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How to Graduate College Debt-Free (When You Don't Have Rich Parents)

Monica Matthews had no money for her son to go to college. So, she figured out a common-sense way to win scholarships. Four years later, her son graduated debt-free. Here, the founder of how2winscholarships.com shares some valuable tips.

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Here's our Q&A with Monica:

Tell us a little about yourself.

I'm a full-time wife and a full-time mom. How2winscholarships.com started when I was helping my own son win scholarships. He applied for a few between his junior and senior year that he didn't win. I'm thinking to myself "He's so smart, he's very involved, why did he not win these scholarships?"

So I thought I could either go back to work full time and pay for his college or find a way to pay for it without working. So I just started researching everything I could about what scholarship judges want. I didn't look for scholarships, I looked for what wins scholarships. I wrote down what I did, I published it, and I've re-written it a few times to keep it current and up-to-date, and I sell it on my website.

Check out Nitro's Scholarship Search Engine to view the most-current opportunities. 

Are scholarships only for high achievers?

That all depends on the scholarship. There are scholarships that don't even ask for your GPA, or don't ask for your income level. There are so many different scholarships out there. There are many things you can do to help your kids become a better applicant. I call it scholarship prep.

What matters other than GPA?

Volunteering, to me, is so important. When I was researching scholarships I realized there are many out there that want to know what you have done for your community. So I came up with an idea and my son created his own community service project and it went over great.

I then called the local newspaper. They loved it. They came out, took pictures, and it made it to the front page. Well, I used that newspaper article. We would put it in with scholarship applications. And for online applications we made up a website for him. You'd click on the little link and see what else he's doing. Subsequently, my three boys have done community service projects they created and did themselves.

See also: Top 16 Weird Scholarships That Can Help You Pay for College

What are essential things to know about scholarship applications?

There are so many basic things kids can do as far as writing their essays: give it a title, start with a hook, make sure the question is answered. And don't fill out the application with a pencil! You need to apply smart. Every scholarship has its own guidelines and set of rules. The first thing the judges do — and I understand this more now that I judge my own Savor Summer College Scholarship — is you look for the students you need to put in the reject pile. You need to find the winner. And to find the winner, you need to take out the ones that didn't follow the directions.

Never wait 'til the last minute. So many scholarship applications are online now. Everything needs to be uploaded, clicked, submitted. Don't submit late at night. Always write your essay into a Google doc, look it over, look for mistakes, have two pairs of eyes look at it before you copy and paste it into where you need to upload it.

If it's a mailed-in application, absolutely put it in an over-sized envelope. Make the presentation nice. Make sure everything is included, there's no missing information. Have your name on every piece of paper that is submitted because things get lost and separated.

The best tip for summer scholarships: Spend some time looking for them and applying because a lot of kids just take the summer off. Why not? It's summer. It's warm. You don't have school. Maybe you're busy working. But, you're gonna have less competition because so many students feel that way. There is no scholarship season. Scholarships are available year-round. Ask for some letters of recommendation from your teachers before school ends so you're ready to apply during the summer.

See also: 7 No Essay Scholarships to Apply for

How do you find the right scholarships for your student?

  • Do a Google search, and be very specific. Google "summer scholarships" and add the year because it's going to narrow the results. If you just search "summer scholarships" you're going to get scholarships that aren't even offered anymore.
  • Look at what your student is interested in. Say he volunteers. Search 'volunteering scholarships' and put the year in.
  • Also in Google there are tools you can use to go to any article that's been published in the last month, the last year, whatever. I always choose the last year to find current information.
  • You know those big scholarship books that come out every year? I love those books. Yeah, it's a little old-fashioned but they're organized by your ethnicity, your interests, your hobbies, where you live. Those books are wonderful.

What should students think about in terms of social media?

I think you can make social media what you want to make of it. It can absolutely be a help, but for those kids from Harvard who got their acceptances rescinded, it definitely was a hindrance. Social media is a hot topic — especially in the college and scholarship industries. Kids can use it to their advantage: Have a Pinterest board for the colleges you want to go to. So anybody who is considering you can see all you're doing, all you're interested in. Have a board for your volunteering. Put the pictures up. Have a website that's got all the things you're doing and excited about.

I cringe when I look on Twitter at the things kids type in because they're frustrated. "My mom wants me to submit 27 scholarships!" I cringe because, if a judge does see that ... ugh. When I tweet out "Be careful what you're tweeting," I always get responses from admissions officers and scholarship judges and people who serve on committees for scholarships who say "Oh, this is so true ... thank you for letting the kids know this." They are looking.

How can parents motivate students?

Of course students want to win money but many don't want to do the work. Take the burden off — let them know you're in it together. I dangled the University of Michigan carrot in front of my son's nose a lot when he was applying because I kept saying "If you don't win the scholarships, we can't afford to send you. So how badly do you want to go?"

Also, have a really honest talk about money. Get them excited about where they want to go and be very clear: This is how much we have saved for college, this is how much we can afford to give you per month, and this is how much money you need to come up with on your own. You need to know your own student. Find what motivates them. Try everything. I advocate applicants invest 15 minutes a day. If you can work on scholarships 15 minutes a day, that's 91 hours per year. Fifteen minutes is no big deal. How can you say no?

Work together! Take the pressure off of both of you. To me, when students win scholarships, the parents also win. That's fewer loans you're taking out. That's less pressure.

Ready to apply for scholarships? Check out these proven tips on how to start a scholarship essay

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