Student loan debt is a crushing reality for students nationwide. As of Sept. 30, 2015, it totaled $1.2 trillion, an all-time high, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s Quarterly Report on Household Debit and Credit. And Edvisors found that three-quarters (70%) of the Class of 2015 were expected to graduate with student loan debt, with the average load reaching $35,051, the highest of any graduating class in U.S. history.
The high cost of tuition seems insurmountable for many. But for Christopher Gray, the solution was simple: scholarships.
The 24-year-old Drexel University graduate paid his way through college by earning a whopping $1.3 million in scholarships. So it’s not surprising that Gray went on to found Scholly, an app that helps students find, you guessed it, scholarships.
In February, Gray appeared on ABC’s Shark Tank seeking $40,000 in exchange for 15% equity in the company, according to the product’s website. He left with just that, in a joint deal offered by entrepreneurs Lori Greiner and Daymond John. Shortly after his appearance on the show, the app shot to the top of the charts for both iTunes and Google Play stores.
USA TODAY College spoke with Gray — who serves as Scholly’s CEO — about his own hunt for scholarships, the Scholly app and what students can do to find scholarship funds.
Q: What inspired you to apply for so many scholarships?
A: My mom lost her job during the recession and, simultaneously, schools were no longer being as generous with their financial aid packages. I had no choice but to seek out scholarships on my own. It was a long, tedious process.
Are the difficulties you faced some of the reasons you created Scholly?
Absolutely. It actually took me seven months of intensive work to find the scholarships for which I wanted to apply. I was using Google and numerous other sites, but they only turned up generic lists of scholarships, most of which I didn’t qualify for. I knew there had to be a better way to go about this process. That’s why I created Scholly.
Could you talk briefly about the app — what is it and how it connects students to scholarships?
Scholly® is an app and Web platform that provides access to untapped funding sources for students everywhere. It’s designed to simplify the search for scholarship money and promote student success. Scholly uses a patented eight-parameter matching system to instantly connect students with the scholarships that fit them best.
The app allows students to note their race. Do you believe a variety of scholarships exist solely for people of color? And what about other identities?
There’s a myth that a large portion of the scholarships available are only for people of color. However, in reality there are numerous scholarships for people of all ethnic and economic backgrounds. Several of those scholarships receive very few applicants because, before Scholly, students had no way of knowing they existed.
In addition to specific scholarships for different ethnic and economic backgrounds, there are a variety of scholarships for people with all sorts of specific backgrounds, character traits and personalities. For example, there are scholarships for people who write with their left hand or scholarships for people who come up with the best solution for a zombie apocalypse. When I was applying, there was a scholarship for people under 5′ 7″. Although I didn’t win, I thought it was funny that this scholarship existed.
When should students start looking for scholarships? And when are they generally due?
If you’re currently in college, you should be searching every semester. Many scholarships open in August and deadlines start in January through May.
High school students should start searching during their junior year to create a cumulative list of the scholarships for which they are applicable. Senior year can be devoted to the actual process of applying for the scholarships.
Aside from using the app, what are your best tips for students who want to find relevant scholarships?
Here are my top five scholarship search tips for students:
- Apply for smaller scholarships: Smaller, lesser-known scholarships tend to get fewer applicants because students think they won’t make an impact in the overall cost of college. However, if you win 10 $1,000 scholarships, I think you’d agree that it’s worth it. It might require you to apply for a larger number of scholarships, but in the end you are increasing your chances of getting selected.
- It’s important to remember that you can also apply for scholarships while you’re in college. If you don’t win as many scholarships as you want in high school, don’t lose hope!
- High school students should start searching for scholarships during their junior year and create a cumulative list of the scholarships for which they qualify. Then, senior year can be devoted to the actual process of applying for the scholarships.
- A good number of scholarship essay questions are very similar to one another. It’s smart to write a few essays and then find scholarships with similar essay prompts. This allows students to apply for more scholarships with maximum efficiency.
- Apply for scholarships that have very specific requirements, such as being vegetarian, LGBT or left-handed. The more specific a scholarship is, the less competitive it becomes.
Once students have found the scholarships, what can they do to set themselves apart from fellow applicants?
Write really good essays that illustrate who they are and why they should be awarded the scholarship. Outside of extracurricular activities and academics, the essays are really what make a student stand out.
What are the biggest mistakes students make in the scholarship search process, and what can they do to avoid them?
Timing. Students generally wait until the last minute to apply for scholarships. It’s best to start early in order to apply for as many scholarships as possible.
How can parents help their kids in the process?
We actually have many parents that use Scholly on behalf of their kids. In addition to Scholly helping with the search process, I would advise parents to ensure their child receives excellent advice when writing their essays. The essays are really the best way to differentiate you from other applicants. Whether it’s an English teacher, tutor, mentor or the student’s actual parent, make sure the student gets the help they need to submit the best essays possible.