Financial Literacy

How to Get College Scholarships in 2020 (+ mistakes to avoid)

College is by no means an easy feat. From the lengthy application process to entrance exams, it can be rough. Long story short, I did it, and you can too. I want to share the exact method I used to get over $100,000 in scholarship funds. You’re about to find out how to cultivate the winning mindset, how to find the best paying scholarships and my strategy for completing applications in as efficient a manner as possible.

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3 Steps to getting college scholarships

Other considerations for winning scholarships

Bonus: You can absolutely boost your income even if you’re in school! Learn how to start earning money on the side with my FREE Ultimate Guide to Making Money

Step 1: Adopt a scholarship application mindset

One thing I’ve noticed is that a lot of people just hope they get “a scholarship” for college.

Instead of hoping you get one scholarship, you need to reframe it to “I hope I get a LOT of scholarships.”

This is a mindset of abundance — and it’s incredibly important when you start applying for different scholarships.

Which means two things:

  1. Instead of hoping you get a huge scholarship or full ride, you need to apply to as many as possible. After all, $500 here and $1,000 there can really add up.
  2. Don’t get discouraged if you don’t get one you apply for. Scholarships are a numbers game, and many have only a handful of applicants.

Use every resource at your disposal — apply to any and all relevant scholarships you can find. Once you cast a wide net, you increase your chances of getting more money for school IMMENSELY.

Step 2: How to find scholarships that will pay thousands (and ones nobody applies for)

If you’re a high school student, you have a lot of scholarship resources available to you. They can be broken up into five areas:

  1. High school career centers
  2. Library and bookstore
  3. Scholarship search sites
  4. Ethnic organizations
  5. Friends and family

With these resources, you’ll be able to earn thousands of dollars in scholarship money. Here’s how:

High school career centers

First, go to your high school career center. If your high school doesn’t have a career center, your school’s counselor can help you with this too.

Most high school career centers keep an updated list of scholarships sorted by date. Go through this list and make note of every single scholarship that applies to you. You should literally be writing down the information for each one — you’ll need it when you actually start the application process.

Do this in a Google or Excel spreadsheet. When recording, I suggest you write down the scholarship name, the amount it’s worth, a due date, and whether or not you’ve applied yet.

When you put it together, here’s what it might look like:

Scholarship name What it’s worth Due date Applied
IWT Scholarship $2,500 05/16 Yes

Of course, you can be as detailed as you want with your spreadsheet and include things like GPA requirements and whether or not you need an essay.

Once you’ve exhausted your school’s list of scholarships, call up other high schools and ask them if you can go in and talk to them about what scholarships might apply to you.

That’s right. I want you to call up other high schools in your city to see what scholarships they have. They’ll actually LOVE this because no high schooler ever goes out of their way to get scholarships.

If you show just a little bit of initiative in your educational future, they’ll be more than happy to help you out. Do the exact same thing you did with your school’s scholarship resources and record all the ones relevant to you.

When I was in high school, I ended up applying for 60 scholarships from my high school’s career center — and earned thousands for college in the process.

Library and bookstore resources

Once you’re finished exhausting all of the scholarships from your high school, head to a bookstore or library and pick up the latest copy of an annual scholarship book.

These books are comprehensive catalogs of grants and scholarships you can earn as a high school student. They’re FANTASTIC resources if you’re looking to find cash for college.

Here’s a list of a few good scholarship books to look for:

  1. The Ultimate Scholarship Book 2020 by Gen Tanabe and Kelly Tanabe ($19.71)
  2. Scholarship Handbook 2018 by The College Board ($22.51)
  3. Scholarships, Grants & Prizes 2019 by Peterson’s ($24.09)

I’ve included the Amazon links here so you can check them out — but I highly suggest purchasing these at your local bookstore so you can get started ASAP!

Once you get the book, do what you did with your high school’s scholarship resources and make note of all the scholarships you’d like to apply for.

Scholarship search sites

Once you’ve looked at all the scholarships you can through the aforementioned resources, you can turn to different search engines and websites that can help you find scholarships.

Many of them even include features that allow you to search for specific criteria like:

  • School-specific scholarships
  • Amount of money earned
  • GPA requirements
  • Essay requirements

You can set up email alerts so that you are automatically notified when the sites find scholarships that fit your specific needs too.

Here are a few suggestions for great sites to help you look for scholarships:

Bonus:Becoming a great student is all about building good habits. If you want to learn how to build good habits and break bad ones, download my FREE Ultimate Guide to Habits

Ethnic organization scholarships

Ethnic organizations of all stripes tend to offer scholarships. These can help you earn hundreds — if not thousands — in scholarship money.

Many of these are ethnicity-based, meaning that you’ll have to be a certain race or background in order to qualify for the scholarship.

A few suggestions:

Of course, simply fitting the racial criteria for ethnicity-based scholarships isn’t enough. You’re going to have to knock the application out of the park (more on that later).

Friends and family

Talk to your friends, parents, and parents’ friends to see if they know of any scholarships.

There are a lot of companies that offer college scholarships — companies that the people you know work at. So ask around! Some of the best scholarships come from some of the most unexpected places.

When I was applying for scholarships, my sister was working at Kaiser — which offered a college scholarship to relatives of Kaiser employees.

My mom is a teacher and she knew about a scholarship offered through the California Teachers Union.

These are scholarships barely anyone applies to because many high schoolers simply don’t know to ask about them. So when you DO find out about one, you automatically have an advantage over everyone else.

If you feel odd about it, know that every person wants to help out a high schooler. They won’t think it’s “weird.” In fact, they’ll find it admirable.

Which brings us to my favorite part…

Step 3: The only scholarship application strategy worth doing 

Okay, so now you have your (hopefully) large list of possible scholarships to apply to.

The strategy is simple: It’s time to apply to ALL of them.

This might seem like an incredibly daunting task. After all, these applications generally require you to do two things:

  1. Send a letter of recommendation
  2. Write an essay (or a few short ones)

However, there’s an easier way to go about the process that doesn’t involve writing 60+ unique essays.

Don’t get me wrong: Each application is going to take time and a bit of nuance in order to create a compelling case for you that’ll have the reader clamoring to give you the scholarship money.

But you can make the process a lot more effective and simple if you just look at the letters of recommendation and essays.

Get letters of recommendations

Most high school students are afraid to ask for letters of recommendation. It’s a little bit awkward to ask a teacher or other trusted adult to write a glowing recommendation for you.

HOWEVER, if you were a good student and established a good relationship with your teachers, they’ll be more than happy to help you out with your letter of recommendation. Most students never do this so they’d be happy to help.

You’re going to want to approach it the same way I approach asking for a testimonial: politely and with the majority of the work done already.

When you reach out to your teacher for a letter of recommendation, you’ll want to give them several things:

  • A broad view of what you want them to highlight
  • 2-3 key points they should touch on (maybe it’s something specific to the scholarship?)
  • Your resume so they have a reference to your accomplishments

If you provide them practically everything they need, they’ll be more than happy to give you an awesome letter of recommendation. In fact, many teachers will just ask you to write a draft that they can edit and sign.

Write a college application essay that stands out

When it comes to writing an amazing scholarship essay, I’ve developed a highly complex intricate process of algorithms and systems that you need to follow EXACTLY if you want your writing to soar.

The steps are:

  1. Figure out what most students will write about
  2. Write something else

…and that’s it.

Why does this work? Most scholarship essays bore judges to tears.

Put yourself in the shoes of the person who will be reading your application — they’re going to be reading hundreds, maybe even THOUSANDS of these a day. And the fact of the matter is 99.99999% of the applications they read will be almost exactly the same.

Oh, you got good grades? You were in a bunch of extracurriculars? That mission trip you took to Honduras junior year was “life-changing”?

Get in line. What’s particularly unique about any of those things? Not a whole lot.

And if you fall into the same formula as everyone else, I guarantee you your application won’t get a second glance.

However, if you subvert the expectations of the scholarship judge, you’ll grab and hold onto their attention — allowing you to properly make your case.

To do that, you need to follow the aforementioned two steps.

First: Figure out what other students will write about

You’re sitting down at your laptop, the scholarship essay prompt is in front of you, and you’re ready to dive in.

Before you write a single word…STOP!

Think about the other people applying for the exact same scholarship — what are THEY going to be writing about?

What’s the easy answer to the prompt…and how can you subvert that?

Back when I was applying, I had one essay prompt that asked, “If you could have dinner with anyone, living or dead, who would it be and why?”

Classic prompt. So I started thinking.

Nelson Mandela? Meh…that would be the “logical” choice. And to be honest, dinner with Mandela wouldn’t be the most exciting thing for a 17-year-old kid.

Maybe President Clinton? That’d be cool for bragging rights…but what would we talk about?

Given this prompt, I could have just written some BS about Mandela or the President but I would have sounded like every other person applying for the scholarship. Plus, I didn’t really want to meet them.

It’s almost like the people applying forget that it’s a competition. Would a coach say to his players, “Okay guys, we’re playing against every team in our division next week, so we’re just going to do the same plays over and over”?

No. So why would you want to do that too?

So when it came to who I wanted to have dinner with, I decided to go with my gut and pick someone different: Chris Rock.

Which leads me to the next step…

Next: Write your application with UNIQUE answers instead

When you take a step back and consider the common answers to the prompt, you’ll be able to come up with an answer that will subvert the judge’s expectations and keep their attention.

In my case, while other students wrote about historical figures, I chose Chris Rock, the famous comedian.

My essay went on to argue that though he’s perceived simply as a comedian, he’s actually a highly astute social commentator. His jokes revealed the things we want to say but won’t articulate — because we’re afraid to.

I even deconstructed one of his jokes and went into an in-depth analysis of why it was an examination of the racial attitudes our society holds.

And it worked.

My approach was offbeat — yet professional. When looking for the unique angles, you shouldn’t make it offensive or inappropriate. Instead, aim to make it deep, personal, and a little bit against the grain.

To show you what I mean, here are a few common essay prompts — as well as the boring responses judges will typically see AND an example of a good answer.

Question 1

“Is it fair that professional athletes earn millions of dollars?”

Typical boring answer: “No way! We should be paying that money to teachers and firefighters. Athletes are just playing a game.”

What’s wrong with it? You could find this opinion in the “Letters to the Editor” section of any newspaper. It doesn’t matter if the answer is right — it plays everything safe and is BORING.

Better answer: “Salaries aren’t decided by fairness. They’re decided by supply and demand. LeBron James is a millionaire because millions of fans pay to see him perform. Besides, if the athletes weren’t getting the money, the owners would. Those are the only two options.”

Question 2

“Which major world problem would you solve if you could only pick one?”

Typical boring answer: “I would end world hunger. Every man, woman, and child deserves this basic requirement of human life.”

What’s wrong with it? The reader makes no human connection to you. Why on earth would they want to read more?

Better answer: “My life changed forever when I spoke at my best friend’s funeral. Standing there under the storm clouds, I felt a personal duty to make sure no one sees suicide as their only way out.”

Question 3

“Respond to this statement: America’s middle class is in trouble.”

Typical boring response: “The middle class is America’s heartbeat. We need to put big corporations in their place to make room at the table for everyone.”

What’s wrong with it? This is such a cliche answer, the judge won’t help but roll their eyes. Reading an answer like this will have them mentally checking out before you can say, “Full-ride scholarship.”

Better answer: “Classes aren’t fixed groups of people. Most of us move in and out of different classes throughout our lives. In fact, many people who were in the middle class twenty years ago are in the upper class today.”

These answers practically grab you by the lapels and COMMAND attention. They stand out like a lighthouse in the ocean of boring applicants.

This is the difference between following the crowd and hoping for the best versus thinking strategically and winning the game.

Key things to remember to get any scholarship

Before you jump into the system above, there are a few things to keep in mind when you’re applying:

  • After you write the essay, get at LEAST two other people to proofread it for you. You might think your first draft is perfect — but chances are it’s not. Plan to go through a few drafts before you land on the one you’ll be submitting.
  • Barely anyone applies to the majority of these scholarships — so you’ll already have a huge advantage by applying at all. The Craigslist Penis Effect is strong with scholarship applications. Leverage that knowledge.
  • Some scholarships require you to interview — so you need to prepare. Remember to prep for it by practicing interviews a LOT. That means doing them in front of a mirror, having your friend run through questions with you, and reading up on interview strategies. Here are a few great resources from IWT that’ll help you:

Check out my video on how you can crush your interview below:

3 notes about applying to expensive schools

  1. If you’re good enough to get in, top-tier universities will take care of you. Yes, “if you’re good enough” includes incredibly complex socio-economic connotations, but we can’t address them all here. I simply want to highlight the mistaken belief that money is holding students back from attending top-tier colleges because of tuition costs. No. It’s not. If you’re good enough to get in, top-tier universities will take care of you, financially.
  2. Your college is not a technical school. It’s not only about how much money you’ll make once you graduate, like so many people try to claim. There are ineffable qualities to being surrounded by an extremely high caliber of peers. I’m not even saying, “Go to a top-tier university” (although I think you should). Just apply to them.
  3. Tuition should be one of the last decisions you make. Stop thinking about the money up front. First, focus on getting into the best schools possible, whatever that means for you. Once you secure admission, worry about the finances. Remember, if you’re good enough, the universities want you there, and they have hefty treasure chests to ensure that you matriculate.

What to do AFTER I get the scholarships?

Once you get your first scholarship, CONGRATS!!!

You’re now ahead of a vast majority of your peers when it comes to paying for your education — but it shouldn’t end there.

One of the greatest benefits of college is the networking opportunities it provides. You’ll literally never be in an environment like this again once you graduate, so it’s important to develop this skill now.

That’s why I put together my best networking tips that you can use to make connections with amazing people and easily have doors opened for you (including with to be the OBVIOUS scholarship winner).

When it comes to scholarships or even school in general, you don’t have to be the smartest person in the room — you just have to do the work.

If you’ve read all this, try doing just one step today. Not tomorrow, not after you finish that physics quiz, but TODAY.

Take someone out to lunch. Send an email to that professor you admire. Ask someone a question. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be today.

It’s easy to take the “safe” route. It’s much tougher to build your own confidence to do things differently — let alone at all.

But if you’re willing to take that first step, I want to help you.

Join my free email list to learn my secrets to earning more, learning, and finding a passion that’ll earn you money forever.

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