Many people equate the word “scholar” with genius. Frankly, I think a lot of people were surprised to see me win over $500,000 in scholarships and go on to a Top 20 university. After all, I was the outcast in high school—I was the one they spit on as I walked by; I was the one they spread ugly rumors about; I was the one they bullied. I was not a perfect student with perfect test scores, either. But I was determined to have a better future. With a lot of hard work and a solid strategy, I was able to win more than enough to attend the university of my dreams for free.

For a long time, though, I wondered if it was even possible

The first day of my freshman year of high school, my mom sat me down, looked me square in the eye, and said, “You have four years to figure out what you’re going to do with your life because you’re on your own financially after graduation.” That was hard to choke down as a 14-year-old, but my mom’s honesty that day was ultimately life-changing. As a single mother who’d lost her husband to cancer and was barely scraping by, she knew that paying an extra $50,000 for my brother and me to attend college was not an option. My mom encouraged me to start thinking about college scholarships and create a plan for standing out in my applications. She lit a fire in me to plan for my future and work relentlessly to afford a college education.

I traded many Friday night football games and high school parties for hours in our local community-college library, devouring any information I could find related to winning scholarships. I read every book, researched countless articles, and interviewed scholarship program administrators and scholarship winners. I put together what I believed would be a plan for success, and then I followed through, participating in a multitude of activities and building up my merit to stand out in scholarship applications. After pouring four years of efforts into my applications, my excitement and relief were overwhelming when I started receiving award letters from some of the most competitive scholarship programs in the nation. My dream had come true! I would be able to go to a private university debt-free!

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It was an experience I wanted every determined teenager to have.

Maybe I could write a book to give back and help other students win scholarships, I thought. Yet I had no idea where to start. However, when I was working on my M.Ed. thesis, one of my advisors—a successful ebook publisher and the owner of a nationally syndicated radio show—became very Confessions of a Scholarship Winner interested in my scholarship story and challenged me to write a book proposal. When I reflected back on all those hours spent in the library, trying to navigate the scholarship process, I knew what I wanted to do: offer a roadmap, a book, that would save students time, teach them to stand out from the competition, and simplify the process. My advisor loved the proposal and agreed to help me publish an ebook and promote it through his radio show.

Initially, I treated the writing process a lot like writing a college paper. I created a 20,000-word ebook manuscript that included the nuts and bolts of scholarship applications, with a few hints of my personal story tossed in. Once I completed the draft, my advisor ran it by his friend, the CEO of Worthy Publishing, for feedback. A few weeks later, after meeting with the Worthy team to discuss my book, the company offered me a publishing deal for Confessions of a Scholarship Winner. The catch was, I needed to expand the manuscript from a 20,000-word ebook to a 50,000-word trade book. It would mean really pouring out my personal story.

Sharing more of “me” in the book was a greater challenge than I ever imagined. I didn’t really want to put my long-held secrets out there, but it helped to reflect on how I felt when I was a teenager applying for scholarships. I wasn’t really that confident, and I had a tough time believing that the principles in the books I read would actually work for me. Many of the personal struggles and stories I share in Confessions were things I had never even told my own family. Still, I pushed myself to open up about the enormous obstacles that preceded my scholarship success, so that teens would strive to overcome their own obstacles and focus on a better future

It’s been incredible watching Confessions of a Scholarship Winner impact students. To be able to help teens realize their dreams and attain higher education has been a dream come true for me.

Kristina Ellis is a scholarship mentor in Nashville and author of Confessions of a Scholarship Winner: The Secrets That Helped Me Win $500,000 in Free Money For College.