Get Paid to Learn: Six Practices to Earn Scholarships

Our mission at The Learning Code is to empower you to thrive in college and beyond. We want to support you in becoming a strategic deep learner. But we know that one of the most difficult and frustrating aspects of college is the expensive price tag attached to the college experience. This Get Paid to Learn series is designed to help you earn money to pay for college. We want to help you graduate with minimal or no student debt. We want to guide you to find ways to get paid to learn and to prepare for the next stages of your life. This blog post highlights six practices you can use to earn scholarships, internships, fellowships, paid work-study programs, and other opportunities aligned with your academic and career interests.

Between tuition, textbooks, and the cost of living, students and their families often pay tens of thousands of dollars for the opportunity to take college classes with the hopes of earning a degree. Many students leave college with a mountain of student debt even if they drop out of school before earning a diploma. Before we discuss specific strategies to apply for and earn scholarships, it’s important to say that this privatization of higher education is a system-wide policy failure.

The United States is the richest and most prosperous nation in the world. We can afford to provide free tuition for public colleges and universities. We also have the capacity to realize a host of other social investments in our youth including health care, rent support, and food money for those that need it. Since the 1970s, our local, state, and national governments have become progressively more neoliberal in their approach to public policy, turning to private markets to solve public problems. We see evidence of this theory of government in decades of budget cuts for colleges and universities. This policy approach to education shifts the burden for the expense of college onto the backs of students and their families.

The best way our society can support you in paying for college is to invest more in education including free tuition for public institutions and financial support for your cost of living so that every student who wants to earn a college degree can graduate debt free. To make this vision a reality, each of us needs to advocate for system transformation using our democratic levers of power in local, state, and national governments. This process of policy change will require decades of activism and engagement far beyond your years in college. In the meantime, you must pay for school and figure out ways to create value in your education. To do that, we recommend implementing six scholarship practices that you can use to apply for and earn scholarships as part of your college experience.  

Scholarship Practice #1:

Learn to conquer college

The first step of creating a powerful scholarship system is to learn how to conquer college. You know how to conquer college when you can get any grade you want in any class with any teacher. In other words, you conquer college when you can look at any class you want to take, state your desired grade in that class before the term begins, and then successfully earn that grade by the end of the academic term.

Let me be clear: I believe we should STOP using letter grades as proxy measurements for student learning. The process of assigning letter grades is dehumanizing, inaccurate, nonscientific, and uninspiring.

The reason I advocate for you to learn how to conquer college is that I want you to have more control over your future. Far too many college students get weeded out of their degree because they struggle to earn the grades they want. The moment you can control your grades in college classes, you enjoy an increased sense of achievement and freedom in your academic life. You can engage in your classes without worrying about failure and instead focus on creating the types of experiences you want for your college career.

Another reason to learn how to get the grades you want is that many scholarships, fellowships, and internships have minimum GPA requirements. For example, you might apply for a scholarship that requires a minimum of a 3.0 GPA. As we’ll discuss in future posts, you don’t always have to meet the requirements listed in a scholarship announcement. However, if you can get any grade you want in any class, you have the capacity to design your academic record so that you can compete for scholarships and opportunities that catch your eye.

To conquer college, you’ll need to develop, refine, and practice several highly effective learning skills on a term-by-term basis. These include:

If you click on any of the links in the list above, you’ll be directed to resources that support you in achieving each of these stated goals. I have spent over a decade of my life developing these resources and I have inspired many students to earn 4.0s in their undergraduate and graduate degrees. While I’m happy that this work has empowered many of my students, I don’t believe that the goal of earning a 4.0 GPA is important in and of itself. What I care most about is empowering you to control your academic life and graduate with minimum debt.

Scholarship Practice #2:

Treat scholarships like a class

Once you’ve learned how to conquer college, the next step is to treat the scholarship process like a class. In other words, make the scholarship process an integral part of your experience during every academic term. To start incorporating scholarships into your daily life, dedicate a minimum of 3 hours per week to research, apply for, and manage scholarships. Schedule this time on your weekly calendar and take this commitment as seriously as any class you enroll in.

Let me reiterate my message here: please learn how to conquer college as a first step in your quest for earning scholarships. Your academic work in college classes must take precedence so that you can maintain progress towards earning your degree. Figuring out how to do an extra three hours of work each week to apply for scholarships is an advanced study technique. To do this well, you must be able to balance your regular workload including in-class meetings, assignments, term papers, exams, social events, etc. When you learn to conquer college, you earn the freedom to integrate scholarship work into your other responsibilities. This is no easy feat and takes a lot of planning, discipline, and forward thinking.

Scholarship Practice #3:

Start with smaller scholarships and slowly build capacity

If you are applying for a scholarship for the first time, choose a local scholarship with a small payout, maybe one with an award amount between $50 – $500. When I say local, I mean choose a scholarship that is listed only at your institution. To figure out what scholarships are available at your institution, open your favorite internet browser and type in the name of your school and the word scholarships. One of the top search results should be a link to your school’s financial aid office with a bunch of information about how scholarships work at your school. Read through these links and find local scholarships that catch your eye. Then, use one of these local experiences to gain insights into the larger process.

As an example of what I mean, I’ll use four different institutions that are on my mind. Below are results that I found in less than 3 minutes of work:  

Every one of those pages provide a ton of information and useful links. If you’re serious about making money via scholarships, plan to spend many hours reading and researching the links you find on your institution’s scholarship page.

I like to think of the world of scholarships, internships, and fellowships as comparable to the world of sports. In any good national sports program, there are many different levels of competition. This might include youth leagues, high school leagues, private clubs, college-level competition, and various levels of professional achievement. The same is true with scholarships. There are local scholarships, city scholarships, state scholarships, regional scholarships, national scholarships, and even international scholarships. A general rule of thumbs is that scholarships with higher payouts attract a larger applicant pool which leads to more intense competition.

Start at the local level and learn how to be successful with local scholarships first. Then, as you build up your ability to earn money, branch out to larger opportunities slowly and deliberately. Remember, the process of applying for scholarships is all about system building. This is a life-style activity that demands consistent effort over long periods of time.

In the early stages, don’t focus on the money. Instead, set your focus on building systems to write and organize your scholarship applications. Of course, your longer-term vision can include earning large financial awards to help pay for college. By starting small, you give yourself the space and flexibility to develop new skills and your increase the chances of getting some small wins on the board. Each scholarship you earn will be huge confidence boost as you prepare to compete for larger scholarships.

Scholarship Practice #4:

Create an academic calendar with scholarships in mind

When you apply for scholarships, prepare as early as you can. Hopefully you have at least a few months if not a few years lead time before the due date for your target scholarship. If you plan to apply for a prestigious national or international scholarship, the more time you have to prepare, the better.

As you do your research, compile a list of local, state, and national scholarships that catch your attention using a spreadsheet (or Google Sheet). In that document, include links to the scholarship application website as well as the due dates for each scholarship. I suggest that you order these scholarships by their due dates.  Below is an image of an example scholarship spreadsheet I created for this blog post.

Figure 1: Screen shot of an example scholarship spreadsheet to track scholarships

Notice that I include a few different headers like the scholarship name, the award amount, the deadline, eligibility requirements, web links, and other notes. This list is ordered by due date, categorized by the academic term in which the due dates fall. I made this document under the assumption of a quarter system, so I included four academic terms: summer, fall, winter, and spring. If you’re attending a school on semester system, you can simply delete the winter section. I like to start this database with the summer term which is the first term of an academic year. Be aware that if a due date lands in summer, you’ll likely be working on that application in the spring term directly before that due date, if not earlier.

This spreadsheet took me about 40 minutes to create and format. For those of you who want to download this example spreadsheet, click the button below.

Save this spreadsheet in a place you can find it. Every time you come across a new scholarship that catches your attention, add it to the list.

Once you’ve collected a few scholarships for each academic term, begin to plan out the next few years of your academic life with these scholarships in mind. Set a goal for yourself to apply for a minimum of one scholarship per term. I also recommend that you set a hard rule to apply for no more than two scholarships in any given academic quarter or semester.

The process of writing scholarship applications is intense. My advice is to stay focused on doing deep work on each application you create. In fact, I recommend that you tailor each of your applications specifically to the scholarship you are targeting. In other words, write a fresh application for each scholarship you submit. If you take this deep-work approach to scholarship applications, you likely won’t have enough time to apply for more than two scholarships in a single term and succeed in your course work. I have a lot more to say about why I recommend this approach and will share that with you in future articles as part of this Get Paid to Learn series.

Scholarship Practice #5:

Invest in scholarship support resources

One of my favorite definitions for the word investment comes from Benjamin Graham, who is known as the father of value investing and was a mentor to Warren Buffet. In the book The Intelligent Investor, Graham states that an “investment operation is one in which, upon thorough analysis, promises safety of principal and an adequate return.” In everyday language, Graham defines an investment as something that you spend money on today (principal) and, at some point in the future, this investment will return all the money you originally put in plus more.

One misleading feature of the English language is that many people use the word investment to describe spending money on something they want. For example, you might have heard folks say something like: “you should invest in a new set of headphones.” This is not an investment based on our definition above. Specifically, when you buy headphones, you will very likely never be able to recoup the money you paid nor will you be able to sell those headphones for a profit at sometime in the future. I would call headphones an expense, not an investment.

When thinking about scholarships, I encourage you to invest in scholarship support resources. Two that come to mind immediately include:

Both of these books have a bunch of good information about how to navigate the scholarship application process along with many resources to make your work easier. Before you make those purchases, you can learn more about each author on their personal websites:

Outside of buying their books, do NOT pay for any services from these authors. In general, I wouldn’t pay for any scholarship services, advice, or management fees from third-party vendors. You can learn everything you need to know about how to apply for scholarships by reading and doing research on your own.

In fact, you don’t even need to buy these books. I bet you could learn everything you need about this process by researching online. The reason I recommend that you buy these books is that, when you do, you’ll have skin in the game. Once you spend $30 and have these two books on your bookshelf, you’ll have a daily reminder about this work. This can be good motivation to stay engaged in the writing process and to develop the type of grit that scholarship work takes.

I have one final note about the practice of investing in scholarship support resources. If you purchased those books on the day I am writing this (Tues 7/13/2021), you would spend somewhere around $30. Here is my challenge to you: spend that $30 today and get those books on your bookshelf ASAP. Then make a commitment to yourself to use the ideas presented in those books to develop your own scholarship skills so that you earn back every penny you spent on those books plus a whole lot more. In other words, spent the next 3 – 6 months deep reading those books. Build your own scholarship systems using what you learn. Set a goal for yourself that you’ll apply for your next scholarship within 6 months of today and use those books to guide your work.

In my own life, I estimate that I’ve earned over $200,000 in scholarships, internships, fellowships, grants, and paid work-study programs. I have also helped many students earn tens of thousands of dollars in scholarship money over the last eight years of my teaching career. Based on these experiences, I know that you can earn thousands of dollars in scholarship money. I believe that if you’re strategic in developing your scholarship systems, you can get 100% of your degree paid for, graduate with no debt, and have extra money for other expenses in your life. To do this, I encourage you to invest in yourself and start building your scholarship skills as soon as possible. Use the work of others to guide your process and make a long-term investment in yourself!

Scholarship Practice #6:

Think of yourself as a professional writer

This last strategy is an introduction to the process of writing scholarship applications. I’ll dedicate future posts in the Get Paid to Learn series on this subject since the writing process takes a lot of thinking and practice. However, this technique boils down to a simple idea: scholarships are probably the first chance you have to be a professional writer.

I define a professional as someone who gets paid to do something. A professional tennis player is someone who gets paid to play tennis. A professional mathematician gets paid to do math. A professional writer makes money on their writing. When you apply for and earn scholarships, much of the money you make is based on your ability to write well. Thus, I encourage you to think of yourself as a professional writer and fake it until you make it.

Every time you apply for a scholarship, imagine that you are working. Track your hours just like you would at work. For each scholarship you apply for, save all resources from that scholarship in a unique folder. This includes the scholarship announcement, your drafts of all the application documents, a copy of final application that you submit, and all other resources you created for each application. Scholarship writing takes a lot of energy and you never know if work you’ve done on one scholarship will be helpful in your future. Pretend that it is and set yourself up to leverage your work for years to come.

Stay tuned for more posts in the Get Paid to Learn series. We’ll end with some community challenges.

Community Challenge:

  1. At the start of this post, I made the claim that our society should prioritize funding education and social services so that all students who want to earn a college degree can graduate debt free. How would your life be different if 100% of your college was paid for including tuition, books, rent, and food? How would that effect your current reality and your plans for the future? How would that type of policy decision effect the lives of your family members and the lives of people in your community?  
  2. I make another claim: the fact that we treat college as a private rather than a public good is a racist policy that increases income inequality. Do your own research on this subject. Some good books to read on this topic include How to be an Antiracist, The Color of Law, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, and The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How we can Prosper Together. For White readers who are new to thinking about racism, I also recommend reading What Does It Mean to be White: Developing White Racial Literacy.
  3. What levers of democratic power do you have to change funding systems in our society? How might you engage with your college or with your local, state, and national governments to advocate for different funding policies for college education?
  4. Create and customize your own Scholarship spreadsheet. For each academic term at your school (including summer), find at least two scholarships. Then, choose a small ($50 – $500), local scholarship and apply for the opportunity you chose. After you finished your first application, make a commitment to apply for at least one scholarship every academic term for the rest of your academic career. 
  5. Set aside at least three hours per week for the next 12 months of your life where you do nothing other than research and apply for scholarships. Create a system to track your work and treat this like you would any job. As part of this work, meet other people with a similar interest and build a support network around you to support your scholarship habits.  

6 thoughts on “Get Paid to Learn: Six Practices to Earn Scholarships

  1. I love this post because there are aspects here that do not exist in the two books you recommended your readers to invest in! Two out of many keys that I’ll highlight for fellow readers are:

    key 1: public purpose (incubation, then action) requires shared governance, social good consciousness (developed over long periods of time), and responsibility

    “Since the 1970s, our local, state, and national governments have become progressively more neoliberal in their approach to public policy, turning to private markets to solve public problems.”

    What public problems exist in the communities that govern your life, and what can you do to solve one of them (at the root)? What would it take for a society to have basic needs not rely on charity or philanthropy? Go fund me’s and donations are heartwarming, but revealing larger systemic issues that we (nosotras, nous, 我々) could take a part in chipping away at…

    key 2: read text, like your life depended on it

    “In general, I wouldn’t pay for any scholarship services, advice, or management fees from third-party vendors.”

    The paragraph of the quote above is exactly why Deep Reading is an actual learning “outcome” for the Reality Pedagogy sessions I’ll be co-generating with the Science Learning Institute’s learning coaches and students this summer! A few months back a friend of mine who was a mother was worried that her 3-year-old daughter was having developmental problems b.c her daughter expressed minimal emotion and was limited in her speech. Instead going thousands of dollars of debt to receive private services for consultation from the get-go, I found resources in her language, summarized the readings, and shared them with her. In 2 hours of reading and dialoguing with her, she might have more information than 4 hours of 1:1 private service.

    Recall to re-myelinate, related to key 1:

    “if I can do one thing well in my life, that’s a life lived well” – you aka. do our best to not get distracted from our values and SMART goals, to live a life worth living.
    “in life, we will always have to do things we don’t want to do… the question is how do we make it so that the older we become, the less of those things exist in our weeks” – your mentor *I think prof. Saito at UCD*

    Recall to fire some synapses and dentrites in mi cerebro, related to key 2:

    In one of your classes in Spr 21′ you were in co-generative dialog with a small group of students during sync. class time, and you pointed at the books in your office, and you said “I communicate with these authors on a daily basis when I’m doing Math… so I encourage you to as well! communicate w your peers, tutors, professors, and various texts!”

    Thank you for being an author, a math teacher, a STEM professor, with Harry Mack swagger, and so much more.

    you 🪨!


    1. Henry: I’m re-reading this post right now and thinking about our interview ( ). In our interview, you highlight a 7th practice that I plan to add to this post: the practice of building relationships with the people at financial aid. I want to do a whole series on the idea of building learning teams on campus. I was working with a student this morning and here are some ideas about the learning team I think are useful:

      The center of each learning team is each individual learner. They are the boss, the quarterback, the one that makes everything happen. I want us to encourage each learner to create a team that includes:

      1. The teacher of each class that learner enrolls in (via weekly office hour visists)
      2. Learning partnerships with other classmates of same academic age (same year, same major)
      3. Learning partnerships with older classmates
      4. Learning partnerships with younger classmates
      5. Academic counselors
      6. Financial aid teammates (you helped put this into words)
      7. Disability resources specialists (if needed)
      8. Psychological therapists
      9. Life coaches and mentors (for long-term thinking and career preparation)
      10. The habit of reading

      I think each of these is at least one blog post and the series might be called: Build Your Learning Teams, or something like that.

      The reason I’m writing this comment is to say: you reminded me, in our interview, how important it is to get to know the people in financial aid. I’m telling you Henry: you could write a book on how to get scholarships… Thanks for the lesson and for being you. You are genius just the way you are and I have a feeling you’re bringing a revolution to CS education. Slow and steady, day by day.


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