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I’m a full-time student. I’ve spent 6 years in university (4 years in Bachelor and 2 years in Master). I even studied abroad for 2 years! Somehow, this month, I’ll be graduating, debt-free! This post talks about how to graduate debt-free, even if you’re not a superstar.
1. Apply for scholarships and grants
During my Bachelor, I received over $50,000 in scholarships and grants. Yes, fifty freaking thousand dollars! For my Master, I received $32,000 to study abroad. For my PhD which I will be starting in August 2018, I will be paid $45,000 in my first year (the amount increases to $65,000 thereafter)!
I’m not special. I’m not exceptionally talented. I haven’t saved the world.
However, I came up with a foolproof way of applying to university scholarships. If I had to put a number on it, I’d say that I won every 3 out of 4 scholarships that I applied for. Here’s what I did:
There are some scholarships that have really early deadlines, maybe even a year in advance. I started making note of all the scholarships that I wanted to apply for a year before I was to finish high school. I studied all of the requirements. This way, I made sure that I had enough time to build my application to include everything that the selection committee was looking for.
For example, some scholarships wanted to see my community involvement. Some scholarships wanted to see my leadership capabilities. Others wanted that I have good grades. I made note of all the “must haves” for these scholarship and I worked on building them!
Get amazing reference letters
For most scholarships, you’re going to have to provide reference letters. I made sure to secure top-notch reference letters from previous employers and high school teachers. This didn’t necessarily mean that I was the best student in class or the best employee. I just used my people skills to make sure that my employers and teachers loved me and would be more than happy to give me a glowing review. I always worked hard in class and at work and tried to overdeliver on expectations.
Apply to scholarships with high requirements
I know it’s easy to want to close the window when you see the list of requirements for applying to a scholarship, especially the high-value ones. Maybe they’re asking for 2-3 reference letters and 3 essays. Don’t get intimidated by the list of requirements!!!
If 99% of the applicants who saw the list of requirements decided to not follow through with their application, then that leaves you in the 1% of applicants. This increases your chances of winning the scholarship tremendously!
I applied to some of the most prestigious scholarships. For most of them, I read the requirements and thought, there is no way I would get selected. I felt as if I didn’t meet a single requirement. However, I applied anyway and I ended up winning a national scholarship worth $9,000 in my first year of university.
In my second year, I won another super prestigious scholarship worth $22,500! The application process took me maybe a week or 2 to prepare (they asked for soooo much stuff)! But apparently I was only 1 of 2 applicants who ended up applying! So seriously, the next time you see a list of requirements and think that you don’t stand a chance, apply anyways! Trust me, every other student is feeling the same.
I won these scholarships not because I’m the best of the best. I won them because I was probably one of the only students who followed through and spent a week on their application! So seriously, just work on your application and don’t let your self-doubt creep up on you!
Write killer essays
So as you can probably tell, I love writing. And I’m pretty good at storytelling. When someone is reviewing your scholarship application letter, they are looking for a compelling story. You don’t have to be the smartest student in the world and you don’t have to come up with a cure for cancer. You just have to tell YOUR PERSONAL STORY in a convincing way.
I made sure to structure all of my university essays like a story. I talked about my background, the struggles I’ve experienced, and why I want to go to university. I also talked about how going to university would benefit me. Lastly, I end off by talking about my future plans. I make everything sound like a fairytale. And the main storyline is: I need to go to university but I don’t have the money. Please help me out so I can save the world!
Proofread, proofread, proofread
Make sure your application is ERROR FREE. I’d recommend proofreading it at least 5 times. Sounds OCD? No, it’s not. One mistake can cost you the scholarship!
If you have a friend or relative who is willing to proofread your application, definitely get their help. The more eyes on your application, the more you can improve it and increase your chances of winning a scholarship 🙂
2. Get a part-time job or internship
If you can’t secure any scholarships, don’t fret. You can still graduate debt-free!
During my studies, I was always working part-time. I worked as cashier, residence tour guide, student community leader, and a Teaching Assistant. These were all super fun part-time jobs that paid me enough to cover my living expenses. Also, these jobs were a great way for me to meet other students and to build my resume!
I also completed 4 internships during my Bachelor program which opened doors for me. Internships were a great way to make some extra money and to build my resume. And thanks to my internship experience, I was able to find my first full-time job within 2 months of finishing my Bachelor!
3. Live at home
I never got the luxury of living at home during my studies. I did my Bachelor in another city, 2 hours from home. I did my Master in a foreign country. However, whenever I had my internship placements, I would find a job in Toronto so that I could live at home with my parents to save money.
If you are fortunate enough to study at a university that’s close to your parents’ place, why not consider living at home to save some money?
4. Live frugally
Even though I had received a scholarship to cover all of my tuition and living expenses (and more), I continued to live frugally. Here are some of the things I did:
- Make my own coffee
- Cook my own meals
- Not pay for gym memberships, cable TV, magazine subscriptions
- Not own a car
- Not go drinking
- Live in a basic accommodation
I’ve written an article all about how I live as a frugal student, don’t forget to check it out!
5. Avoid buying textbooks if you don’t need them
So I hate buying textbooks for a number of reasons. First, they are expensive. Second, a lot of professors tell you to buy them, and you don’t even end up using them. Third, I find that I wasn’t really using the textbook, I was better at just studying off the class notes. And lastly, after the semester, you will never use the textbook again!
I always held off on buying textbooks. I usually waited until the third or fourth week of the course and if at that point I felt there was a need for the textbook, then I would buy it.
When I needed to buy a textbook, I’d first check for a used copy at the university used book store. Also, there are a lot of Facebook groups which you can use to exchange textbooks. If I absolutely have to buy new, I avoided the university book store. They were charging a price that was much higher than the market price. I usually ordered my textbooks off Amazon to save money. Lastly, if there was an electronic version of the book, I opted for that instead. It’s usually cheaper.
If you live with other students, you can also consider sharing textbooks. I lived with other students in my program and we used to just borrow each other’s textbooks and study together. It’s a win-win. Some of my friends also went to the library and borrowed the textbook and made copies of it 😛
Also, sometimes you can buy an older edition of the textbook. Oftentimes, the publishers just change a few words here and there and call it a new edition. I’ve used older versions of textbooks and found them to be 99% identical to the new edition! You can score outdated textbooks for next to no cost!
6. Take advantage of your student status to get discounts and free stuff
Whenever I can, I try to use my student status to my advantage. Most restaurants and stores will offer student discounts. You can save anywhere from 10-20% sometimes! You can also get student discounts on your health insurance plan, your bank accounts, cell phone plan, and more!
Also, my university offers free gym facilities and language courses. I make sure to check out all of the free offers available at my university and use them as I see fit 🙂
I graduated debt-free and received over $82,000 in scholarships over 6 years. I was not lucky. I just worked hard and applied to scholarships early on. Even as a college student, I lived frugally to save even more money.
I hope this post has helped you. How much did your Bachelor/Master degree cost you? How much student debt do you have?
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