Navigating Scholarships and Creating Your Own Pathway to College

By Nara Lee
“I graduated from MIT with zero debt.”
You may think that the person making this statement is from a wealthy family whose parents paid for college out-of-pocket. But Qian Qian Tang is not from a wealthy family.
She is the daughter of immigrant parents and had significant financial need in high school. She was also the recipient of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation College Scholarship, which provides up to $40,000 per year for four years of undergraduate study.
There are many students like Qian Qian who have their college education paid for by organizations like the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, where I work as manager of outreach. My job is to look for students like Qian Qian every day–high achieving, hardworking and in need of financial assistance. Students can graduate from college with little to no debt as Qian did, with the right planning, decision-making and DIY attitude.

Qian Qian Tang enjoys her job as Lead Product Manager “building awesome products at Kinsa” as her LinkedIn profile states. She studied Chemical-Biological Engineering at MIT #ilooklikeanengineer
Qian Qian Tang enjoys her job as Lead Product Manager “building awesome products at Kinsa” as her LinkedIn profile states. She studied Chemical-Biological Engineering at MIT #ilooklikeanengineer

With the average amount of national student debt hovering around $30,000 for college graduates, finding creative ways to support your educational goals is essential.
Here are some tips I share with college-bound students:
1. Apply for Scholarships. Students don’t realize that scholarship programs are seeking out students. But here’s the catch–you have to apply. Many students, including those who qualify, don’t take the time to apply to outside and private scholarships. The payoff is potentially huge. Don’t rely solely on colleges and universities to provide aid that can often result in loans and debt. Start with reputable online resources like and Bookmark sites like which especially targets first-generation college students, and College Board’s Big Future site to get tips on applying to college, too. There’s even a micro-scholarship site called that helps you see what financial aid you could get at different colleges based on your grades and activities.

2. Avoid Scams. Because our foundation offers such large scholarships, sometimes students and parents think it’s too good to be true. Students should be aware of organizations that are too good to be true. A scholarship shouldn’t cost you money, so don’t pay fees just to apply to a scholarship or to be included in some directory. A reputable scholarship like ours will ask you to write essays and submit your academic transcript, but not ever to submit money.

3. Get Organized and Write Strong Essays. Most scholarships like ours require students to share their story and their talents. Putting together a successful application takes time, planning and help. Make sure you:

  • Understand what the scholarship represents and what they’re looking for. Are they looking for leadership qualities? Someone who has a passion for a particular field? Or someone who identifies with a particular cause? I can’t tell you how many times I read a scholarship application and think, “This person has no idea what they’re applying for.” Sometimes, it’s basic things like knowing the program and then answering the questions in the scholarship application that can set you apart from many other students.
  • Write and rewrite. Students make the mistake of writing only one draft or having no one review their essays. For college and scholarship essays, take the time to do a few rewrites. Crafting your story takes time and reflection. You also want to get a trusted person’s opinion. Yes, sometimes your English teacher is a great resource, but the best personal essays are not just about good writing and perfect grammar. It’s about authentic and good storytelling. Think of other people who know you well enough to provide feedback including family members, coaches or even a music teacher. They may read it and say, “This doesn’t sound like you” or “You should talk more about this experience, which really helped you grow.”
  • Don’t submit a resume as your essay. Students waste valuable time and space in their essay repeating all of their accomplishments or sharing in depth about how much one club or activity meant to them. In most cases, the scholarship essay is your chance to show the readers why they should choose you, why they want to get to know you and have you as part of their organization. They will already have your grades, stats, club and activity listings. Use your essay to tell a unique story. The best stories are personal and employ the “show, not tell” approach to sharing information. For more tips on essay writing, visit GetMeToCollege.
  • Take the SAT/ACT. A study has shown that 23% of high achieving, low-income students don’t take the SAT or ACT, which are essential tests for gaining admission to four-year colleges and universities. In 2015, the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation joined forces with the College Board to help recruit underrepresented students for scholarship opportunities. Other partners in the collaboration include the American Indian Graduate Center, Asian & Pacific Islander American Scholarship Fund, Hispanic Scholarship Fund and the United Negro College Fund. Students who take the PSAT can opt to have their information shared with scholarship organizations and programs looking to recruit and support underrepresented students across the country.
  • Challenge yourself with AP/IB coursework. AP/IB coursework shows colleges that you are ready for college-level study, which can give you an edge in being considered for merit and need-based aid. If AP or IB programs aren’t available at your school, look into dual-enrollment programs at community colleges or even online course providers like edX.

Finally, students should pursue their passions and set their sights high. The keys to innovating your own pathway are to think big and take advantage of opportunities.
William Tarpeh is also one of our foundation’s scholars and he was recently featured on NBC News as one of 28 leaders under the age of 28 who are “elevating the conversation on black identity, politics, and culture.”

William Tarpeh has said that his work is not necessarily glamorous, but it’s important enough that
it could revolutionize the lives of millions of people.

Will knew he wanted to become an engineer when he was just in middle school. More importantly, he wanted to help create solutions to problems he saw in the world, like sanitation in Third World countries. He began volunteering in his community when he was just in elementary school. His passion for giving back to his community and beyond is a big part of who he is. Beyond achievement, scholarship and other financial aid programs are looking to find inspiring people and stories.
Want more advice and tips? Check out our post on Why high-achieving students with financial need should apply to selective colleges and universities.

About “GenDIY”

eduInnovation and Getting Smart have partnered with The J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation to produce a thought leadership campaign called Generation Do-It-Yourself (GenDIY)–how young people are hacking a pathway to a career they love–on The Huffington Post and This campaign about reimagining secondary and postsecondary education and career skills will explore the new generation building a global economy and experiences that are impact driven and entrepreneurial. For more on GenDIY:

Nara Lee is the Manager of Outreach at the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. Follow her on Twitter: @hansololee01.

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