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How I won $100,000+ in college scholarships

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A few weeks ago, a friend of mine asked for advice on getting scholarships for college, so I wrote her an email with my thoughts.

But then I realized that this advice is applicable to almost anything entrepreneurial. Getting scholarships involves being proactive, being persistent, building an infrastructure to scale and do more than most ordinary people, and then still being uncertain about whether you’ll get rewarded or not.

Below, then, is my original email answer — with a twist. I went through my entire archives on personal entrepreneurship (80+ articles!) and linked to the best articles to illustrate each point.

Original email:

When you get a chance, will you scribble down a few resources Angela can start looking into for college scholarship opportunities? No rush, just want to give her a few ideas.

My response (plus links):

Sure.

First, just something I noticed: A lot of people hope they get “a scholarship” for college. I’d suggest thinking about it as “I hope I get a bunch of scholarships” because $500 here and $1,000 there can really add up. Applying to lots and lots of relevant scholarships was what worked for me.

Here’s what I’d recommend. Go to your high school’s career center. Most of them keep a list of scholarships, sorted by date. Apply to every single one that’s relevant. After you exhaust your school’s, call up other high schools and ask them if you can go in there and talk to them and see what scholarships might apply to you. They’ll love this because no one ever goes to seek out scholarships. When I was in high school, I ended up applying to about 60 scholarships — all from my career center — and got a bunch of money for school.

For applying, you’ll need to write a few essays for different apps, but after the first 4-5, you’ll probably be able to cut/paste into other applications. That’s when it gets really fun and you can do 1-2 applications per day. Most of the apps will ask for your transcript, recommendations, and an essay (or a few short essays). You’ll want to think of the message you want to send in these materials — a lot of people just submit bland recommendations / essays that say “I am smart!” but everyone does that and it’s lame. For me, I took the entrepreneurship / business angle. What’s your angle? Make sure you tell recommenders what you want them to highlight by giving them your resume and a few key points that they should touch on in their recommendations. Most will be happy to do this.

Also, go to a bookstore or library and pick up their annual scholarship book. Kaplan has a good one that’s updated every year. Again, apply to every relevant scholarship.

Finally, talk to your friends and parents and parents’ friends. Lots of them have college scholarships at their companies. For example, my sister worked at Kaiser, which offered a college scholarship to relatives of Kaiser employees. My mom is a teacher and there’s a California Teachers Union scholarship.

Don’t bother with Fastweb.com. It’s online so there are 2358234 billion people using it, and nobody wins anything from it. Also, don’t ever pay to enter a scholarship.

What I found were a few keys to getting scholarships: Nobody applies, so you have a good chance if you just apply; write a really good essay and have lots of people proofread it (I’m happy to help if you want); know that you can control how good your recommendations are by giving them material and making it easier for them; and interviewing well (more on that once you get the interviews, which I’m sure you will).

Let me know how I can help. If you want advice on essays, interviewing, or anything else, just give me a call at (XXX) XXX-XXXX or email any time.

Good luck!

-Ramit

As I wrote here, it’s crazy the way people think about scholarships. They don’t apply, and 2-4 years later, they regret how much debt they’re in. And, just like with personal finances, you don’t have to be the smartest person in the room — you just have to get started. Scholarships are a proxy for everything entrepreneurial.

If you’ve read to the bottom of this, and you want to do something entrepreneurial, try doing one simple step today. Not tomorrow, not after you finish that midterm, today. Take someone out to lunch. Send an email. Ask someone a question. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be today.

Curious about my specific techniques? See my post with more detail on the specific essay that helped me secure a large scholarship.

[Update]: Some notable comments from this post:

“Great advice! That’s how I won more than $100,000 in scholarships for my entire college education.”

“…I decided I’d take your advice and just do it and I was awarded a small amount with almost no effort on my part.”

“I also second going and talking to your financial aid office once you get to school. Just by asking for money, I got 17k over 2 years.”

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28 Comments

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  1. Ramit,

    Great thoughts on the subject. I was just approached by a friend looking for similar info. I’ll pass this post along to her.

    One thing I found during college was that many people don’t actually go after scholarships once they’re admitted. If you just sit down with your financial aid person and ask them what is available, they’ll probably be able to place you with a scholarship.

    If you don’t ask, you don’t get.

    - David

  2. I did get one scholarship through fastweb–they pointed me a state one I was eligible for. But I wouldn’t advise spending more than an hour a week looking through their choices.

    As it was, applied for scholarships and got 4. They were equal to about $23,250 per year. Which almost covered my degree. My parents paid for the rest as long as I got grades to keep the scholarships up (best one required 3.6 GPA).

  3. Great advice! That’s how I won more than $100,000 in scholarships for my entire college education.

  4. Great advice! I will pass it along to my sister-in-law.

    I also second going and talking to your financial aid office once you get to school. Just by asking for money, I got 17k over 2 years.

  5. Great post!

    I’m a scholarship kid myself.
    Got a full scholarship all through school.
    The biggest one I landed was for volunteer work
    so no, you don’t have to be the sharpest pencil in the box
    or a super star athlete
    (I was neither).

    And yes, most people don’t apply.
    The odds and payoff is better than the lottery.

  6. This is how I paid for college with only minimal debt when I graduated. I discovered a couple things during the process.

    Even if tuition is paid for, still get more scholarships. You have to pay for books, equipment, supplies, room and board in addition to tuition. Also, if you use scholarships for non-academic expenses (some can be used for room and board), they are taxed, so make sure to set aside money for that.

    If you get a bunch of small, one year or one semester scholarships, keep applying all through school. Every $500 check helps.

    Apply for Federal aid, even if you don’t think you’ll get anything. You may be surprised, especially if a parent gets laid off or you get a medical condition.

    Finally, just even applying may get you something. Like Ramit said, your odds are great, even if you’re not the smartest, most athletic, or you don’t volunteer hours and hours every week.

  7. Greetings,

    Good advice regarding the scholarships. I agree that there are similarities applicable to other endeavors, including entrepreneurship. In fact, the harder the process is for applying for a specific scholarship, the better chance you have since less people will even try to apply. The reality is that those that need the help the most end up not getting it because they lack the resources or aren’t able to network as the more privileged. Ultimately if you have the drive and realize that you can’t win every time, you have greater chance of succeeding, whether it is obtaining scholarships or starting your own business.

  8. To what extent does this apply to Business School? If my company doesn’t help pay, how can I earn money for B-school?

  9. Ramit,

    Yet another fantastic post. The thing I love the most about I will teach you to be rich is all of the fantastic content that you have posted. I do believe I can look up information on just about any subject relating to personal finance on your site and find it.

    This scholarship post I found especially true as I’ve never tried to apply for scholarships up until this semester but I decided I’d take your advice and just do it and I was awarded a small amount with almost no effort on my part. Keep up the good work!

  10. [...] from I will Teach You to be Rich, shares an email he recently sent to a friend detailing tips and hints for getting scholarships. The advice is great and for those of you getting your children prepped for school or the high [...]

  11. I have to agree wholeheartedly, I walked into my Financial Aid office at college, and they had a handful of scholarships that nobody applied because there really wasn’t much advertising. I was able to get a year and a half tuition paid because of those scholarships, so it’s worth the visit!

  12. Ramit:

    Excellent post. I applied for scholarships, had some success at it. However, I regret not applying for more – as it seems to be part skill, part luck, and a lot about volume/numbers of apps. They do say that a lot of the money that is available goes unused each year because people don’t apply.

    Had I decided to spend less time hanging out and a little more time knocking out a few 500 word essays, I might not have $10K in loan debt hanging over me like a proverbial Sword of Damocles.

  13. [...] only one scholarship when you can apply for 60? Ramit Sethi of I Will Teach You To Be Rich offers a primer for finding and getting lots of college scholarships. Many high school students don’t make the effort, so they’re out there for the taking. Apply for [...]

  14. I will always regret not applying for more scholarships. While the automatic ones awarded by the state and my state university cover my tuition as well as room and board, I still pay for books by myself. I did apply for one scholarship within my department at school this year. I haven’t heard back on whether I got it or not, but I was so proud of myself for even applying.

  15. Important point: start when your child is in the 9th grade!

    Your kid will need a resume, with all those extracurricular activities and service hours, so start now to just keep a running tab. Every accomplishment: sports team, debate team, horse riding ribbons, arts camps attended. Everything that means civics or activity or helping or joining sounds good.

    At the beginning of junior year, massage that into a resume. At our kids’ high school, the counselors start hitting the kids and parents with scholarship info at the beginning of senior year, but that’s too late really. Visit the FAFSA site and find out how it works, so you can start researching the scholarships listed there. When you see the requirements, and how many need an essay, you’ll be happy you developed that resume, because that’s the basis of your “why I deserve this scholarship” speech.

    Don’t think that whatever your major is is unlikely to have scholarships. As I was researching for my older daughter (heading into engineering) I spotted stuff like a society of women engineers with a scholarship. I spotted scholarships for people going into welding (not trade school, college). There’s all kinds out there, and many go unawarded every year.

    We lucked out, my wife stumbled across a fellowship that was new and our daughter qualified. We had to get all over her to do the work and apply, but she got it and her college is paid for. One down, one to go…

  16. I couldn’t agree more with your thoughts on this! I applied to over 30 scholarships and won over $75,000 towards school. I truly believe that I only won some of them because so few people applied! For instance, one scholarship was offered by a local company and only advertised it in a coupon newspaper called “The Penny Saver”. I doubt hardly anyone else saw it, or bothered to apply!

  17. Do you have any advice for some who dropped out of high school to get their GED and join the work force? I would love to go to college but the cost of it is so daunting and it doesn’t seem like much help is available in my situation.

  18. Laura — I can’t vouch for B-school, but you might be surprised to see what a simple request can do at your school’s financial aid office.

    When my sister first got accepted to medical school (both notoriously expensive and scholarship stingy), she wrote a one-page request to her school’s scholarship committee asking them to kick in a little bit more money on top of the financial aid package she had already received.

    She was quite honest in her letter, which explained how our parents were helping her pay for school at the same time that they were helping our pay for his college education. The letter also highlighted her academic acheivements and requested that they look over her case and see if they could help her our any more.

    She didn’t think much would come of it since many of the school’s scholarship funds were already given out (she sent it in July), so we were all pretty suprised when they answered with an extra one-time $3000 scholarship. I guess it never hurts to ask!

  19. looking back, i wish i applied to more scholarships in college. i think i applied to one or two and didn’t get anything. :oP i remember once a friend was talking about applying to one but said it wasn’t worth the effort cuz she didn’t stand a chance anyway and i was like oh pshhh whatever, just apply anyway, and she ended up getting the scholarship.
    actually i think she’s the one who told me about your site. totally unrelated, but yeah.

  20. Great post. I will send to my little sis. She’s only in 7th grade, but this post I suspect will be valuable to her a couple of years from now.

  21. [...] Also, it’s not that difficult. There’s no interest and no payback on these. Solid Gold. Ramit Sethi does a nice job of harping on this [...]

  22. [...] I Will Teach You To Be Reach – You have to love fellow entrepreneurs… [...]

  23. Great advices.
    However I do not live in USA.
    Any ideas or advices how to get some scholarships internationally?

  24. I agree much with what Ramit has to say sans the FastWeb comment. Although I agree that it can be somewhat harder to win with FastWeb, the same sentiment can be applied to it as regular “offline” scholarships: no one applies! I only applied to 6 scholarships via FastWeb post H.S. graduation and I won 2. I won a $1K from BestBuy and then I won another from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation which actually turned out to meet “all unmet financial need.” In other words, a full ride! It was called the Gates Millennium Scholars Program.

    Sure, one could say I was lucky and randomly fortunate but when it comes to being rich, you just can’t rule out any possibilities.

  25. [...] out Ramit’s Guide: Here’s a guide that can help you find many scholarships that go [...]

  26. This is super awesome advice. I should apply for more scholarships before it’s too late. i grad from high school May 23, and I’m supposed to start college in the fall. I’m really going to try to apply to more scholarships outside of web-based scholarships–as you mentioned fast web is horrible! And you are very correct, no ever wins those. I’m only going to apply to two more on fast web then I’m done. Also, I attend a magnet school so my school doesn’t offer scholarships to students unless they are in magnet, ROTC, or band. Our counselors are not really there to help students look for scholarships–hence, our career advisor send all students to fast-web, which is basically false hope. I really don’t know where to start because I can’t really go to other high schools–there’s only two other schools and they both use fast web as a primary source for scholarships. I’m really running out of ideas.

  27. One great thing that you make clear in your blog is that you are very engaged and without hesitation, go the extra mile to provide resources. While other bloggers are whining, you are doing. It’s a great read and I only wish I learned about it earlier (how about before the napkin contest).

    Awesome job, Ramit.

    Rachel

  28. [...] Here’s my 10-second background so you know where I’m coming from: I grew up in a middle-class family with immigrant parents and 3 other siblings, got into Stanford (where I completed my undergraduate and graduate studies), and secured hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarships. [...]