How to find the perfect university scholarship

You don't need the highest grades in your class or serious financial need in order to be eligible for awards. Says one expert: 'You can’t win if you don’t try.'

Going to university is exciting—and it can also be expensive. According to the 2018 Canadian University Survey Consortium survey, half of Canadian post-secondary students graduate with debt, owing an average of $28,000. Scholarships and awards can ease the financial burden of higher education—yet experts estimate that $6-10 million in scholarships and awards goes unclaimed each year. “There are scholarships that are uncontested or that people don’t even apply for,” says Chris Wilkins, founder of Scholarships­Canada, a website that features more than 100,000 scholarships worth over $200 million total. Wilkins says there is a misconception that students must be “brainiacs” or demonstrate financial need in order to be eligible for awards, which is often not the case. Bottom line, he says, “You can’t win if you don’t try.”

In fact, there are several ways to set yourself up for success. Here is what Wilkins and Madison Guy, founder of the online scholarships hub GrantMe Education Consulting, recommend:

Start early

Guy refers to Grade 12 as the “behemoth year” for scholarship applications, but she says preparation can start as early as Grade 8. Participating in extracurriculars, sports teams and community groups can strengthen your profile as a scholarship candidate. It can also increase the number of award opportunities you are eligible for, since many organizations have affiliated scholarships.

Another piece of the process that can be done in advance is reference letters, a requirement of most scholarships. Approaching referees early and with a list of your activities can help ensure you get reference letters in time for applications. Guy recommends approaching a variety of individuals for letters—teachers, coaches and employers. “All of these individuals are going to have a different perspective and a different way of sharing your accomplishments,” she says.

How to find scholarships

Start close to home, says Guy. Personal connections such as your parents’ employers or organizations you’re involved with may have scholarship opportunities. Guy notes that many school districts publish booklets detailing funding opportunities available for students in that area, and university faculties have awards specifically for their students as well.

Websites like GrantMe, Scholarships­Canada, StudentAwards and Yconic are designed to further help students find Canadian scholarships. Wilkins also recommends tailored Google searches using specific search terms such as “biology awards” or “life sciences awards.”

How to narrow it down

With thousands of scholarships available, prioritizing which awards are worth your time and effort is crucial. While Wilkins and Guy see a ton of interest in the $100,000 Loran Award or $70,000 TD Scholarship, they say students often overlook smaller awards. Wilkins says awards ranging from $500 to $2,000 can be a great opportunity because they are less competitive. He also recommends looking out for awards that are renewable, like the De Beers Group scholarship for women studying STEM fields.

Putting together your application

“Please read the requirements and the expectations,” says Logan Bright, a web editor with Scholarships­Canada, which has been contracted to adjudicate submissions for select scholarships. Bright has read several applications where, for instance, the essay does not answer the provided prompts. He also encourages the use of spell check and grammar check, as well as formatting essays into several paragraphs, rather than one block of text.

One of the most common mistakes Guy sees is students using the essay component to list all of their accomplishments with no additional depth. GrantMe advises students to use the STAR (situation, task, action, result) technique, often recommended for job interviews, to relay experiences by describing a specific situation or accomplishment. “We always say you want to choose fewer examples and use a lot more detail,” she says.

What to do after applying

After sending in applications, students fall into what Guy describes as the “scholarship dead zone”—waiting for replies. She suggests trying to find out roughly when the results will be announced, and adds that this information is often available on the award websites or can be gleaned from past years. Both Guy and Wilkins compare applying to scholarships to applying to jobs, and suggest that following up and thanking the organization for their time and consideration can help candidates stand out from the pack.

“There are a lot of awards out there,” says Bright. “See yourself as a scholarship winner.”

This article appears in print in the Maclean’s 2021 Canadian Universities Guidebook with the headline, “Finding your scholarships.” Order a copy of the issue here. Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.