How to Graduate from College Debt-Free

Guide to scholarships

You don’t have to be a mega-genius or stumble upon a six-figure inheritance to pay your way through school (though those certainly don’t hurt). In fact, I did it. Yup, me. A regular, run-of-the-mill girl whose first car came from a place called Clunkerland and cost less than half of my classmate’s Dooney & Burke purses (those were really coveted back then, okay?).

BTW, the image above is how you’ll feel when you graduate. You may only be able to make it rain with Monopoly money, but that’s a heck of a lot better than the crushing monthly payments to Loan Collector X.

Here are the two most critical elements:

1. Make scholarship searching your part-time job during the spring semester.

You’ve already stacked your classes to give you Fridays off, so make use of it. If you’re going to be poolside, take your laptop or tablet with you. If you have classes every day of the week, just find an afternoon to devote to the cause. Just one a week. I’m only asking for 4 1/2 hours of your time. For me, those 4 1/2 hours meant an extra $6,000-$10,000 per year. Compare that to the $506.25 I would’ve made before taxes during that same time frame. Sold? Read on.

Work in 90-minute intervals (the New York Times says you’ll accomplish more that way with less burnout!), with a little break in between to do something that relaxes you: an episode of Family Guy, a manicure, whatever. Devote the first 90 minutes to looking for opportunities and organizing them by due date. For the second two sets, apply for whatever’s coming up soonest. Take each application one at a time, so your attention isn’t fragmented across a bunch of half-completed apps.

2. Think of the scholarship search like those Russian nesting dolls.

Simply logging onto a scholarship search engine like Fastweb can be daunting. There are so many results. Where to begin? And what if they all lead to nowhere? You’ll collect money a lot faster if you start making your scholarship opportunities pool a bit narrower — and more tailored to you.

If you’re thinking, “WTF?! I want all the monies, Candace! All the monies I can get!” I say, hold up Gollum.

It may sound counterintuitive, but when you narrow it down, you’re finding the scholarships that are looking for people JUST LIKE YOU, so you’re way more likely to scoop them up. That’s what I mean by “Russian nesting dolls” (or Matryoshka, if you’re proper like that) — write on a sheet of paper the potential scholarship opportunities that are available to you at your university, then narrow it to ones that exist within your major or field of study. Then create a bubble for ones that pertain to any extracurriculars or sports you’re a part of. On another sheet of paper, do the same thing for your community.

Think of your city (and its Elks Lodges and Rotary Clubs and other professional organizations; your parents don’t have to be members!), local businesses (example: Burger King franchises give away scholarships), then think of where your parents work. Many companies offer internal scholarships or are affiliated with industry groups that have special scholarships available to students. (Every year, I wrote a 1,500-word research paper for the Florida Swimming Pool Association, because my grandmother owned a pool company. That $1,200 to $1,600 award made a huge difference in my quality of life — and education.)

Sure, most of the scholarships will be for $250, $500, or $1,000, but those add up fast. Plus, if you can earn in one 4 1/2-hour session what you’d make in a whole semester working minimum wage, isn’t it beyond worth it?


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1 Comment

  1. […] On a high from filling out those applications? Why stop there? Check out our guide to graduating from college debt-free to find the best scholarship opportunities …. […]

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