How to earn $100,000+ and fund your undergraduate Computer Science/Engineering education

*This post was also featured on the Women in Tech Blog .

So you’ve gotten into the school of your dreams, but it happens to come with a pretty hefty price tag.  This is the dilemma I faced when I got into Stanford x years ago as a high school senior.  I began to furiously look for scholarships from various sources online and in the community.  Having taken AP Computer Science courses, I also had a pretty good idea that I wanted to major in Computer Science/Engineering.  Little did I know, there was a plethora of funding opportunities for women in technology.

My personal experiences in school and in the workforce reiterated to me the fact that women are still nowhere near 50% in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields.  Many companies, engineering societies, and individuals are working to increase the number of graduates (and in many cases, women) in Computer Science/Engineering by offering scholarships.  For my undergraduate career alone, I managed to earn over thirty merit-based outside scholarships, totaling over $100,000 to cover my tuition at Stanford.

I’ve been asked by many people tips on applying to scholarships, and I’m always happy to help.  I firmly believe that money should never stop anyone from learning.  Now I’m excited to reveal all my secrets!  Whether or not you’re majoring in a STEM field, whether you’re male or female, I hope you’ll get some useful advice out of this article.  But I will be posting more specific tips for female students in technology and be completely honest in what has personally worked for me.

Why should I care?

Apart from the obvious benefit of getting more money for school, earning scholarships actually helps build your resume when you prepare for internship and job interviews.  A lot of scholarships also offer all-expense paid trips to network with other motivated individuals like you.  For example, Google sent me to the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing in Orlando (at the Hilton Walt Disney Resort) and Qualcomm flew me down to San Diego for valuable job interview seminars and a visit to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.  Additionally, these companies are potentially your future employers (as is my case with Microsoft).  You may also get unique opportunities to appear in local and national media (like USA Today for the All-Academic Team).

anita borg party
Thanks Google!
I’m the featured profile of 2007:

Sounds good! How do I get started?

Start with scholarships offered at your school.  I’ve had friends who have had a lot of success with this at other schools.  It never hurts to ask faculty and do extra research on your school website.  Stanford didn’t offer any merit-based aid, only need-based aid, a philosophy which I fully support; because, like I said, money should never stop anyone from pursuing his/her education.  The Financial Aid Office always encouraged us to search for outside scholarships to supplement the financial aid packages.  If you can fund all of it with outside scholarships, you can worry less about finding funds for the remainder of that big tuition bill.  However, this takes time and is easier said than done.  It takes a lot of time and research.  But if you can do this successfully, it’s more worthwhile than working multiple part-time jobs and trying to pay off student loans after graduation.

Look at scholarship search engines.

There are a ton of scholarships out there for students of different backgrounds and interests—it’s not all about academic scholarships.  There are scholarships for community involvement, leadership, essay contests, book reviews, video contests, etc.  You just have to be interested in something.  I’ve applied for any and every scholarship that I qualified for on these search engines and other competitions I found online.  Here are a few scholarship search engines I used as a starting point:

It will take a lot of time to sift through them, because even with the filters, I found that most of them didn’t really apply to me.  Don’t get discouraged by the amount of time it takes, because it could be well worth your time.

Look for scholarships being awarded in the community and in organizations with which you are affiliated.

Ask and look around in local newspapers and specific organizations to see if there are any scholarships being given in the community.  Many local organizations and companies like to honor individuals who have some potential connection to them.  Just to give you some ideas, I was eligible for and very fortunate to have been awarded scholarships for competing in math tournaments, building a website with my friend for Mu Alpha Theta to help students learn Calculus, being a member of a local credit union, being the daughter of an ACAP (Association of Chinese-American Professionals) member, demonstrating exemplary community service and leadership to a local chapter of a sorority, etc.

And now, for a trick that has proven to be the most useful but I’m also a little embarrassed to admit…

To be honest, the previous steps combined have not gotten me as far as this next one.  After searching and applying for general scholarships, it’s time to target your search to Computer Science/Engineering-specific scholarships, which often offer a lot more money than other sources.  Not to say that these scholarships are more important than others, as everyone who awards you a scholarship plays an invaluable and significant role in your education, but certain large tech companies may have more money to support education.

So here’s something that other scholarship guides won’t tell you, and it’s helped me immensely.  When you do find a scholarship specific to a STEM field, take note of a few of the winners.  You can also find someone at your current or future school, someone who appears to have similar academic interests.  Then (if you don’t know him or her or have contact info) do a Bing search on that person and see what other scholarships he or she has won.  Chances are it will be a similar scholarship, and you’ve now added more potential scholarships to your scholarship list.

Stay organized and start early.

Start early!  If you’re in high school, don’t wait until you’re in college to start applying.  A lot of awards can be won in high school, and that will get you more recognition for future scholarships.  Scholarship applications will often ask for a list of your awards; it’s a nice snowball effect.  Once you win one, you can use it to back up your qualifications for your next application, and so on.

Be organized!  I kept a calendar specifically for scholarships and deadlines and organized the files on my computer appropriately.  It’s pretty easy once you write a few essays, because you can just recycle and modify them for other applications.

Don’t ever pay for a scholarship or to apply to one .

Don’t ever pay to apply for a scholarship.  Don’t fall for anything that claims you get free scholarships by paying a nominal fee.  I don’t think these are legitimate, because scholarships should be earned without having to pay for anything.

It takes more than good grades.

You knew this when you applied to college, but scholarship win rates are often significantly lower than college admissions rates; so you have to step up your game.  Be involved in engineering and computer science societies and clubs.  Take on leadership roles beyond your school.  Build your network in the tech community, though it’s also always good to show that you balance out your academic and pre-professional career with extracurricular activities.  My local and national roles in the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) has proven to be an invaluable experience of networking, community, and outreach opportunities, not to mention personal growth.

Make sure you spend your summers doing something meaningful that helps you attain your academic and career goals.  For high school students, this can be summer camps (free or scholarship-funded is generally better).  For college students, this can be internships and research.  I can’t remember a summer where I haven’t done anything.  Whatever you do, make sure you are truly passionate about it so you can talk and write about it.

ec activities collage
clockwise, from top left: dancing with the Fei Tian Dancers (photograph courtesy of Edith Han), having fun at the Olympics while interning at Nokia Research Center in Beijing, showing off our Mobius strip tattoos at National Youth Science Camp, getting ready for a tour of DC at the SWE Collegiate Leadership Forum, building a binary clock at the Stanford Summer Engineering Academy, singing an original song about the well-ordering principle at the Program in Mathematics for Young Scientists

Be wise about your recommendations and ask for references early.

In high school, I almost made the mistake of going with the toughest teacher in my high school just because everyone asked her to write a letter for college admissions.  She invited requests for references.  She was the AP English teacher, so she can write well, and more importantly, write me a pretty awesome rec, right?  Well I’m glad I didn’t, because to be honest, I really did not stand out in English class; I ended up going with teachers whom I felt were more likely to express how I shined in the class.  So just be sure to talk with anyone who writes you a reference with your goals in mind.  Provide a resume and a document of additional accomplishments and extracurricular involvement, with which he or she may not be familiar.  Choose someone who will really remember you in ten years or more.  Someone who truly believes that you are an outstanding individual.  It does not have to be a teacher.  I mean, you should have at least one, but consider the coordinator of some activity in which you’re involved, a research supervisor, etc.  And be sure to ask at least two weeks in advance, though I like to give my recommenders a month with increasingly frequent friendly reminders as the deadline approaches.

Be yourself in interviews.

Some scholarships will require interviews.  Practice with friends and family.  Be yourself.  Be sure to always have a few key things to talk about, things that you’re really passionate about.  Even when you get stumped on a question, there’s always some way to tie in something that you’re interested in and make it relevant.  You can probably find sample questions online, which is good preparation.   I’ve been asked anything from my thoughts on the economy, to projects that I’ve worked on, to activities that I’m involved in, to how many golf balls would fit in the average airplane.  Even if they ask you a question that may bring up something negative (“What’s your greatest weakness?”), spin it back to something positive.

Thank everyone who has made your education possible.

You should always thank anyone who has provided you with a scholarship, anyone who has written you a rec, anyone who has helped you practice your interviews (or conducted your actual interviews); because these people have invested time in your academic and career success.  Keep a spreadsheet of everyone who has helped you (along with contact info) and be sure to drop him or her a line and send a card.  I cannot express my gratitude enough to the numerous companies and organizations that have made paying for Stanford and all the unique opportunities possible.

What are you waiting for?  Apply yourself!