Kristina Ellis Won Over $500,000 in Scholarships -- Here's Her Advice for You

Kristina Ellis Won Over $500,000 in Scholarships -- Here's Her Advice for You

Many students pay for college through a combination of grants, loans, savings and help from parents or grandparents. Kristina Ellis took a different route. She won more than $500,000 in scholarships and used the money to fully fund her undergraduate education at Vanderbilt University and a master's degree from Belmont University, both in Nashville, Tennessee.

Ellis shared her scholarship advice and strategies in her first book, "Confessions of a Scholarship Winner." Her most recent book, "How to Graduate Debt-Free: The Best Strategies to Pay for College," takes a wider look at how college students can pay for an education without going into debt and offers additional scholarship tips.

While Ellis's success may be exceptional, there are scholarship opportunities available to almost every type of student. She shares a few lesser-known tips for finding, and winning, scholarships.

Start Early and Don't Stop

In many cases, the earlier you start the process the better. Ellis began learning about scholarship programs and what they look for in applicants during her freshman year of high school. By starting early, she had plenty of time to plan appropriately.

Creating a résumé, listing your activities and writing practice essays could help you identify strengths and gaps in your application. You can use this information to determine which scholarships you have the best chance of winning and what areas you might want to focus on improving in the future. There are many scholarship opportunities available to college students. Even if you're a high school senior, you have time to fill in gaps.

Do a Full Assessment of Your Extracurricular Activities

Try to identify several activities or experiences that you'll want to share in scholarship applications. Ellis suggests thinking of your extracurricular activities in terms of range and intensity.

"Range is the amount and variety of activities, and intensity is how involved you are," she says. "Having a blend is ideal."

Do an honest assessment of where you are and your interests. Consider what makes you happy or excited, what you might want to study in the coming years and potential careers. Then try to find opportunities that allow you to explore those interests while building your résumé.

"Leadership experience is always great because scholarship programs love to invest in the next generation of leaders," says Ellis.

Try to think outside of the box if you're struggling to list extracurriculars on a scholarship application. Perhaps you worked in your family business, cleaned up your neighborhood after a natural disaster or helped organize an event at your school. Explain why you did the work, obstacles you had to overcome and the results of your efforts.

Broaden Your Scholarship Search

There are millions of scholarships available, but you might get frustrated if your first search attempt isn't fruitful.

"I encourage students to try at least five databases," says Ellis. You might get different results depending on the database or find one is easier to use than another.

Look for scholarship lists or opportunities at local libraries, the Chamber of Commerce and nonprofit organizations. You can also ask a high school guidance counselor or college financial aid office for suggestions on where to find scholarships that align with your experience. Keep in mind that local opportunities are sometimes easier to win because they might not attract as many applicants.

Build Your Target List

Create a list of best-fit scholarships while conducting your searches. These should be scholarships that you have a chance of winning, perhaps because of your background, interests or experience. Applying for many smaller best-fit scholarships could result in a bigger payoff than spending your time on a few large scholarships. However, you could also include a few more competitive high-value scholarships if you think the potential reward is worth the effort.

Get to Know a Scholarship Program Before Applying

Ellis advises students to try to figure out why an organization is giving away a scholarship and who their ideal applicant is.

"Keep this in mind, and you can tailor your application to stand out,"she says.

For example, if you're applying for a technology company's scholarship, you'll likely want to write about how technology has impacted your life or a technology-related volunteer experience.

Sweep Your Online Presence

While your social media posts might not be the first thing a scholarship judge checks, they could be the deciding factor in who wins. Search for your name online and check your social media profiles for potentially inappropriate material and delete it.

Sweat the Details

You won't always meet the criteria for a scholarship, which is why it's important to read all the requirements. You don't want to spend hours on an application only to find out you're disqualified based on your GPA or proposed major. When the judges are considering thousands of applicants, even seemingly little things, like going over the word count limit on the essay, could make a difference.

Go through your application several times before submitting it and make sure you answered every question. If you don't have a relevant response, you could fill in "not applicable." In some cases, leaving an answer blank might disqualify you.

You can ask teachers, parents, relatives or others to review your applications. Try to give them plenty of time - ideally weeks, not days - to get their comments back to you.

Stay Organized and Keep Applying

By taking an organized and strategic approach to your scholarship application process, you could substantially increase your chances of winning money for college. Apply for good-fit scholarships now and take on new responsibilities or activities that'll make you a stronger candidate in the future. Continue searching for and applying to scholarships throughout your high school and college years. There are millions of scholarship opportunities available and some may be looking for applicants just like you.

Did You Know?

Search 3 million scholarships worth more than $18 billion using our Free Scholarship Search