Covering all or part of your college costs with scholarships is unconditionally a good thing.

There’s no obligation to repay scholarship money you earn so they are an ideal way to help pay for college. And for anyone who believes that scholarships are reserved for academic all-stars, that’s simply not the case. Applicants can qualify for scholarships based on a wide range of criteria—GPA and test scores are just two of many possibilities. Here, students share how they paid for a significant portion of their college tuition using scholarships that were unrelated to academic performance.

My Extracurriculars Paid Off

If academics aren’t your strong suit, your non-academic pursuits could put you in the running for many specialized scholarships, while increasing your application appeal for just about any scholarship. Natalie Harper, a graduate of Spalding University, can attest to that. She knew that to earn money to help pay for college, she couldn’t rely on her scores. “I am awful at standardized tests,” she says. Instead of letting those test results slow her down, Harper leveraged her many extracurriculars to demonstrate her passions and work ethic.

Her list of activities and accomplishments is impressive: “I worked a part-time job starting at 15. I went on several mission trips. I was on the varsity swim team for two years and I was also the chairperson of the Youth Ministry Activities Team for my junior and senior year.” By highlighting her myriad extracurriculars, she earned more than $75,000 in scholarships from a variety of organizations. Harper doesn’t remember exactly how many awards she pursued, but she’s sure of one thing: “I know that my extracurricular activities interested many of the people I received scholarships from.”

I Stepped Out of My Comfort Zone

Pursuing scholarship money may require pushing past what’s familiar to you. Kate McGregor, who graduated from Brigham Young University-Hawaii, has eight younger siblings and knew that earning money for college would be a significant help to her family. She also knew that she’d unlikely qualify for scholarships based strictly on her academic performance.

So, McGregor signed up for—and won—several pageants with scholarship prizes totaling $2,500. “It’s definitely something that makes you stretch,” she says, explaining how foreign the pageant world was to her. But the payoff was even greater than the money she earned—“It was a great way for me to personally develop, get public speaking experience, and gain overall confidence.”

We Went Big…and Wide

Harper and McGregor agree that getting scholarship money is a numbers game, meaning it pays to fill out a lot of applications.

“I went to the school counselor’s office and picked up applications for any and all scholarships I met the criteria for,” McGregor says. “I got about half of the ones I applied to because very few people actually knew the scholarships even existed!”

Even if you think that a specific scholarship is a long shot, go for it because you never know what might happen. McGregor applied for a total of 11 non-academic scholarships, which, in addition to her pageant competitions, earned her a total of $4,000 for college. “Apply for everything,” Harper says, echoing McGregor. “You miss the shots you don’t take.”

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I Figured Out My Game Plan Early

“I realized from a young age that the only way I would be able to attend college was on a football scholarship,” says Sam Timothy, a South Carolina State University grad, “because my family didn’t have any financial means to help me pay for school.” Timothy’s academic performance wasn’t as impressive as what he could do on the football field, so he dedicated himself to increasing his odds of getting a football scholarship. “I worked out with private speed and agility trainers, I had multiple tutoring meetings to make sure I remained academically eligible for an athletic scholarship,” he says, “and I also attended multiple football camps across the country in an effort to gain the attention of recruiters.”

His work didn’t stop there. Timothy actively promoted his football talent to coaches and colleges and advises anyone gunning for a sports scholarship to do the same. “Put together a highlight reel of [your] athletic skills and send it to all of the colleges in the United States—from big schools to small schools—because it is impossible for every coach from every college to come see you play,” he says.

Timothy’s work both on and off the field proved worthwhile. He won a full football scholarship, which covered everything from tuition and books to room and board and allowed him to graduate debt-free.

I Continued My Search—After College Began

Just because you start college doesn’t mean your scholarship search should end. There’s money to be found from freshman year on. “Going forward in school, there were fewer scholarships available,” Harper says, but continuing her search paid off. “My university offered endowed scholarships,” she explains. “There was an online application where you filled out very specific questions for the very specific scholarships.”

Harper ultimately earned three additional scholarships—valued at approximately $13,500 in total. That should provide ample motivation to keep up the scholarship search after you get to campus.

Bottom line: There’s scholarship money out there for everyone, and you don’t have to have a perfect GPA or stellar test scores to earn it. All it takes is a little ingenuity and a lot of persistence.

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