How Kristina Ellis Won $500,000 Worth of Scholarships and Graduated Debt Free

How Kristina Ellis Won $500,000 Worth of Scholarships and Graduated Debt Free


It’s that time of year again when many students start to think of submitting scholarship applications. As the Founder of the Aspire-Canada Scholarship, I wanted to help students put their best scholarship application forward. I reached out to Kristina Ellis, otherwise known as the College Ninja – to uncover her strategies that landed her over $500,000 in scholarship money for University. That’s more money than 80% of us earn annually!

Estimates suggest average student debt in Canada is now past the $25,000 mark. The Canadian University Survey Consortium surveyed more than 18,000 graduating university students from 36 Canadian universities for its 2015 annual report. The average debt-ridden student owed $26,819.  Winning scholarships can be part of a strategy to lower the cost of University tuition and graduating debt free.

Kristina’s story is truly inspirational and shows how we can persevere to overcome tragedy and loss. When Kristina was 7, her father tragically died after a 4-year battle with brain cancer.  As a result of the loss of her father’s income, her family slipped below the poverty line and struggled to figure out their new life. Battling depression, eating disorders, and self-harm, Kristina made the decision to take her own life—only to be stopped by a midnight phone call that set her on a path toward hope.

Haunted by the decision she had almost made the night before, Kristina decided to abandon her patterns of self-abuse, embrace gratitude, and start fighting for the life she wanted. She got involved in volunteer work, sports, and competitions. And even though her family still struggled financially, Kristina found things she could excel at and ways to keep herself positive.

Ultimately, despite average grades and test scores, she devised a plan to find college and scholarship success. She immersed herself in research, working to figure out what made a person successful in the scholarship application process and how she could personally stand out.

Her strategy allowed her to win the title of Miss Indiana Teen USA, travel to Haiti on missions work, win two Gold Medals in the Junior Olympics for gymnastics, coach a 45-member gymnastics team at age 16, and start a fundraiser that sent shoes to Tanzania and Haiti.

Kristina’s efforts really paid off when she was awarded over $500,000 in scholarships for University and was able to attend her dream school, Vanderbilt University, for free. Kristina is now on a mission to help students find similar or even greater success.

When I reached out to Kristina she had just recently returned from a 6 country trip through Asia and the Pacific, that included Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand and Hawaii.

Here are some tips from Kristina’s first book – Confessions of a Scholarship Winner: The Secrets That Helped Me Win $500,000 in Free Money for College. How You Can Too., that details how she encourages students to approach each scholarship application.

According to Ellis, you need to think like a salesperson when filling out your scholarship applications. Think of yourself as a product that you have to convince investors to invest their money in. Are you worth investing a $20,000 scholarship in? Of course you are! So sell them on it! By the time you submit your application, you want it to be compelling enough that the judges know their search is over and they should invest thousands of dollars in you. To sell yourself, you need to know what “the investor” is looking for.

Kristina suggests that in order to get to know a scholarship program make sure you understand these two things before you apply:

1. The Why

Each scholarship program has its own reasons for giving out award money—whether it’s wanting to help produce future leaders, motivating volunteers who will go on to impact the world, or supporting people who make a prom dress from duct tape (yes, there is a scholarship for that). As much as possible, you need to learn what is motivating the organization’s generosity before filling out an application.

2. The Who

Each scholarship organization also has its own definition of an ideal candidate. By unearthing the scholarship program’s reasons and motivation for giving away money, you can get a better idea of what the organization is looking for in a scholarship winner.

For instance, the Aspire-Canada scholarship program is a memorial scholarship in memory of Garfield Mullings, my late husband who passed away in April 2009. He was a Certified General Accountant who spent countless hours doing voluntary work helping Canadians every year with filing their tax returns. He was also a volunteer for Habitat for Humanity, building houses in Ottawa, and was an avid runner – participating in the National Capital Race Weekend in Ottawa every year. This scholarship fund was established in memory of his life and his service to the community. Since his death, I’ve made it my life’s mission to help others especially young Canadians – as he passed away suddenly at the age of 34 as a result of a rare illness.

After Determining the Why and the Who – Then do your Research

Survey the organization’s website, brochure, database descriptions, and any other useful information you can find. If you are still unable to get a clear picture, don’t hesitate to email or call the organization and ask for more insight. All the data you gather will help you gain a clearer picture of what the program is looking for. Take note of areas the organization stresses and how things are stated: What descriptive words are used to describe candidates and values? (For example, you might see such words as overcome, perseverance, ambition.) Are there certain themes or words repeatedly mentioned does the organization place a high value on community service? If so, is one certain area of community service mentioned more than others? what similarities do previous winners of this scholarship share?

After You Complete Your Research – Do an Outline

From this research, using the qualities the scholarship program seems to value most, you can then develop an outline of that organization’s ideal candidate. Break down your outline even further by including ways you fit the picture of that ideal candidate. This outline can help you customize your application to specifically appeal to the scholarship program you are applying to. Reference it as you’re filling out the scholarship application, thinking through how you embody the characteristics of the program’s ideal candidate. For example, if you were applying to the Aspire-Canada Scholarship program, your outline would include the fact that we value community service and, overcoming obstacles to achieve success. If the essay topic is, “Discuss a moment in your life that made a significant impact,” then highlighting a situation where you assisted people in need with a charity you are passionate about would be a smart approach. It should be noted that volunteer experience is just one component of the scholarship application but does not in any way limit anyone from applying because they may not have volunteer experience.

Excerpts taken from Confessions of a Scholarship Winner: The Secrets That Helped Me Win $500,000 in Free Money for College. How You Can Too.

Good Luck on your scholarship application. If you have any other strategies to share – please leave a comment below.

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