At the end of my junior year of high school, I underwent a nine-hour brain surgery to implant two electrodes into my brain. The reason: I had spent the previous six years of my life confined to a wheelchair, the result of a rare neurological movement disorder I developed after a severe ankle sprain suffered in the third grade. The miraculous operation changed everything. I entered my senior year feeling like I had been granted a new lease on life, and I looked forward to college with tremendous hope.
But the costs of such a surgery made it extremely difficult for my family to afford to send me to college without borrowing extensively. With an older sister already in college and two younger sisters not far behind, I knew I had to do everything I could to help fund my way through college. So, I applied for scholarships. In fact, I started applying and vowed not to stop applying until I had received enough money to cover all my college costs. For me, knowing that the alternative was taking out thousands in loans was a tremendous motivation to apply for as many scholarships as possible.
I applied for over 75 scholarships throughout high school — 60 during my senior year alone. I ate, slept, and breathed scholarships. Before school, I would check our daily bulletin to check for any new scholarships. During lunch, I’d spend time in the counseling office and career center, constantly asking for more scholarship opportunities. After school, I’d go home and log onto Fastweb.com and Scholarships.com (theWashBoard.org didn’t exist at the time), often updating my profile every week or two just to see if new opportunities would appear in my search results.
What I realized quickly was that scholarships are more than just money for college; they’re investments in people. The scholarship organizations to which I was applying wanted to know what my goals and dreams were — and what I had done to work toward them. But I also realized they wanted to know more than just the details of my ambitions; they wanted me to show them my motivations for pursuing my goals. As I wrote and rewrote essay after essay (and in some cases, simply reused previously written essays), I became much better at sharing my personal story in more concise and impactful ways.
Ultimately, I received 18 scholarships, more than enough funding to cover my four years at the University of Washington (and a few study abroad trips as well). I felt a tremendous sense of relief to know that my family would not have to worry about whether they could send me to college. But I realized some of my friends — many who were just as, if not more, competitive than I was — had not applied for scholarships. Perhaps they feared getting rejected or couldn’t make the time to work on the applications. But I suspected a large part of this had to do with a general lack of understanding about how scholarships work.
This realization led me to found ScholarshipJunkies.com, first as a blog and then later as a full-blown scholarship resource website. With the help of other committed scholarship recipients and volunteers, Scholarship Junkies grew into a social venture, and we have traveled to schools in North Carolina, New York, and Chicago (plus nearly all corners of Washington state!) to share our secrets to scholarship success. SJ connects student applicants with recent scholarship recipients (much like how the Dream Project operates) in an effort to help them compile more competitive applications. While we can never guarantee that anyone we help will receive a scholarship (frankly, no one can), we promise to offer personalized feedback on students’ essays to help them understand how important it is to share your personal story and to make every word count.
Scholarships are just one of several ways to help pay for college, but they can be incredible resources if you are able to receive them, because you do not have to pay them back (as you must do with loans). If you want to ensure that your application is competitive, you do not need perfect grades or test scores (though you should do your best academically). Show how you’re using your time — whether you play a sport, participate in clubs and activities, volunteer in the community, work a part-time job, or take care of your family at home — and share what you’re doing to pursue your goals and dreams. Then connect with our Scholarship Junkies Corps for free, personalized feedback (but make sure to give us a few days to respond, so submit your drafts well ahead of your deadlines). And, remember, never underestimate your story or your ability to impact others.
Samson Lim is the Founder & Executive Director of Scholarship Junkies, an online scholarship resource connecting applicants with recent scholarship recipients. After four years as a Dream Project mentor, Sam graduated from the University of Washington in 2010 and spent the 2010-11 academic year in Berlin, Germany, as a U.S. Student Fulbright Scholar. Currently, Sam is pursuing his Masters of Education in Politics and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University.