Gabrielle McCormick’s journey started with a fall.
In November of her senior year of high school, she tore her Achilles tendon during a basketball game. The injury simultaneously crushed her dreams of playing college basketball and any hopes she had of earning the athletic scholarship she was counting on.
“My entire high school identity changed because I wasn’t a student athlete,” she said “I really struggled to let my basketball dreams go.”
Fast forward 10 years, and McCormick has completely paid for her education with more than $150,000 in scholarships.
She quickly found out there is a scholarship out there for everything — and everyone — including students with red hair, women over 5-foot-10 and lovers of the game Minecraft.
And now the successful entrepreneur is helping others get on the path to a debt-free education.
"It is possible. You just have to have a system in place," she said.
As a result of rising college tuition, student loan debt has reached an all-time high of $1.34 trillion, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
At private universities, families have to shell out $33,480 for one year of tuition on average. In-state public schools are a cheaper option, though still a major investment, at $9,650 per year.
Without an athletic scholarship, McCormick wasn’t sure how she could afford it.
That's when it clicked: “I said to myself, ‘Gabrielle, you’ve got to figure out how to win scholarships.’”
McCormick seemed to be the ideal candidate. She was a three-sport athlete, No. 4 in her class, ran her own art business and participated in several extracurricular activities.
But still, her hunt for scholarships came with roadblocks.
McCormick's research began at a bookstore in her small hometown of Greenville, Texas, 45 minutes outside of Dallas. That netted little. She went to her college counselor almost every day, but she was only “as helpful as she could be.”
“I did not know what I was doing, and because of that I wasted a lot of time,” McCormick said.
She said through trial and error, she developed a winning strategy.
McCormick didn't qualify for big national scholarships such as the Gates Millennium Scholars program, so she focused on small, local scholarships.
"Everything under $2,000 was what really helped," she said.
McCormick created a "scholarship profile" for herself, identifying important characteristics that could earn her money.
"I literally typed in everything about myself, added the word scholarship and tried to find out if there were scholarships I could win," she said.
McCormick also learned that telling her personal story resonated more with scholarship committees than generic essays about her academic goals.
She used her scholarship essays like a form of therapy, sharing the pain of getting injured, her grandfather's death and her mother's battle with cancer.
“I was so broken as a student,” McCormick said. “Scholarships allowed me to really express myself.”
She applied for more than 50 scholarships, ranging from generic essay contests to merit-based scholarships to one for sportsmanship.
"A good mix is really where the power is," she said.
In total, she earned well more than 150,000 in scholarship money, but she estimates the true value of everything she received is closer to $200,000. She advised students to be open to any opportunity that can add value to their education, not just money.
She put that money toward her undergraduate degree and her master's in business administration, all of which she completed in five years. McCormick studied accounting at Texas A&M University-Commerce, where she is now pursuing her doctorate.
“They made me the best offer — which was free,” she said, laughing.
Parents and students alike would come to McCormick for advice on how they could pay for college. She realized that school counselors often weren't able to give adequate attention to each student.
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McCormick worried that students felt vital information was "behind some hidden curtain that you have to pay admission for."
"It shouldn’t be this difficult," she said.
Right before graduation, she created a resource for students searching for scholarships. Her free online curriculum walks students through the scholarship application process from start to finish.
"Our free education is more valuable than what some people pay for scholarship courses," she said.
Once she completes her doctorate next year, she'll work full time on Scholarship Informer. She has a small team now working remotely across the world, and she said expansion is in the near future.
McCormick, now 27, said she wants students to know that no matter the roadblocks they face, there's money out there for school. They just need to have a plan.
"What matters is someone has the right attitudes and the right mind-set to focus on the strategies and do the work."
Follow N'dea Yancey-Bragg on Twitter @NdeaYanceyBragg
Go to USA TODAY’s Money & Tech Facebook page to listen to Gabrielle McCormick as she answered questions during a recent session.