This guest post from Alison is part of the “reader stories” feature at Get Rich Slowly. Some stories contain general advice; others are examples of how a GRS reader achieved financial success — or failure. These stories feature folks from all levels of financial maturity and with all sorts of incomes. This is one of the best reader stories I’ve ever featured.

I’m a graduate of the George Washington University, a school now known as the most expensive in the country. But when I graduated, my $160,000 retail education cost me about $4,000. I walked away with about $9,000 in student loans and a check for over $5,000 from surplus tuition payments from my senior year. Plus, I’d earned enough scholarship money to pay for graduate school. Twice.

How’d I do it? Let me tell you about how to make the most of scholarships for fun and profit.

Turning Bad Luck to Good
My parents aren’t rich. When I decided to attend a private, out-of-state, expensive university, they made it clear that I had about a year to figure out how to pay for it myself. After that, they were cutting me off. After briefly considering selling an ovary, I decided to first try my luck with winning scholarship money.

I had a pretty terrible time applying to outside scholarships during high school. I was rejected by more than half a dozen despite good grades and plentiful extracurricular activities. I missed taking the National Merit Scholarship test due to surgery. I even applied to a scholarship limited to people from my medium-sized Southern town just to cover books. Only one other person applied and I still lost!

When I started at George Washington University, I had one scholarship for half of my tuition for joining the honors program. But I still needed $25,000 to cover for the rest of my tuition and room-and-board.

There were several factors that reversed my crappy luck.

  • For one, I put more time into my applications during college, preparing far in advance of any deadline.
  • It also helped that I had a clearer field. Almost everyone in my high school scrounged desperately for any extra scholarships they could find. However, in college everyone seemed to busy to bother. Less competition meant that it was easier to stand out.

Still, over the course of going through the application process (repeatedly), and later sitting on scholarship nomination committees, I collected some tips that will make it easier for almost anyone to win more scholarship money. I graduated nearly seven years ago, but I believe that most of this information still applies. In the current economic climate, this can be the difference between shouldering crushing debt and being able to plan for your future immediately. I used my $5,000 in surplus tuition as a down payment on my first house.

Apply to any scholarship that you qualify for (even if it’s for only $100)
GWU was nice enough to slip a letter in my student mailbox whenever the folks in the student scholarship office found one that fit me. I applied to each one, and to my surprise I won. Every. Single. One. A $200 prize led to a $1000 scholarship, which led to one for $8000, then another one for $15,000. Some of them were even retroactive and helped cover tuition from the previous year.

Almost every scholarship you apply for will have a slot for you to list scholarships you’ve already won. Being able to write something in that slot always seemed to move my application magically to the top of the stack. Remember that scholarship organizations get thousands of applications. Indicating that you’ve passed another organization’s vetting process never hurts.

Take advantage of your school’s writing center
Your essay is the most important part of your application. This is your one opportunity to rise above the other applicants and, if necessary, explain gaps in your record, such as a sudden, temporary withdrawal or less than perfect grades one semester.

This is where finishing a scholarship application early will really pay off. The graduate students at GWU’s writing center really made the difference between me finding money and my application going in the trash. They helped me find the right tone, organize myself, and would look over my application to make sure that I had everything filled out correctly. They even helped me develop a standard essay that, with a little tweaking, could be used for almost any application. In the end, I received help that literally can be valued in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Use your background to your advantage
It’s not fair, but sometimes it’s belonging to certain groups that will get you money. It certainly didn’t hurt that I was a Hispanic female Computer Science major. There were a total of three Hispanic female Engineering students in my entire University, which makes it easy to stand out. I have mixed feelings about applying for scholarships using my ethnic background and gender (“Did I win because I’m awesome, or because I checked the box next to ‘H’?”), but I used whatever advantage I had in order to attain the future I envisioned for myself.

Don’t fret if you don’t have an exotic ethnicity. There are plenty of other ways to point out your worthiness as a candidate:

  • Have you or your family overcome hardship, economic or situational?
  • Are you the first person in your family to go to college?
  • Do you have any achievements that you worked hard to acquire, like becoming state pole-vaulting champion, or fighting to change a law in your town, or anything that shows moxie?
  • Do you have any physical handicaps, or health obstacles that you’ve overcome? Can you relate any of that to your educational and aspirational goals? (I used my numerous spinal surgeries to talk about human-machine relationships.)

If you can’t find anything in your background that will make you stand out, make your own story. One of the best ways to do this is to help people. I’m not talking about putting in a few hours in a soup kitchen; I’m talking about doing things that make a difference in people’s lives. It’s even better if you do it creatively. One of my fellow Jack Kent Cooke recipients started an organization to provide luggage to foster children. Most of them were moving their stuff around in flimsy garbage bags and his idea made moving to a new home less traumatic and chaotic for older children.

Otherwise, develop a skill, start a business, or just do something crazy. Just make yourself sound awesome, but believable.

Whatever you do, make your story compelling and do not bore the people reading your application. Again, writing center people will help you with this.

Some majors have it easier than others
Most of the engineering fields have more scholarship opportunities than the
humanities. When in doubt, pick up a second major or a minor in something marketable. For example, a double major in English and Genetics is a standout combination. I had a double major in Computer Science and Japanese with a minor in Fine Arts, which opened up a large range of options.

Caveat: Don’t pick something just with scholarship money in mind.

Don’t slack on grades
Thought working for every A+ ended in high school? Think again. Many scholarships will pass over applicants with lackluster GPAs. Study hard. Ask for extra credit if you bomb a test. Every point counts.

I managed to qualify for an additional prize on top of my $1,000 National Hispanic Scholarship because my GPA was higher than other winners. This one paid $15,000 each year for my last two years of school.

Look internally for opportunities
Sometimes the best opportunities to find money for school are right at your own back door:

  • Become a Resident Assistant and get free housing.
  • Take a work-study job.
  • Tutor your fanny off.
  • Seek out opportunities to take on responsibility in your academic department.

I worked as a research assistant in a labor-starved Electrical Engineering department and got a paycheck and free credit hours. I started at my university with enough credit hours to qualify as a Computer Science teaching assistant by my senior year. I taught lab sections and got even more free tuition and an even nicer paycheck.

J.D.’s note: Yes, yes, yes. A thousand times yes. My mind goes numb listening to all of the hand-wringing about how to pay for college. How did I pay for college? How did Kris pay for college? Just like Alison, we sought out scholarships. We worked as Resident Assistants. And we found whatever jobs we could. I graduated with no student loans, and Kris was able to pay hers off in just a couple of years. But scholarships were the key. Want to save hundreds of thousands of dollars? Encourage your children academically, and help them apply for scholarships.

Reminder: This is a story from one of your fellow readers. Please be nice. After more than a decade of blogging, I have a thick skin, but it can be scary to put your story out in public for the first time. Remember that this guest author isn’t a professional writer, and is just learning about money like you are. Henceforth, unduly nasty comments on readers stories will be removed or edited.