“You have four years to figure out what you’re doing with your life, because you’re on your own financially after graduation.”

When my mom delivered that news on my first day of high school, I already felt awkward and overwhelmed by my new environment, so her statement seemed like some sort of mean trick.But then she went on to explain that she was telling me this out of love and because she believed in me. 

As a single mother who’d lost her husband to cancer, she was barely scraping by, and she knew that spending an extra $50,000 per year for my brother and I to attend college was not an option.

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My mom encouraged me to take the next four years to figure out how I could win scholarships, and concluded with these words: “The choices you make right now will impact you for the rest of your life.”

Her words could not have been truer.

That day was so significant because it was the day I realized my future was in my hands. It was also the first time I really began to believe I could accomplish big goals and do something meaningful with my life.

Perhaps without even knowing it, my mom unlocked in that one short conversation a mystery most students don’t uncover until they’re signing the paperwork for a lifetime of student loans:

Securing a healthy financial future requires being proactive versus reactive. My family never could have afforded the expensive, Top 20 private university I went to, but because my mom encouraged me to prepare in advance, I was able to win $500,000 in scholarships for college and graduate debt-free. Her wisdom and challenge at that critical point in my life was worth more than any other gift she could have given me.

When I first began my scholarship quest, the complexity of it all seemed so insurmountable that my first reaction was paralysis. Even though Mom had sparked a fire in me to start working toward the college goal, she wasn’t clear on where I should begin. Ultimately, I just jumped in, spending countless hours tracking down any information I could find about how to win scholarships—reading every library book available about college and scholarships, surfing the Web for articles, and calling countless scholarship recipients and programs asking about what to expect. 

Once I compiled all that research, I had my roadmap. And I share those secrets and strategies in my new book, "Confessions of a Scholarship Winner," so that any student can develop their own plan without all the confusion I faced.

My mom’s timing for this challenging conversation provided another gift: she gave me plenty of time to prepare. This saved me from frantically trying to squeeze loads of volunteer work and extracurricular activities into my senior year in a last-ditch effort to stand out to college admissions and scholarship committees. Having four years to learn the scholarship game and build up my resume made such a difference! And it is what I ideally recommend to students and parents:

Start early. (However, if you’re farther along in your schooling, I offer plenty of ideas in my book that will help you.) It was especially helpful because I was pretty average: a B student who battled self-esteem issues and didn’t really care much about standing out in a crowd.

Once I set my mind on college and scholarships, though, all that changed. I became determined to get involved in activities that would stand out to scholarship committees. Fortunately, my mom’s advance warning allowed me the time to find activities that I also really enjoyed and wanted to do!

Scholarship committees love to see commitment and achievement, and those things came naturally once I found activities that fit me. So my suggestion for you would be: 

Do what you love. For example, I became passionate about volunteering and ended up logging more than 1,000 hours of community service. I worked my way up to leadership positions, became head coach of a large, club gymnastics team, and eventually was named Miss Indiana Teen USA.

Since graduating from college, I’ve run into so many young adults who are putting off marriage, struggling to purchase homes, and settling on careers they don’t enjoy simply because they are drowning in student-loan debt. Almost all of them say, “I wish someone would have explained college financing and scholarships to me sooner.” Every time I hear that, I picture my mom’s face on my first day of high school and realize that would have been me.

I’ll forever be so thankful for my mom’s boldness and challenge, because she launched me on a life-changing, financially liberating path that other students can walk too. 

I like to paint a picture for students, explaining that rather than having to work their way through college making minimum wage, they could spend five hours working on a scholarship application, and if they win $2,500, it’s the equivalent of making $500 per hour! 

For just a small investment of time on the front end, the payoff can be huge—even if you’re not class valedictorian or a star athlete.

The truth is, you don’t have to be perfect in any way to become an excellent scholarship candidate. Scholarship committees are actually looking for students who are motivated and who are likely to make a positive contribution to the world. That can be you! So get informed, take the time to figure out your game plan, and start walking out those first critical steps. And most importantly...

Believe in your potential. Whether you are a student or someone who can initiate a life-changing conversation with a student, I encourage you not to wait! 

Commit yourself to the process, figure out what you’re doing, then give it your all, remembering those poignant words from my mom: “The choices you make right now will impact you for the rest of your life.” 

With some hard work and determination, success is within your reach!

Kristina Ellis is a scholarship mentor and author of "Confessions of a Scholarship Winner: The Secrets That Helped Me Win $500,000 In Free Money For College. How You Can Too!" (Worthy Publishing). Visit www.Kristinaellis.com for more information.