See How This Student Earned More Than $50,000 in Scholarships

Andrew Pentis
·6 min read

This story was originally published July 14, 2017.

“I applied for that?” That’s how Julia Isabel Martinez Rivera felt after receiving a $20,000 scholarship from Chegg.

She had written so many essays and clicked “submit” so often that she’d lost track of all the awards she applied for. (She was also surprised because the textbook company showed up on her doorstep with a jumbo check.)

“I’d applied for so many,” Rivera said, “that I’d forgotten I’d even applied for that one.”

After all, the University of California, Berkeley, junior secured more than $50,000 total in scholarships for college students, plus grants, before her third year on campus — and only resorted to federal student loans once she maxed out her gift aid allotment.

Here are four helpful takeaways from her experience:

1. Start applying now if you haven’t already 2. Share your story without worrying about how it’ll measure up 3. Ace your scholarship interviews 4. Take the stress out of finding scholarships

1. Start applying now if you haven’t already

Rivera, 20, learned about the importance of scholarships for college students when she was in the eighth grade. She participated in a summer program called AVID, which gave her the college knowledge her parents couldn’t provide; they’d both attended school in the Philippines.

She started applying for scholarships, one at a time, online and off. Fastweb was an early favorite source of listings.

“Don’t stick to one website; search for a bunch,” Rivera said. “Even the little scholarships, $100, $200. If it requires a little bit of work, go for it. Because most people won’t apply.”

In addition to scholarships, Rivera sought California college grants to help cover expenses beyond tuition. She secured Cal Grant A, which helps students pay for tuition and fees at four-year colleges. (For the 2019-2020 school year, the value was $12,570.)

After filling out the FAFSA, which takes a hard look at your family’s income, Rivera found she was eligible for additional help.

“I was surprised that I got a lot [of aid] because my dad makes more than average,” she said.

Think again, and complete the FAFSA anyway. The application is the gateway to all sorts of funds beyond grants, work-study programs and loans awarded by the Department of Education. Your state and some private organizations also use your FAFSA’s results to determine your eligibility for grants and scholarships.

2. Share your story without worrying about how it’ll measure up

The five-digit Chegg award that Rivera received was based on limited information about herself. She was tasked with condensing her story into a simple, straightforward application. It comprised her grades and extracurriculars, but not much else.

“I literally listed every single thing I’d been doing with my time,” she said.

It’s not uncommon to apply for scholarships without writing an essay. Scholly, a scholarship search tool, and top-rated student loan company CommonBond previously awarded a $10,000 scholarship to a student; he supplied not much beyond his email address.

Other opportunities might call for applicants to submit a college scholarship essay — and Rivera wrote her fair share.

“Stay true to what you say,” she said. “Some people say a really dramatic story will get you the money. Although that can be true, be honest about your story.

“I know a lot of students talk about financial struggles. I was honest about it: I didn’t have any financial struggles growing up.”

Instead, Rivera told the tale of breaking and displacing the tibia and fibula in her right leg during a school basketball game. She mentioned small details, such as the snapping sound caught on video, and larger life lessons she learned, including losing the ability to play sports.

Not fretting about how her story would play to an audience of donors freed Rivera up to talk about what mattered to her most.

If that’s the case, keep in mind that you don’t have to have a straight-A’s transcript to find gift aid for college. There are plenty of scholarships for average students, so to speak, where GPA won’t make or break your application. Don’t limit your scholarship search with preconceived notions like this one.

3. Ace your scholarship interviews

If you’re fortunate enough, you may be invited to apply for specific scholarships without having to search them out yourself.

This happened to Rivera before she even stepped on Berkeley’s campus. Her college acceptance letter encouraged her to schedule an in-person interview for the school’s prestigious Regents’ and Chancellors’ Scholarship.

Visibly nervous, the then-teenaged Rivera told her interviewer about her desire to major in landscape architecture and connect her study to sustainable design in developing countries. That’s when her interviewer asked her to talk about another passion.

Rivera quickly returned to her love of sports.

“One of the main things that helped me get chosen was my martial arts background,” said Rivera, who took self-defense classes in the sixth grade before ultimately learning and competing in jiu-jitsu, karate and kickboxing.

“That was one thing I talked a lot about in my interview. I was just me. She really enjoyed that and said she liked talking to me,” she added.

The conversation netted Rivera $8,000 for each year of her university tenure. It wasn’t a full-tuition scholarship, but it furthered her goal of covering the approximately $14,000 of in-state tuition.

For Rivera, it was landscape architecture and martial arts. For you, it could be mechanical engineering and community service. Or environmental law and classical music. The point is to identify what you’re passionate about, and ensure that your passion comes across during scholarship interviews.

4. Take the stress out of finding scholarships

If there’s one thing Rivera has learned from racking up so much gift aid, it’s that being yourself on and off campus is the way to go. Decision-makers in charge of scholarships are often on the lookout for well-rounded students who live out their interests.

Rivera, for one, is now a member of Cal’s women’s boxing team, and last summer, she traveled to a village in Ghana to help build a water treatment center. She is not one to sit on her hands.

And as she could attest, she’d been that way since she was a teen. One of her first scholarships, a $1,500 award from her high school, came from her club advisor nominating her for the school’s student of the year award.

After starting early, telling herstory and acing her interviews — Rivera found herself with $50,000-plus worth of scholarships to cover tuition costs.

What would she have done without all the gift aid?

“Loans, for sure,” said Rivera, who has taken out Federal Direct Unsubsidized Loans to cover some of her non-tuition expenses. “My parents wanted me to focus on school and not work, but without scholarships that wouldn’t have been possible.”

No matter where you are in financing your next year of school, take Rivera’s tips into account. Be proactive by applying for as many scholarships as you’re eligible for. If you’re eyeing scholarships for current college students, you might start with Student Loan Hero’s $5,000 award.

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