How I Earned $80,000 in Scholarships to go to College and Graduate Debt-Free

Nnenna Umelloh graduates from University of Houston debt-free with scholarships

[March 13, 2019 Update: How I Earned $80,000 in Scholarships Infographic]

[March 19, 2019 Update: How I Earned $80,000 in Scholarships Presentation]

In May 2018, I graduated from my dream school, Honors College at the University of Houston, magna cum laude with a B.B.A in Marketing and a B.A in Liberal Studies. The best part about my graduation was that I did it debt-free. Considering that the average college student graduates with almost $40,000 in student loans and nationwide Americans owe over $1.5 trillion in student debt, graduating college without that burden is one of my greatest accomplishments.

I paved a path through college with scholarships but it was not easy. There were times I wasn’t sure I’d make it. (Spoiler Alert: I made it.)

Applying for scholarships instilled a new level of discipline and refined my work ethic to a level that has served me well. It took about 4,000 individual applications and about 4 years, but I earned the money I needed to got to college.

It took about 4,000 individual applications and about 4 years, but I earned the money I needed to got to college.

-NNENNA UMELLOH

Now I’m starting the process all over again for grad school. In November 2018, I was accepted into the Hult International School of Business in London. Needless to say, I’ve created my own pseudo-scientific method of earning scholarships.

#1 FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid)

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid is exactly what it sounds like. The federal government through the Department of Education has an online form student can fill out to gain access to scholarships and other sources of financial aid like student loans and work-study.

FAFSA awards a scholarship called the Pell Grant based on your Expected Family Contribution, the cost of attendance (determined by your school for your specific program), your status as a full-time or part-time student, and
your plans to attend school for a full academic year or less.

Even if you don’t think you’ll be awarded any scholarship money, fill out FAFSA anyway. Sometimes, other scholarships will ask for your EFC number (Expected Family Contribution) and the only way to get the number is to fill out the form.

(Note: Grad school student do not qualify for Pell Grants, but you should still fill out the form.)

Another form of financial aid that many students overlook is work-study. Work-study is a stipend that allows students to earn money by working on campus. This is an excellent opportunity to gain some valuable work experience! The nice thing about work-study is that they cap your hours and are very flexible as far as testing and classes are concerned. You will never be scheduled to work during class hours or any exams.

Work-study is a stipend students can earn by working on campus! In order to be considered for work-study, you have to opt-in on FAFSA. Otherwise, you will not see the funding available.

-NNENNA UMELLOH

In order to be considered for work-study, you have to opt-in on FAFSA. Otherwise, you will not see the funding available.

Sometimes, institutions will not allow you to accept student loans and work-study. This is their way of discouraging students from taking out too many student loans. Check with your institution to see if that’s the case. Most allow you to accept all forms of financial aid through FAFSA but some do not.

You are not required to accept all the financial aid offered through FAFSA. Just because you are awarded $20,000 in student loans does not mean you need to accept them. Maybe all you need is $500. When it comes to student loans, only accept what you need and be judicious in paying it off as soon as possible (preferably before you graduate and interest begins to pile on.)

When it comes to student loans, only accept what you need and be judicious in paying it off as soon as possible (preferably before you graduate and interest begins to pile on.)

-NNENNA UMELLOH

This should go without saying, but accept all the scholarship and work-study aid you are awarded before you ever consider student loans.

FAFSA runs on a first-come, first-serve philosophy so be proactive about your application. The application opens on October 1 and closes the following June. Fill out FAFSA as soon as possible. Here is an infographic on exactly what you need to fill out FAFSA.

To learn more about FAFSA, please visit https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/fafsa or http://fafsa.ed.gov.

Pro Tip: The keyword in FAFSA is FREE! If you are ever prompted to pay for FAFSA then you are on the wrong site.

#2 College vs. University

The terms “college” and “university” are used interchangeably but they do not mean the same thing. A university is a collection of colleges whereas a college is a single unit. For example, I graduated from the University of Houston. I was a student at the Bauer College of Business, the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences and the Honors College.

Universities tend to have more scholarship opportunities because donors mostly donate money to a specific college rather than the entire university. For example, I qualified for scholarships that were only available to students at a specific college.

Follow my example.

If you attend a university, investigate various sources of funding through the main university and various colleges on campus.

-NNENNA UMELLOH

If you attend a university, investigate various sources of funding through the main university and various colleges on campus. If a specific major provides more funding, then I strongly encourage you either switch degree plans or pursue a double major or dual degree program. It may not be easy, but it will definitely be worth it if you don’t have to pay.

(Note: If you need help graduating with two degrees in fours years, then read this article.)

By the way, degrees and majors are also not synonymous. There are four major types of degrees: Bachelor of Business Administration, Bachelor of Science, Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Fine Arts. Various degrees require different prerequisites.

If you pursue two majors in the same college then that is s a double major. If you pursue a major in two different colleges, then that’s a dual degree program. If you pursue two majors in one college and another degree in another college then you’re in a dual-degree, double-major program.

The first place you should start to look for scholarships on campus is with your financial aid adviser.

-NNENNA UMELLOH

The first place you should start to look for scholarships on campus is with your financial aid adviser. Here are 9 questions you should ask in your first meeting.

The more involved you are on campus, the more opportunities you have to earn scholarships. Be attuned and attentive to various scholarship opportunities. Ask around. Tell your professors, friends, student organization leaders and faculty members about your quest for scholarships.

#3 National Organizations

National organizations are one of the best ways to score some scholarship money. Only people within the organization are eligible to apply and win the scholarship. This cuts down the competition significantly. Plus, most members of a national organization don’t bother to apply for the scholarships offered. (Ludacris, but true).

National organizations include honor societies, professional associations, fraternities and sororities.

When you’re invited to join an organization, take the time to research the organization. Once you’ve confirmed its validity and you see that they have scholarships available, accept the invitation (or apply to be considered).

Disclaimer: most national organizations require a membership fee. I’m okay with paying for the membership fee because it’s a valuable networking opportunity for me and I can apply for the scholarships available. Ultimately, the choice is up to you.

If you are not completely sure about the legitimacy of an organization, see if there are chapters open on campus and try to talk to a couple of current members about their experience.

-NNENNA UMELLOH

Some national organizations I am a part of include:

Phi Beta Kappa

Phi Kappa Phi

Phi Beta Delta

Golden Key

HonorSociety.org

Pro Tip: If you are not completely sure about the legitimacy of an organization, see if there are chapters open on campus and try to talk to a couple of current members about their experience.

#4 Local Businesses and Non-Profits

Local businesses and non-profits provide scholarships for two major reasons: 1) they want to support the future generation in their pursuit of a debt-free higher education and 2) it is a tax write-off.

Help them help themselves by applying for their scholarships! Remember that local businesses are not necessarily marketing firms. They probably do not do the best job promoting their scholarship to the right channels but they are eager to award deserving students.

Local businesses and non-profits provide scholarships for two major reasons: 1) they want to support the future generation in their pursuit of a debt-free higher education and 2) it is a tax write-off.

-NNENNA UMELLOH

Personally, I earned a $2,000 scholarship from a local law firm in my hometown.

Think of the local businesses in your hometown and ask around. Try visiting their website or calling them. If they don’t have a scholarship available, chances are they know another business owner who does.

#5 Scholarship Engines

A scholarship engine is a database of scholarships available throughout the nation. They organize and recommend scholarships based on your profile. Scholarship engines are an excellent source of funding but they only work if they are used consistently.

Some students have a casual relationship with searching and applying for scholarships. Unfortunately, having a casual relationship with your education or scholarships will not earn you the money you need to graduate debt-free.

Some students have a casual relationship with searching and applying for scholarships. Unfortunately, having a casual relationship with your education or scholarships will not earn you the money you need to graduate debt-free.

-NNENNA UMELLOH

It’s important to invest about 2-3 hours a day on these search engines finding the right scholarships. Once you find a scholarship you qualify for, you must take time to apply for that scholarship. Once you have submitted your application, you must do the whole process all over again.

Yes, it’s exhausting.

Yes, it’s completely worth it.

Some scholarship engines I personally use are Scholly, Fastweb, Unigo, Peterson’s and Scholarship Owl.

I encourage you to rotate between at least 5 different scholarship engines. The more you navigate their site, the more familiar you will become with the patterns of scholarships. (Yes, scholarships have patterns.)

I encourage you to rotate between at least 5 different scholarship engines. The more you navigate their site, the more familiar you will become with the patterns of scholarships. (Yes, scholarships have patterns.)

-NNENNA UMELLOH

Note: These are the scholarship engines that I enjoy. However, there are plenty of scholarship engines available. A quick Google search will help you find more.

Disclaimer: Scholly and Scholarship Owl come with a monthly fee. This fee is only worth it if you use the platform vigorously. If you’re just getting started, I encourage you to use the platforms that are free first and establish a strong habit of applying for scholarships. Afterward, incorporate these platforms into your scholarship regimen.

#6 Apply to 20 scholarships a week

Do you want $80,000 in scholarships? Expect to apply to about 20 scholarships a week or 2-3 scholarships a day. This scholarship pace can earn you about $20,000 by the end of the year. (Remember, it took me 4 years to earn $80,000). This is not an overnight success story.

Do you want $80,000 in scholarships? Expect to apply to about 20 scholarships a week or 2-3 scholarships a day.

-NNENNA UMELLOH

I encourage you to take the path of least resistance when it comes to scholarships. Start with FAFSA then make your way to scholarship engines. I also encourage you to focus on scholarships that highlight your skills and strengths. I have excellent written communication skills so I only apply for essay scholarships.

There are a variety of other scholarships that speak to different strengths. Needless to say, I do not apply for those scholarships. I prefer to focus my time and energy on a skill that I do very well – writing.

#7 Before you take out a student loan…

Before you take out a student loan, apply for at least 10 more scholarships. You owe it to yourself to try again and again and again to earn scholarships.

Then get out a piece of paper and write out all your expenses for the upcoming academic year. Separate your expenses from needs and wants. Then separate your needs list into two subcategories: critical needs and general needs.

The critical needs are expenses you need in order to enroll in the following semester. For example, you will be dropped from all your classes if you do not pay for tuition. Tuition is a critical need.

Will you be homeless if you don’t live on campus? If yes, then housing is a critical need. If not, then housing is not a critical need.

Use the same thought process will your needs list.

Only take out enough student loans to cover your critical needs. That means every item on that list is completely necessary to make it to the next semester of college.

-NNENNA UMELLOH

Only take out enough student loans to cover your critical needs. That means every item on that list is completely necessary to make it to the next semester of college.

One last thing you need to do before taking out a student loan is to talk to your career adviser and academic adviser. You need to evaluate your post-graduation career aspects and make sure you have the salary outcomes necessary to pay back the student loan in a reasonable amount of time. No one wants to spend a decade in debt. (This is the type of conversation you need to have with your career adviser.)

Furthermore, you need to make sure you are on the right track to graduate on time with your academic adviser. Any delay in graduation will only increase your debt burden. (Here is the type of conversation you need to have with your academic adviser.)

This process works but it takes time, energy and persistence. Your success will mostly rely on your commitment to a debt-free higher education.

-NNENNA UMELLOH

As a college student at the University of Houston, I was not sure if I’d make it. I applied for scholarships voraciously every semester of college. There were some semesters I only had a couple of weeks left before tuition was due.

The process was daunting and stressful at times.

Obviously, I was able to earn the money I needed every semester, but sometimes I only made it by the skin of my teeth. This is the reality of applying for scholarships to go to college. This is not an overnight success story, but it is still a success story.

I graduated from my dream school, a Tier-1 research institution in an urban area with 2 degrees and no student loans. Now I’m on my way to grad school in London with $38,000 in scholarships (so far) to my name.

This process works but it takes time, energy and persistence. Your success will mostly rely on your commitment to a debt-free higher education.

[BLOG UPDATE] How I Earned $80,000 in Scholarships to go to College and Graduate Debt-Free Infographic

Earning scholarships to go to college and graduate debt free infographic
Earning Scholarships Infographic Part 1
Earning scholarships to go to college and graduate debt free infographic
Earning Scholarships Infographic Part 2

[BLOG UPDATE] How I Earned $80,000 in Scholarships to go to College and Graduate Debt-Free Presentation

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