Who wants free money?

Piggy bank next to a graduation cap and diploma

♪♫♪ A mouth made of metal, metal, metal / Pocket full of yellow, yellow, pocket full of gold / And I hope you’ll find, I hope you’ll find your dream…

Early on in my college career, I recall hearing somewhere: “If you’re going to college and your tuition isn’t already paid for, you have absolutely no reason to not apply for scholarships. The time you are a student is the only time you could possibly get free money.”

And that’s true! Well, mostly. It’s not free, exactly. After all, you have to have the qualifications to prove that you deserve any free money being offered. And sometimes there are a lot beyond just having good grades; you need to have done something, usually pertaining to leadership, that makes you stand out from your applying cohort. Regardless, here’s something I wish I knew much sooner than I did about scholarships: just apply, apply, apply no matter what.

When I was a freshman, I followed that mantra pretty closely. I applied to pretty much any scholarship I qualified for — and there were a quite a few — hoping to rake in at least some bit of extra money for my student account. At that time, I had MAP grants and UIC grants helping me out, as well as some extra scholarship money left over from high school applications; that sum did its part in helping keep my tuition low and affordable, so I wasn’t too concerned by the state of my finances then. Nevertheless, I still applied, because if I was still paying something, then I could still try to save money by earning a scholarship or two.

Or so I hoped.

Out of the perhaps dozens of scholarships I applied to, I received a grand total of zero awards. To say it was discouraging was an understatement, as I had spent a fair amount of time, energy, and hearth into each of the applications and their respective essays. I couldn’t understand what went wrong…other than the fact that I was a first-semester freshman in college using a very high school résumé to try to justify being deserving of monetary award. In retrospect, it makes very good sense — there were probably dozens, even hundreds of applicants more deserving than me at that time for all of those awards because they had done more and impacted the UIC community far more than I had. And I wasn’t in the greatest financial need at the time either.

However, that’s where my scholarship fervor went into sort of a slump. Discouraged by all the rejections, I unconsciously adopted the mindset of “Why bother? It’s just spending hours on an application for one more rejection email.” To further dampen my motivation, I also was accepted into a Peer Mentor job in Campus Housing, so I was able to save a hefty sum for myself yet again despite my earlier nonrenewable scholarships expiring. But still, I was paying a substantial amount each semester for tuition or student fees; likely not as many as others, but still not $0.

So for awhile — and I still kick myself for this — I skimped on my chances for free money. It wasn’t until junior year that I woke up and realized that it made no sense for me to give up without even trying, to not apply for awards that I very well had a chance to win. Finally, slow weekend, I forced myself to invest just a couple of hours looking into scholarships and pounding through some applications with brute force of will. After all, I supposed, what if this bit of time actually paid off?

And it did. With hundreds of dollars.

It was a few months before I heard back from the organizations I applied to, but I was awestruck when I was learned — in the same week! — that I had received a $500 scholarship from the National Society of Collegiate Scholars and a $100 dollar reward from an essay contest. What had started as a half-hearted attempt had actually won me a sizable sum of money, straight to my student account. It seemed too good to be true! With those small but encouraging wins, I was reinvigorated to try my hand at a variety of scholarships, and now that I’m armed with a much more impressive résumé, it has been a more successful endeavor.

Don’t get me wrong. I still get plenty of rejections — probably the majority of my applications end with “I regret to inform you that you were not selected…” Just earlier this week, I happened to get one rejection on Tuesday…and then receive a notification that I had won $1,000 the very next day!

I’m no longer discouraged by the rejections because now I have narrowed it down to a simple cost-benefit analysis in my head: if on average, a scholarship application (essays and all) takes me about 2-4 hours of labor total, I could potentially gain anywhere from $100-1000 for my time — way better return than any part-time job I work! Whenever I feel like I’m too lazy to apply for a scholarship now, I just appeal to my own logos with a simple calculation: if I don’t apply, I have 0% chance of receiving any money. Submitting an application gives me some chance, which is always better than none.

And in my head, I think it’s the essays that are the real hurdle I have to mentally overcome. I see one, two, or even more prompts to answer (In 500 words, please describe your involvement on campus…please describe your leadership…please convince us why we should award you money.), I’m intimidated. I think of all the time it’ll take me to write essay after essay before submitting, and I think that’s what has stopped me from applying in the past. But now, I try my best not to let essays deter me from completing an application; it’s easiest when I force myself to sit down at a computer and pound through an essay by giving myself a time limit (usually one hour) to get a measurable amount finished. When time’s up, I at least have something to work with that I can potentially submit. Another strategy I’ve used is reworking old scholarship essays, as many of the prompts for different scholarships are quite similar, so it’s not difficult to work out something I can use.

Another hindrance to my motivation may be letter of recommendations — I always hesitate, because I think I feel like I pester professors or adviser for these too often. But, as I have learned, more often than not anyone you ask for a letter is happy to comply, provided that you give them enough time to do it. This year, I’ve found a motivator to be requesting a recommendation right away when I see a deadline. That way, I have no excuses not to finish the application later! I now keep all of my deadlines in a neat list and have reminders in my calendar to prevent myself forgetting.

Finally, use your resources at UIC OSSP! Subscribe to their email list as they send out lists of new scholarships weekly! It is probably my primary source of finding new applications, along with the UIC SnaP! Search. Both give you a list of recommended scholarships so that you know which ones you may qualify for — it’s definitely a valuable resource and time-saver when it comes to searching for scholarships quickly. Also, contact Beth Powers at OSSP! When it comes to applying for anything, you will find that no one is a better advocate for you than Beth, as she will support you through the entire process and give you valuable feedback on all your essays. A huge thanks to Beth for all she has done for me!

Scholarships have played a huge role for me this year — almost inexplicably, I received absolutely no financial aid from UIC this year, and I’ve been desperately trying my best to pave my way through student costs by applying left and right, with a rare acceptance now and then. Despite the rejection emails, I am no longer discouraged—there’s always another scholarship out there to apply to. It’s just about knowing where to look to find your next shot at free money.

Darling never settle, settle, settle / Chasing down the devil, devil, chasing down the gods / And I hope you’ll find, I hope you’ll find your dream… ♪♫♪

(Gold – Sir Sly)


Sarah Lee (F)Sarah Lee is a senior studying neuroscience and Russian in the GPPA Medicine program at UIC. She’s still trying to figure out exactly what she wants to do, but some of  life goals include running a marathon, exploring Eastern Europe and becoming fluent in Russian. In her free time, she loves running, playing piano and guitar, and reading. A Naperville native, Sarah is a peer mentor in the Courtyard residence hall.

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