“I applied for that?” That’s how Julia Isabel Martinez Rivera felt after receiving a $20,000 scholarship from Chegg.
She had written so many essays and clicked submit so many times that she’d lost track of all the awards she applied for. (She was also surprised because the textbook company showed up on her doorstep with a jumbo check.)
“I’d applied for so many,” says Julia, “that I’d forgotten I’d even applied for that one.”
After all, the University of California-Berkeley junior secured more than $50,000 total in scholarships for college students, plus grants, before her third year on campus. She only resorted to federal student loans once she maxed out her gift aid allotment.
Here are four helpful takeaways from her experience.
1. Start applying now if you haven’t already
Julia, 20, learned about the importance of scholarships for college students when she was in the eighth grade. She participated in a summer program called AVID, which gave her the college knowledge her parents couldn’t provide; they both attended school in the Philippines.
She started applying for scholarships, one at a time, online and off. Fastweb was an early favorite tool to find scholarships.
“Don’t stick to one website; search for a bunch,” she advises. “Even the little scholarships, $100, $200. If it requires a little bit of work, go for it. Because most people won’t apply.”
In addition to scholarships, Julia sought California grants to help cover expenses beyond tuition. She secured Cal Grant A, which helps students pay for tuition and fees at four-year colleges. (For the 2016-2017 school year, the value was $12,240.)
After filling out the FAFSA, which takes a hard look at your family’s income, Julia found she was eligible for additional help. “I was surprised that I got a lot [of aid] because my dad makes more than average,” she explained.
2. Share your story without worrying about how it’ll measure up
The five-digit Chegg award that Julia received was based on limited information about herself. She was tasked with condensing her story into a simple, straightforward application. It comprised her grades and extracurriculars, but not much else.
“I literally listed every single thing I’d been doing with my time,” she says.
It’s not uncommon to apply for scholarships without writing an essay. Scholly, a scholarship search tool, and CommonBond, a top-rated lender, recently awarded a $10,000 scholarship to a student. The winner had provided little more than his email.
Other scholarships for current college students may require applicants to submit an essay. Julia wrote her fair share.
“Stay true to what you say,” she says. “Some people say a really dramatic story will get you the money. Although that can be true, be honest about your story.
“I know a lot of students talk about financial struggles. I was honest about it: I didn’t have any financial struggles growing up.”
Instead, Julia told the tale of breaking and displacing the tibia and fibula in her right leg during a school basketball game. She mentioned small details, such as the snapping sound caught on video, and larger life lessons she learned.
By not worrying about how donors would receive her essays, Julia was able to talk honestly about what mattered most to her.
3. Ace your scholarship interviews
If you’re fortunate enough, you may be invited to apply for specific scholarships without having to find them yourself.
This happened to Julia before she even stepped on Berkeley’s campus. Her college acceptance letter encouraged her to schedule an in-person interview for the school’s prestigious Regents’ and Chancellor’s Scholarship.
Visibly nervous, the then-teenaged Julia told her interviewer about her desire to major in landscape architecture and connect her study to sustainable design in developing countries. That’s when her interviewer asked her to talk about another passion.
Julia quickly returned to her love of sports.
“One of the main things that helped me get chosen was my martial arts background,” says Julia, who took self-defense classes in the sixth grade before ultimately learning and competing in jiu-jitsu, karate, and kickboxing. “That was one thing I talked a lot about in my interview. I was just me. She really enjoyed that and said she liked talking to me.”
The conversation netted Julia $8,000 for each year of her university tenure. It wasn’t a full-tuition scholarship, but it furthered her goal of covering the approximate $14,000 of in-state tuition.
4. Stand out by pursuing your interests
If there’s one thing Julia has learned from racking up so much gift aid, it’s that being yourself on and off campus is the way to go. Decision-makers in charge of scholarships are often on the lookout for well-rounded students who live out their interests.
Julia, for one, is now a member of Cal’s women’s boxing team. Last summer, she traveled to a village in Ghana to help build a water treatment center. She is not one to sit on her hands.
According to her, she’d been that way since she was a teen. One of her first scholarships, a $1,500 award from her high school, came as a result of her club advisor nominating her for the school’s student of the year award.
There’s only one problem with landing so many scholarships. You could find yourself, as Julia did, maxing out your gift aid allotment. You may also have to pay taxes on the scholarships.
What would Julia have done without all the scholarships?
“Loans, for sure,” says Julia, who has taken out Federal Direct Unsubsidized Loans to cover some of her non-tuition expenses. “My parents wanted me to focus on school and not work, but without scholarships that wouldn’t have been possible.”
No matter where you are in financing your next year of school, take Julia’s tips into account. Be proactive by applying for as many scholarships as you can. If you’re actively searching for scholarships for college students, start with Student Loan Hero’s $1,000 award.
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