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Growing up in California where public universities were as affordable as they were exceptional, it was expected that most of my graduating class would go on to higher education at one of those schools.

But ever-the-contrarian, I had my sights set on not just any out-of-state school but on NYU: the school that had just been named the “#1 Dream School” by the Princeton Review and would hold the title for all four years that I attended, perplexing Yale and Harvard administrators alike.

But this was 2003, long before the plethora of online data essentially saying “Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here” about NYU’s abysmal financial aid packages was available. What was available online were two sites called Scholarships.com and Fastweb where I spent endless nights my senior year of high school refreshing for new results, seeking out those mythical scholarships for left-handed people and double-jointed people but settled instead for ones that required essays on topics like futurism and democracy.

I won several essay contests and a handful of scholarships for public speaking from the Elks Lodge and the Rotary Club, but for the most part, my scholarship applications seemed to be sent from my email into a black hole somewhere, never to be spoken of again.

Being seventeen, I didn’t really grasp the idea of six-figure debt as a reality and thought I was well to future solvency with the few thousand dollars in scholarship money I had under my belt.

But those scholarships got swallowed up quickly my first semester of freshman year where I learned of only a handful of students who had the ever-elusive “full-ride” but wasn’t exactly jealous because they had to play water polo or fence every day (NYU is really into fencing) to keep the scholarships.

That first semester, I wallowed a bit at how “work-study” was considered part of my financial aid package when really it just meant I had to use it or lose it, and not spend my time pursuing more lucrative or career-shaping activities. Scholarships.com kept beckoning me back with more alerts and, by my second semester, I logged in and updated my profile to see what I might be able to scrounge up even though I was no longer a bright, promising youth but the Accursed College Freshman of all-too-many cautionary tales.

I prepared for the worst as I made time to write scholarship essays and gather recommendations between my assigned school work. Then I won six scholarships in two months. Then I won more.

Now I had not become substantially smarter or a better writer in the year since I had last been applying in earnest. But I had become someone who had already proved herself worthy of admission to a highly ranked university and was doing well there. I also had a handful of mandatory writing classes to my name by that time, which had dramatically improved my ability to craft narratives about my goals, intentions, and ideas.

So many scholarships ask, “What are you going to do with your degree?” and high schoolers simply cannot answer not because they are vapid teens waiting to be civilized by university educations, but because they are in limbo: most of them don’t even know where they’ll be enrolling in college until time is almost out for most high school scholarships.

How could any of us have answered what we would do with our degree when we didn’t know where it would come from or what it would be in?

The other major benefit of applying to scholarships while in college was that, despite only having been there a few months, I had matured dramatically and it showed in my applications and my outlook. I had been living independently, sampling academic disciplines, and was just much more capable of communicating where I was going and how the scholarships would help get me there. My scholarship earnings didn’t cover my full tuition but they put a huge dent in my cost of living and made my resume very job-market ready.

In a search today, I was expecting my beloved Scholarships.com and Fastweb that I used in days of yore to now be defunct, seeing as over a decade has passed. But alas, they are alive and well: they have better user interfaces, are more comprehensive, and of course Fastweb has an app now. There’s also another app called Scholly that will run you $2.99/month but appears to be among the more promising tools for finding high-value scholarships for students prospective, current, former, and all the in-betweens.

I don’t especially like encouraging anyone to stop their well-earned right to Netflix binges between coursework, but as someone who got their Netflix three DVDs at a time and walked uphill both ways to retrieve them and return them, but I must.

Because looking back, I know the real dream school I was looking for was the one that I would have graduated without debt from.

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Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) form and assistance available to the public for free at fafsa.gov.