This CEO paid for Harvard with 24 scholarships totaling $90,000

Going to college can seem prohibitively expensive for many students, but Ben Kaplan, CEO of PR Hacker and author of How to Go to College Almost for Free, says that everyone can find a way to make college more affordable.

When Kaplan was a teenager at South Eugene High School in Eugene, Oregon, he thought the best way to pay for college was to play sports. "I grew up playing tennis from age 9. I wanted to be a pro tennis player and go to Wimbledon someday," he tells CNBC Make It. "I thought that was an avenue to pay for college."

But he developed a stress fracture in his lower back and had to change his approach.

"I needed a different way," he says. "I was looking around and one day I walked by the guidance office and I saw this application and it was a scholarship sponsored by Discover Card."

Ben Kaplan playing tennis
Ben Kaplan playing tennis

Kaplan never thought that he would win the competitive college scholarship, and yet he wrote a few short essays, collected some recommendation letters and sent in his application. "It was sort of like applying for a sweepstakes contest. I didn't really expect to get anything back," says Kaplan.

To his surprise, he won $17,500.

Kaplan was hooked. Over the course of his junior and senior years of high school, he applied for 36 college scholarships and won 24. His senior year, he was accepted into Harvard University. By the time he arrived on campus, he had raised enough money to attend for free.

"I won two dozen of them and accumulated $90,000 in scholarship money, which that at the time, combined with a year's worth of AP credit — which basically let me enter Harvard as a sophomore — covered the entire cost of Harvard for me," he explained.

Kaplan has three tips for students looking to find additional funds to finance their degree:

Ben Kaplan in high school
Ben Kaplan in high school

1. Be creative in your search

In order to find three dozen scholarships that he was eligible for, Kaplan had to search in unique places.

First, he exhausted the resources available at his school and then he would visit the college guidance offices of nearby schools. As his search continued, he scoured the internet to see what some of the most prestigious high schools in the country were offering their students.

"I went to some of the school websites of famous schools I'd heard of elsewhere, like Stuyvesant in New York, [to see] what were they posting, even though I was a kid in Oregon," says Kaplan. "What I found was that all the different high schools had different information listed for their students. A lot of it was just on a webpage on their site and anyone could visit."

This creative technique paid off for Kaplan. Of the 24 scholarships that he won, "probably seven to 10 of those were actually found by going to other schools," he says. "So that extra step made thousands of dollars worth of difference to me."

Ben Kaplan winning a scholarship with $10,000
Ben Kaplan winning a scholarship with $10,000

2. Be open to the unusual

One thing Kaplan learned from his college journey was that there are thousands upon thousands of quirky and unusual scholarships that people have never heard of.

"There's a scholarship from the Klingon Language Institute where you have to be a Star Trek fan. I won a scholarship for writing an essay about George Washington's crossing of the Delaware River," he says. "There are ones where you do an art project, a science project. There's one where you make an outfit to [wear to] prom out of duct tape."

The secret to winning scholarship money is not to be the smartest and most accomplished student in the country, but rather to be open to a wide range of possibilities and to give it your best shot, explains the CEO.

"The common link between all scholarship winners is not how smart they are, not where they're from, not their grades. It's that they actually apply for these awards," says Kaplan. "Most of the people who win substantial amounts applied for a lot."

Ben Kaplan graduating from Harvard
Ben Kaplan graduating from Harvard

3. Fine-tune your process

According to Kaplan, one of the most important aspects of applying to colleges or for scholarships is to keep improving.

For many scholarships, you can simply update previous essays and re-use them. "Once you've applied for one or two scholarships, you've already done more than half of the work to apply for 10."

By constantly fine-tuning your work, you not only improve your chances of winning a scholarship but you can also increase your chances of getting into your dream school.

Since he had already applied to scholarships during his junior year, he was uniquely prepared to complete his college applications the next year. "Basically, my application to Harvard was version 10 of my application instead of version one," he says. "I had already figured out how to tell my story."

Kaplan says that all students who are taking the time to complete a thoughtful college application should take the time to apply for external scholarships.

"Especially if you are applying to college at the same time, you can leverage a lot of that college application work to also apply for scholarships," he says. "It's a huge time savings and you get better and better and better the more you apply."

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