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How Earning The Congressional Award Gold Medal helped our Daughter Earn $1,200,000 in Scholarships

Updated: Sep 6, 2022


~ Romans 12:11

As we all know by now, the price of college is pretty hard to swallow. Our daughter decided before her freshman year of high school that she wanted to be a doctor so we knew that getting as much merit based aid and scholarship money as possible for her undergraduate degree was going to be important. We took her to our local homeschool convention at the end of her 8th grade year and she learned about the Congressional Award Program.

The program was sold as a great avenue to scholarship offers. We looked up more information about it and let Makayla decide if she was interested. Even though it looked like a lot of time and work, she decided to go for it in hopes of landing some good scholarships.

So what is The Congressional Award Program and can it help me earn College Scholarships?

The Congressional Award is the only civilian medal struck by Congress. The Congress of the United States awards bronze, silver, and gold medals to deserving youth, ages 14 to 23, who have set and achieved goals in the four areas of personal development, physical fitness, voluntary public service, and expedition/exploration. Youth can register when they are 13 ½ and must complete their activities by their 24th birthday.

Once your child has earned the Gold Medal, they will have completed 400 Volunteer Service hours, 200 hours of Personal Development, 200 hours of Physical Fitness and will have planned and executed a 5 day/4 night Expedition or Exploration. That is a huge resume builder!

So, now the most important question: does the Gold Medal = Big Money? That is an excellent question and I don’t have a definitive answer. Most of the schools Makayla interviewed at, didn’t even ask her about the Gold Medal itself, most questions were geared towards the activities she was involved in while earning the Award.

So my take away from the process was this: I don’t think the Award itself equates to scholarships but, I do think the narrative and Academic Resume that it builds makes it highly likely that your child will get offered scholarships. When all of the acceptance letters and financial packages were done rolling in, Makayla had earned over $1.2 million in merit scholarships, including 3 full tuition offers. She has positioned herself to be able to graduate from undergrad debt-free!

Tell me More, How does the Program Work?

There are 6 different levels of the program starting with Bronze Certificate and culminating in the Gold Medal. Each level has different requirements in terms of hours and minimum amount of time required. Participants can start with the Bronze Certificate and complete each level one by one, go straight for the Gold Medal, or anything in between. Once registered, you will get a packet of information that goes over each area and what is expected but I will briefly explain each area for you.

Makayla did each and every level and we decided that was probably not the best strategy as doing so is more labor intensive. Going straight for the Gold seems a bit daunting though so, Connor is starting with the Bronze Medal.

Advisors and Validators

Participants in the program have to have an Advisor that will work with them on the overall plan. This person will look over the paperwork for each goal and sign off on the work before each level is submitted. Makayla used her High School Counselor for her Advisor. Since Connor is homeschooled, this is a little trickier. He started out using the owner of his martial arts school but since we moved, he is going to use his Youth Group Leader. There really isn’t special qualification for the advisor, it just needs to be someone your child is comfortable with and cannot be a parent, relative or peer.

Your child will then need to have a Validator for each goal. This is the person that will review hours/months working towards the goal and sign and date the form to confirm the activities. Ideally, this person will be specific to the goal you are pursuing such as a coach, boss, instructor or volunteer coordinator. If it is goal that is worked on independently or with family, the Advisor can also serve as the Validator (Makayla used her Advisor for several goals).

Let’s take a look at the table for each level then unpack it a bit:

As you can see, each level has a minimum amount of hours required and starting with Gold Certificate, also has a minimum number of months to complete the goals. It’s important to note that hours are cumulative so, if you submit 90 hours for volunteer service for the gold certificate then you only have to do 10 more hours for a total of 100 hours for the bronze medal, as opposed to doing another 100 hours for the medal. The same goes for minimum months. If you have your 12 months in for the Silver Medal, then you need another 12 months for a total of 24 months for the Gold Medal.

A few things to note about hour and month requirements:

· Hours must be spread out. The idea behind the program is to set and work towards long term goals, so they don’t want you to volunteer at a camp and get all of your hours in 1 week and not volunteer anymore. For example, Makayla volunteered at St Jude 5 days a week for 3 weeks and completed 70 of her 200 hours needed for the Gold Medal, she was averaging about 20 hours per month at the local hospital so she really only needed to volunteer for 8 months but since the program requires 12 months between silver and gold medals, she had to spread her volunteer hours out over that time.

· While months are cumulative, they don’t have to be consecutive so you can take time off if you need to. So to earn the Gold Medal, you have to have 24 months of activity but you could take 40 months to complete it.

· In order for a month to count, you have to log at least 1 hour of activity.

· 1 month can only count for 1 month, even if you log an hour of activity for more than 1 goal within a program area. For instance, if you log time for a soccer goal and a basketball goal under physical fitness in the same month, it only counts as 1 month of activity, you can’t count it as 2.

· You can only log 8 hours of activity per day. For example, if you volunteer as a camp counselor, you can only count 8 hours per day, even if you are staying overnight.

A few tips before getting started:

· Get a small binder or folder to keep everything in. There is a lot to keep organized and having it all in one place helps.

· Keep the Program Book easily accessible, we had to refer back to it numerous times.

· Make logs to track hours, print them off and keep them handy. I made a few different ones, laid out in a way that made sense for the specific goal. I always printed off extras and kept them in the binder so if one was full we already had a blank ready to go.

· Keep track of hours as you go! I can’t stress this enough, Makayla would get behind then we would have to look back through calendars to get everything written down. She probably cheated herself out of some hours by not keeping track daily.

Voluntary Public Service

This is by far the biggest component of the program. Over the course of the 24 active months, your child will complete 400 hours of volunteer service in their community. For each level, you can have up to 4 goals in this area. These goals have to provide direct service to the community at large. The goal needs to focus on a certain area or be under an umbrella such as The United Way. The goal can’t be a collection of unrelated service activities.

For the younger participants, this can be a little challenging because there aren’t as many volunteer opportunities for kids under 16. Makayla started out volunteering at our local library and assisted living then when she was 16 she was able to volunteer at the local hospital and St. Jude. Being able to volunteer in a medical setting accomplished 2 things: it allowed her to explore her dream of being a doctor and helped her build the narrative of being passionate and focused on medicine.

Connor started out volunteering at our local animal shelter in January 2020 (I had to volunteer with him since he was under 16), once COVID hit, our hours there pretty much ended so until recently, he wasn’t working in this area at all and that has put him behind. He has recently signed up to volunteer for the Youth Volunteer Corps through our local United Way so we are hoping he can really start getting some hours in to make up for lost time.

Some important points included in the booklet for Volunteer Service:

· No spreading of faith or proselytizing. Activities can be done through a faith-based organization but it must be servicing the community at-large and not include religious instruction.

· No compensation. Obviously you can’t get paid for volunteer work, including paid internships.

· No Private / For-Profit Businesses.

· No Entrance/Membership Fees. You can’t volunteer at an organization that charges people to use its services. The exception would be if the organization offers financial assistance so it is accessible to everyone.

· Must be Non-Partisan. You cannot work for an elected official, help a campaign or volunteer for an organization with a partisan based focus.

· Indirect Service. 75% of your time must be spent on direct service, only 25% can be indirect to include planning, training, fundraising, etc.

o Founding a Non-profit. If you wish to start your own non-profit, contact the National Office and they will discuss special consideration to allow for more indirect hours.

Personal Development

This will account for 200 hours of the program, can have up to 2 goals for each level, and in my opinion is the easiest area to set goals for. It is pretty wide open as to what your goals can be, you just have to identity a task to be completed and activities that require that skill. This is a great area to expand upon or perfect current hobbies or try out new ones.

Some of Makayla’s goals for Personal Development involved SAT Prep, medical camps, Student Council Honor Book, her part-time job and the school musical. Connor is using his reselling business as his goal. Other things you could use would be learning an instrument, dance or theater, learning a skill such as sewing or woodworking, growing a garden, just about anything you can think of!

· Measurable and Challenging. The activity can be something you already do but your goals must push you to do more or be better, you can’t just keep doing what you’ve been doing.

· No school/class credit. Getting your driver’s license can’t count if you are getting school credit for it but SAT prep can count because it isn’t a requirement for school.

· Part-time job. If you are a full-time student, you can count a part-time job. If you work full-time and plan to go back to school or continue your education while maintaining a full-time job, then you can count school/classes.

Physical Fitness

This goal is also comprised of 200 hours and can have up to 2 goals per level. It also has endless possibilities and can include just about anything that requires physical activity as long as it has a measurable goal.

All of Makayla’s physical fitness goals centered around Kuk Sool Won martial arts. The lower level goals were successful completion of testings, the silver medal was her Black Belt Promotion, and gold medal was to train so she could compete in a Mixed Martial Arts tournament.

Connor started his goal with training for his 2nd degree Black Belt but then COVID put an end to in-person classes so his goal for now has shifted to improving his overall fitness level. Once again, COVID derailed him a bit!

· Measurable & Challenging. This goal can use an activity you’ve already been doing but you must consistently set goals to better yourself in a measurable way i.e. increase free throw %, decrease the time you run a mile, improve resting heart rate, gain or lose inches.

· Persons with Disabilities. Special consideration will be given if you have physical limitations. Talk to your doctor or therapist about appropriate physical goals for you.

· School Fitness Activities. School sports are acceptable, gym class is not.

· Non-competitive. Must be personally challenging and be within your control. Making team captain or winning a tournament relies on other people’s judgement so aren’t acceptable goals. This is why Makayla’s gold medal goal was to train to an acceptable level to be able to compete in a tournament, not to win or place (although she did do that too!)

· Must be Isolated Activity. Activities need to take place outside of your daily routine. Using a Fitbit to track activity is great but you can’t use steps to get to class towards your fitness goal.

Expedition or Exploration

Ugh! This, in my opinion, is the worst part of this whole program (probably because we had to do it with her)! Students have to challenge themselves with a wilderness adventure or by immersing themselves in a new cultural adventure. This area isn’t measured in months and hours but by days/nights of a trip.

Each trip has to be planned out entirely by the kid, it cannot be an event, mission trip, etc. that was planned for you. I’m not going to go too much in depth on how this area works because it is pretty involved. I will let you know our experiences and give you the programs bullet points.

The biggest point to make about this area is that it isn’t cumulative. If you do a 1 day hike for your bronze certificate then you still have to do a 2 day activity for the silver certificate. However, you can complete a higher level expedition and turn it in for a lower level then continue turning in that same expedition up through the level you completed it for.

We started out going level by level. So, we hiked for 1 day in the Smoky Mountains then a few months later, we hiked for 2 days in South Carolina. Makayla had to plan all of the trails, research what we needed and packed our snacks, lunches, water bottles and day packs. We all just went along for the ride. After that, she decided she was done planning an expedition for every level. She went straight to planning the Gold Medal Expedition, a 5 day/4 night camping trip.

She had a new appreciation for the work that goes into planning family vacations after all of the time she had to spend just researching campgrounds, let alone planning our itinerary, meals and activities. The expedition has to include 6-8 hours of activity. She emailed her regional advisor to see if that meant 6-8 hours of serious activity like hiking or if time spent at camp cooking and preparing things would count. Her advisor didn’t seem too convinced that just normal “campground” activity would be challenging enough so our days were 6-8 hours of ACTIVITY! It is important to note that the Congressional Award Regional Advisor cannot pre-approve expeditions/explorations, they can only tell you if they think you are on the right track or not.

I’m not gonna lie, it was a very long, tiring 5 days. We did all the hiking in Door County, WI, went fishing, kayaking, and geocaching. Makayla again, had to do everything; she cooked all of our meals, navigated in the car, had to problem solve when things didn’t go our way, everything. By the end of the trip, she was over it. I understand the idea behind the expedition; trying something new and challenging. However, with the 6-8 hour activity requirement, it left Makayla exhausted and she never wants to camp or hike or fish, ever again! Connor and I skipped out on the last hike to ensure she got her full hours in and went to the beach instead.

Her write up for the Expedition was extensive. She wanted to make sure it was approved so she never had to do it again. Along with her questions she had to answer, itineraries, and meal plans, she also included maps, parking passes and receipts. She also went online and made a photo album of everything from prep photos to packing up camp and everything in between.

Since she completed the Gold Medal Expedition but she was only ready to submit for her Bronze Medal, we made copies of everything so we could resubmit it for Silver and Gold Medal. Keep in mind that if you do the 5day/4night Expedition and it gets approved for the Bronze Medal, that doesn’t guarantee that it will get approved at Silver and Gold. My best advice would be to make your write up as detailed as possible and really sell the challenge, include as much supporting documentation as you can and add lots of photos.

Hallelujah! She is done with everything! We finished all of her paperwork once we got home from her Volunteer work at St. Jude. We packed all of her documentation up and sent it off to Washington, DC and waited to hear back. She was notified via email on September 13, 2019 that she was approved for the Gold Medal and received the official letter in the mail shortly thereafter. We were really happy that she was approved before she started going to scholarship interviews so she could update her resume from Silver to Gold!

Now she would get to go to Washington, DC in June of 2020 for the Awards Ceremony! Only that didn’t happen because COVID shut everything down. They had a virtual ceremony and sent the medals and some swag to the kids but it was really disappointing to not be able to make the trip.

Should my child pursue The Congressional Award?

I do think all of Makayla’s hard work leading to The Congressional Gold Medal contributed to her scholarship offers. She is always determined and hardworking but if she hadn’t been working toward this award, I’m pretty sure her Academic Resume wouldn’t have been as impressive because she wouldn’t have been pushing herself to achieve nearly as much.

That being said, earning The Congressional Award doesn’t guarantee your child scholarship money and it is A LOT of work, they have to want it more than just about anything else. There were definitely times when Makayla wished she hadn’t started the program: when her friends were going to games and she was going to her part-time job, when her friends were hanging out and she was planning an expedition, when her friends were lounging by the pool and she was volunteering at the hospital. She had to sacrifice a lot of time spent just having fun and hanging out; she was going or planning or studying all of the time.

I hope when she graduates undergrad debt-free, she will look back and think that it was worth all of the sacrifice!

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