly influential factor in scholarship selection. You can tell the judges all about how wonderful you are in your application, but if they find drunken photos, profanity and rude comments all over your social media profiles, what are they going to believe? Your attitude, your photos, the words you use and the friends you associate with all constitute your online persona. Failing to care about the image you are portraying online can silently cost you in the application process.
SC: What advice do you have for a student who has limited time to apply for scholarships?
KE: Before you start applying for scholarships, it’s important to do your research and figure out which ones fit you best. From that research, create an ordered list of scholarships you want to apply for based on how strongly you feel your chances for success are with each possibility. Then, you should start working your way down that list. This format is fitting regardless of how much time you have.
I do encourage students to challenge themselves to make more time for the scholarship process if they can. When I was in high school, I was really active and didn’t have a lot of unscheduled time, so I chose to spend several Friday nights in the library, working on applications. Even though it was a sacrifice, I knew how badly my family needed the assistance for college, and it was worth the extra effort.
SC: What about students who may be lacking in a particular area—like grades or extracurricular activities, for example? How can they make up for weak areas on their application?
KE: In my book, I discuss a concept I call range and intensity. I use the word range to describe the amount and variety of activities a student has participated in. Intensity, on the other hand, is how deeply involved and accomplished the applicant is within his or her activities. Having a strong blend of both range and intensity is ideal in scholarship applications because together they can close any gaps on applications that might otherwise reveal weaknesses.
Print off applications for scholarships you know you want to pursue and work through their different elements and essay questions to define areas where you are lacking. Whether you have a gap in range or intensity in any category, think through the steps you can take to improve each area. Which organizations, sports and activities can you become involved in to fill in the gaps before you graduate? This is a great way to minimize your weaknesses and highlight your strengths to scholarship committees.
SC: You started preparing for the scholarship process your freshman year of high school. What advice do you have for students who are a bit behind, who may not be starting to apply until junior or senior year?
KE: Really commit to the process and dive in today. The majority of scholarships are awarded senior year, so you still have time to make a meaningful impact and a strong impression on scholarship judges.
For more on Kristina Ellis and Confessions of a College Scholarship Winner, visit www.kristinaellis.com.