She wasn't a top student or star athlete, but Kristina Ellis, 26, managed to earn half a million dollars in college scholarships by the time she graduated high school in 2005. She says you can, too.
"The first day of freshman year in high school my mom sat me down and basically said, 'Kristina, I love you and believe in you, but there's no way I can support you financially once you graduate from high school, so you're going to have to figure out your own way to pay for college,'" Ellis recounts.
That's all the then-13-year-old needed to hear to motivate her to find a way to afford her own future. Skipping college was not an option-- nor was taking out thousands in student loans. Ellis was determined to go for free, and did she ever. She scored $500,000 in free money that sent her to the prestigious Vanderbilt University for her Bachelor's degree. With the remaining money, she went on to pursue a Master's and is now setting her sights on a Ph.D.
"I wasn't a perfect student. I wasn't the star athlete, so I felt really inadequate when I started the scholarship application process," says Ellis. But she made it happen and is sharing her secrets in her new book, "Confessions of a Scholarship Winner."
It's Never Too Early
Ellis' top lesson is to start preparing early -- way early. Even though she couldn't apply yet for many scholarships, she began learning everything she could about the scholarship process in just the ninth grade.
Map Out a Plan to Impress
Even if a student's only interest is, say, video games, it's important to take a leadership role in that hobby by starting a club, creating a blog or building your own app to impress scholarship committees.
"I learned that judges are looking for students that are ultimately going to go on to make a difference and make an impact on the world," says Ellis. "There are a lot of different ways you can show that."
Ellis spent her four years in high school improving her grades and pursuing her passions, like taking over as coach of her old gymnastics team, growing it from two girls to 45 girls. She also created impressive opportunities for herself. "In high school I started a shoe drive where we shipped discarded shoes overseas. That actually only took a few hours a week but helped me stand out in my scholarship applications," she says.
On top of everything, she worked her way to being crowned Miss Indiana Teen USA.
"There was a $995 entry fee, so I held multiple car washes, sold raffle tickets and candy bars, and worked in the local watermelon fields to pay for it." These experiences lent themselves to award-winning scholarship essays.
Cast a Wide Net
And with those essays she cast a wide application net. Ellis's top resources were "The Ultimate Scholarship Book," the "Kaplan Scholarships," book, Fastweb.com and Scholarships.com.
In her senior year she applied for more than 40 scholarships, winning half of them, including the prestigious Coca-Cola and Gates Millennium Scholar awards. "Applying for a scholarship can be like the best job you ever had. If you win $10,000 and it took five hours to apply, that's a $2,000-an-hour job, "she calculates.
It's Never Too Late
For seniors who may be getting a late start to the application process, Ellis says to think back to what they've already achieved during high school, whether it's working a job for four years, helping to clean up the neighborhood after a storm or volunteering in the community. Those are the very activities that can shine in a scholarship application. And for the remaining time you have in school, start thinking of ways you can continue to build your resume. "Get involved in clubs and organizations and try to find little ways you can strengthen your application," she says.