Kristina Ellis Won $500,000 in Scholarships and Graduated without Student Loans

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By Kristen Kuchar

December 2, 2020

Kristina Ellis was able to win more than $500,000 in scholarships to pay for college and graduate debt-free. 

She is now on a mission to help college students avoid student loan debt and pay for college. She’s created a website and blog and wrote two books – Confessions of a Scholarship Winner and How to Graduate Debt Free

We got the chance to ask Kristina to share her inspiring story, where college students can find scholarships, what her best scholarship tips are, and how to avoid the biggest mistakes when applying for scholarships.

Can you share your story on how you won $500,000 in scholarships? 

On the first day of my freshman year of high school, my mom sat me down and said, “Kristina, I love you, and I believe in you, but there is just no way I can support you financially once you graduate from high school. You need to figure out your own way to pay for college.” 

At first, I was shocked and frustrated, but at the same time, something in me knew she was right and trying to help. My dad passed away years before, and while my mom did the best she could to provide for my brother and me, thousands of extra dollars for a college education wasn’t realistic for our budget. 

She inspired me to start looking into scholarships, make a plan for how I could build a standout resume, and apply. We read every book we could find on the topic, interviewed people familiar with the subject, and then put our plans to work. I got very involved in extra-curricular activities throughout high school, doing things that I enjoyed and strategically building up a strong scholarship resume. 

In the summer and fall of senior year, I treated applying for scholarships like my part-time job. I spent hours in our local public library, sorting through scholarship listings and applying, applying, applying. I spent a lot of time crafting and perfecting my essays and thinking through ways to package myself to stand out. 

Thankfully, the commitment paid off. I was able to win over $500,000 in scholarships, graduate from my dream school- Vanderbilt University, and earn a Master’s of Education from Belmont University, debt-free

I won various scholarships, including several high-dollar university-based scholarships, private national scholarships, and local scholarships. The most competitive scholarships I won, which contributed the most to my education, were the Bill & Melinda Gates Scholarship, the Coca-Cola National Scholarship, and the Horatio Alger Scholarship. 

Thankfully, the scholarships I won in high school were enough to cover my education fully; therefore, I didn’t need to continue applying throughout college. 

Did you know that scholarships are taxable? Use our Scholarship Tax Calculator to figure out the taxable amount of your scholarships and calculate how much you’ll have to pay in taxes. Amounts used to pay for tuition and textbooks may be tax-free, but amounts used to pay for living expenses are taxable. 

What resources helped you with your scholarship search or would you recommend?

I highly recommend students start searching for scholarships using Scholarship Databases, which are search engines specifically designed to help you find scholarships. Some popular ones include Fastweb, Big Future, Scholly, Cappex, Unigo, Petersons, Niche, and Chegg. 

I recommend using at least three databases in your search, as different search engines often generate different results. Make sure to compare and contrast your search results, filtering out scholarships that aren’t great fits for you, and ultimately creating a solid list of scholarships that specifically match your qualifications and interests. 

I also strongly recommend using the power of a simple Google search. While search engines are great, a Google search can often be an even more straightforward path to finding strongly matched scholarships. 

Type in a specific interest you have or niche you fit, then “coma” scholarships or “scholarships for _____,” to generate matches. For example, if you are a female interested in a STEM field, you could type in “Scholarships for females in STEM” or “STEM, female, scholarships.” You’ll often find targeted lists of scholarships related to your search, and even better yet, you’ll sometimes find results that lead directly to the organization giving away the scholarship. 

See also: Beware of Scholarship Scams

What do you think is the biggest mistake students make when applying for scholarships?

Many students lack confidence and don’t take themselves seriously, and it shows in their applications. They are afraid of being rejected, so they don’t put a lot of time and effort into their scholarship applications, thereby not feeling bad or like they invested too much time if they don’t win. Unfortunately, that’s only going to increase your chances of not winning. 

Instead, if you take the time to really craft your activities list and essays and “go all-in” on your applications, you can create content that stands out from the crowd. Plus, once you’ve worked hard on a few foundational essays, you can “recycle” them for future applications. Meaning, you don’t have to continually write new essays for every single application. You can just take your powerful essays from previous applications, modify and customize them to fit, and be even stronger in future applications. 

I’ve talked to several scholarship judges who are appalled at the number of typos and grammar errors in applicants’ essays. Between spell check and the ability to have people proofread your essays, these are simple mistakes to avoid that can set you apart in a sea of subpar essays. 

See also: Scholarship Essay Tips

Can you share the best three tips for those searching for scholarships?

Apply for SEVERAL scholarships

Winning scholarships is often a numbers game. Don’t put all of your eggs in the baskets of a few large national scholarships, hoping that’s all you need to do. Many of the most successful scholarship winners who graduate without debt, applied for a ton of scholarships. And while they may have been turned down for some, because they applied for so many, there were still able to win several and get what they needed to pay for college.

Pay attention to your school counselor.

I’ve talked to many students who are eager to win scholarships yet don’t take advantage of the resources their school counselor provides. While not all schools have great counselors, if yours does, then make sure you pay attention to the resources he or she shares. This person is often your strongest, and sometimes only, connection to local scholarships, which may not have online listings. 

Your counselor may also send out a weekly or monthly newsletter sharing local and national scholarships, saving you time and effort in your search. He or she may even be willing to help you strategize essay topics, review your activities list, and help point you towards university scholarships that might be great fits for you. 

Don’t compare yourself to your friends.

Your best friend may be valedictorian, and if you compare your resume to theirs, you may feel like they are much more qualified to win scholarships. However, that does not mean they are automatically a better candidate than you or will stand out from the crowd.

I was ranked #32 in my high school class out of about 240 students, but I was able to win a scholarship where I was 1 in 50 out of 100,000 applicants. If I had looked around my local high school and compared myself, I would have never even applied for that scholarship. Instead, I put my blinders on and worked hard to submit the absolute best application I could.

Thankfully, I was able to craft my own strategy for standing out to scholarship judges, even though I wasn’t the top student in my class. So, keep your chin up, and do the best you can to be the most competitive version of yourself. 

See also: Complete Guide to Scholarships for College

Besides scholarships, what are other resources you can recommend for students paying for college?

I recently launched a website,, to help students navigate the scholarship and college admissions process. This spring, I am launching a comprehensive scholarship course, where I walk students through everything they need to know to find the best scholarships for them, build incredible resumes, and craft standout essays. If students are interested in this deep-dive, they can sign-up for my newsletter at to be among the first to get notified when the course launches in March!

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