Figuring out how to pay for college can be daunting.

For the 2017–18 academic year, college spending averaged $25,290 per student at public schools and $50,900 at private schools. Those are monumental amounts for many families. While federal and private student loans are options to pay for college, scholarships are a particularly helpful way to partially or fully cover college costs. Scholarships are “free money,” meaning students don’t need to pay anything back as they would with student loans. However, earning a scholarship involves focused research and completing applications, which can feel like extra work on top of the already demanding college application process. But it’s hard work that can pay off. It certainly did for the students and recent grads we hear from below. Their scholarships changed everything for their educational paths.

“Sure enough, someone out there believed in me enough to give me a chance.”

— Ashley Kimler

A Dream School Come True

Alvin Garcia grew up in New York, but he’d always dreamed of attending a Big Ten university away from home. He applied to several Big Ten schools, despite concerns about the high cost of out-of-state tuition. Soon, the acceptance letters started rolling in, but the funding never did. Garcia began to worry.

And then everything changed. As a participant in a local non-profit mentorship program, Garcia was eligible for a full, need-based scholarship offered by the organization. When he won it, he was overjoyed. “My tuition would be covered and I would be able to attend the school of my dreams,” he says.

“The journey did not end there,” adds Garcia. He realized scholarships could pay for expenses beyond tuition. He continued to apply for scholarships, even in college. He was able to participate in study-abroad programs in Chile and Japan because his additional scholarships covered the cost of plane tickets. His advice? Talk to particular departments and organizations at your school to determine what they offer and how they can help. “For example, the communications department had scholarships only for communications majors. This meant that I had a better chance due to a smaller pool compared to the whole university or country,” he explains.

A Family Affair

Joshua Matthews remembers feeling overwhelmed by the scholarship application process. Over the course of his senior year, he devoted enormous amounts of time to applying for approximately 35 scholarships, plus a few institutional grants. But the happy news is that he won 13 of them.

“To be honest, I got discouraged a lot when I was applying for scholarships,” Matthews recalls. But, he’s quick to add: “Believe me, it’s more than worth it in the end!”

His mom, Monica Matthews, wholeheartedly agrees, and says the scholarships helped the entire family. “It meant that I could continue to stay home and raise my two other boys and did not have to return to work to be able to afford my son’s college tuition and expenses,” she says. Buoyed by their scholarship success, she decided to write a guide, How to Win College Scholarships, to help other students and their parents.

While his institutional scholarships covered all four years of college, assuming he maintained a good GPA, Matthews applied for additional scholarships throughout his time at school. Most memorably, he was awarded a $7,000 scholarship from Boeing Corporation in his junior year. The award meant that Matthews didn’t have to work during the school year and could focus all his energy on his academics and extracurriculars. In the end, he graduated with high honors and now works as an aerospace engineer at Boeing.

Not Your Typical Student

Scholarships aren’t just for high school students. They’re available to non-traditional college applicants as well. Ashley Kimler, a mother of three in Oregon, was inspired to apply for scholarships after she learned that’s how her cousin paid for nursing school. “I didn’t think there was a chance that I would actually qualify for much. It’s not like I’m a high school senior in the honor society, but I decided I would give it a shot,” she says.

Kimler applied for almost 20 scholarships and learned a few months ago that she’d won an early childhood development scholarship totaling $30,000. At first, she didn’t think it was real. “But I looked into it and, sure enough, someone out there believed in me enough to give me a chance,” she says. Kimler started her new undergraduate program this fall. “I can finally finish my degree without worrying about how I’m going to pay for school and finish raising three kids. I couldn’t be more grateful.”

Applying for scholarships can feel like a gamble: They require a lot of extra work and offer no guarantees. But Garcia, Matthews and Kimler are just three examples of gambles that paid off, proving that the effort can be well worth it and lives can be fundamentally changed as a result.